Katie Plax, MD
Medical Director of the SPOT (Supporting Positive Opportunities with Teens)
For the last 7 years I have listened to the stories of teens in foster care and our kids are hurting. Like most things for children and youth in foster care their experiences often go under the radar.
What a day in foster care can look like—
–You are 13 years old in foster care and you run away seeking love and support. You’re assaulted by a stranger and brought to the hospital by police—you lie in a hospital bed waiting for what comes next. Everything you have sits in a small see-through plastic bag at the foot of the bed.
– You turn 21 soon and the foster care system you have lived in since age 16 ends soon. You worry you will be on the streets with only a part time job and no place to live. You are overwhelmed and not sure your life is worth living so they take you to a hospital psychiatric ward for three days and never address your concerns. You get discharged and now you are three days closer to when you have to leave the system.
– Your mother suffers from drug addiction and mental illness so she can’t take care of you. You feel depressed and irritable. You see a counselor and a psychiatrist. They treat your depression and your post-traumatic stress disorder. You don’t sleep well because you lie awake with worry. You get into a fight at school—did I say you feel irritable? You get suspended for 10 days. You feel hopeless.
It’s like a backpack you carry around that people keep loading stuff into—until the weight drives you to the ground and you can no longer get up.
We can do better. It starts with showing kids we love them. It continues by loving them even when they behave badly because kids who have been hurt, neglected and abused may do that. Some sit scared in a corner, but others are like cats ready for a fight—arched back, teeth bared, hissing and ready to pounce.
Healing for these children will come when we decide these kids matter to us. How do we show them they matter? We provide the legally required 30-day comprehensive assessment–a complete physical with mental health and trauma screening — to assess their health and well-being. We take the plans from those assessments and we work them as if our lives depend on it because these kids’ lives do.
We provide them needed eye glasses. We take them to the dentist. We enroll them in school and support them with extra help to catch up. We offer the arts, activities, camps, sports and trustworthy adults. We offer therapy that is trauma-focused and evidence-based. We assist the placements where these kids live because supporting these kids is hard even for the most capable parents and we recognize parenting is challenging even in the best of circumstances. We support the case managers who support the children and families because caseworker turnover is an underestimated loss and challenge for the children.
It’s important that when these kids get angry or when they get upset that we do not kick them to the curb or add more medicine. We need to let them calm down, keep them safe and love them some more as they try to heal that hole in their heart that comes when you question if you are loved. This is difficult for us, but we must exhibit patience and love again and again to see these children succeed.
This strategy will take money, care, compassion, data tracking and persistence. It will also take us being brave enough to admit we do not have it right but are willing to keep working at it with the kids who lives are in our hands. Let’s walk with these young people so they know they are never alone.