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How to support students and families who are part of the foster care system

National Foster Care Awareness Month is a way to acknowledge foster parents, family members, volunteers, mentors, policymakers, child welfare professionals, and other members of the community who help children and youth in foster care find permanent homes and connections. In recognition of Foster Care Awareness Month, we want to share some insights about families and children in foster care, so that our community will begin a journey of support. 

Growing up foster 

Growing up foster has multiple meanings and experiences, including but not limited to, living in a group home with other children, living with a family who may be considering adoption, and/or living with a family who is also fostering other children. Growing up foster can mean becoming accustomed to sudden changes. Some changes occur in the middle of the night, others during a court hearing, and frequently without any hint or indication. To grow up foster means to always be at the whim of “the system” and at the decisions or inconsistencies of adults. 

The impact of growing up in foster care is far beyond the physical impact of not living with your family or having a group of professionals make decisions on a child’s behalf. It also means that the kids are steps behind their peers, both socially and emotionally. While their friends are thinking about the outfit for school tomorrow, our children in foster care are wondering about their next visit with family. The worries our youth in foster care have to face far exceed concerns that some adults face, such as wondering where they will lay their heads or if they trust the adults in their life to hear and see them for who they are. Growing up in foster care means a pipeline of systematic social inequalities; a pipeline to prison that is increased exponentially by the absence of stability and safety. We also regularly forget about the kids who turn 18 and age out of the system. 

Foster status

Currently, there are over 400,000 children in foster care ranging in age from infant to 21, with roughly 20,000 aging out each year. Although the majority of children in foster care are reunited with their families or placed with a family member, others will spend the majority or entirety of their youth in foster care without being adopted. Every year Colorado budgets nearly $400 million to support the entire child welfare system. In addition to the 400,000 nationwide that are in foster care, there are over 6,800 youth in the State of Colorado where in some sort of out of home placement

Ways to support foster parents and families

Foster parenting is an incredibly important and difficult role in caring for the children in the custody of the county and state. There are assumptions about why people choose to be foster parents, but it is important to not jump to conclusions about their reasons for parenting or their ability and skill at parenting. Some groups affected by these assumptions include LGBTQ people, single folks, or people who work full time. Other assumptions include foster children being “unfixable,” “bad” and “unaffordable”. 

One of the most important things to support foster families is to respect boundaries — foster parents are often not allowed to share much about their foster child's situation or past. This can create very difficult situations between foster parents and peers, their families, and colleagues. Ways to support include checking in and listening, setting up meal trains, inviting the whole family to meals and playtime, and becoming a primary supporter of the family. 

Ways to support foster students and siblings

There are many programs that allow you to connect with kids who are in need of a trusted adult who sees them for who they are. Being a ward of the state is not a title that is bragged about and is often something that is “attached” to youth and at times leads to feelings of unworthiness. Kids in foster care have little ability to make changes in the system, so they need an adult who can be loud and disruptive to make changes on their behalf. An adult voice can be a teacher/faculty/staff member who is willing to recognize their situation, and learns the child’s background, behaviors and needs. Supporting these kids and being a trusted adult can look like being flexible with deadlines and homework or providing more time to walk through steps for clarity. Other ways schools can support is by working to develop positive relationships with the students, siblings and families in addition to learning about the social issues they face. 

It is our hope that through these insights about families and children in foster care, our community will begin a journey of support. How we support children and families may vary. The first step is to identify the resources available and educate ourselves. The second step is to dismiss our assumptions and to reach out to offer our support and advocacy. The third step is focusing on the strengths of these kids and pouring into their growth trajectory. Lastly, encouraging progression in the areas of Social Emotional Learning at a pace that is received and can be modeled in a manner that is recognizable to the child. Below are some resources to start your journey. 

For more information on Foster Care: 

Yours in solidarity, 

Makita Cotto

Director of Talent Operations

Mercedes Blea-Davis

Manager of Diversity and Belonging

Eric Benzel

VP of Schools

Aaron J. Griffen

VP of Diversity Equity and Inclusion