OPINION: We all need to step up on foster care

By Arielle Hines

I remember my mother was buying about $200 worth of toys when I was an eight-year-old.

But they were not for me.

My mother was beginning her private practice as a therapist for kids in the foster care system. It’s a system that everyone knows exists, but few care enough to understand.

Even growing up with her, I didn’t understand the impact of abuse until I was older.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 402,378 children were in the foster care system nationwide in 2013. The median age of these kids is 8-years-old, the same age I was when my mom began this work.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reports that at any point, there are 13,000 children in the foster care system.

Many of these children get labeled as “troubled.” The word we should be using, though, is “traumatized.”

Trauma happens when someone witnesses or experiences an event that threatens their safety. In other words, trauma is more than something negative happening to you.

Examples of traumatic events can include abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, natural disaster or car accidents.

The effects of trauma can heighten over a long timespan, and there is often little social support available to victims of trauma.

Even after the trauma is over, it affects the child. If something triggers someone of their trauma, their body will go into a fight-or-flight response.

So, when a child in the foster care suddenly and dramatically acts out at school, it’s very possible that he or she was triggered into a trauma response.

But most of us would dismiss them as being “bad.”

My mom has dealt with many of school districts that don’t understand trauma. Therefore, they cannot understand why child’s behavior is as it is.

We need to stop judging these kids when they act out and start to understand them.

Abused children who don’t receive help often have bleak futures that can include incarceration, addiction, domestic violence and abusing their own children.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and foster care can be a solution.

A study by the Archives of General Psychiatry shows that children in foster care can have a better future when the system is enriched with resources such as mental health services, tutoring and summer camps.

While my mom might have a direct impact on foster children, we all have a responsibility to these kids.

Everyone can do something.

The most obvious way to help is to give money. While there is nothing wrong with giving money, I would suggest contacting local foster care agencies to ask if there are any supplies they need.

For example, my hometown church held a food drive for Fostering Futures in Ann Arbor to help them start a food pantry for teens living in independent living.

There are also nonprofits such as Foster Closets, which provides toys, clothing and supplies to kids placed into foster care.

Another thing everyone should do is pay close attention to government action on foster care.

For example, Michigan is considering legislation that would allow faith-based foster care and adoption agencies to deny gay and lesbians couples the ability to adopt a child.

Not only is this discriminatory, it will prevalent children from being placed into secure homes.

You can also adopt children out of the foster care system.

Yes, there are unique challenges with raising children with a lot of trauma. However, with proper therapy and parenting, these children can grow up to be thriving members of society.

If you don’t have the means to adopt, mentor. Some mentoring organizations to check out include Child Safe Michigan and Big Brothers, Big Sisters.

We also need to learn to recognize the signs of child abuse and neglect. You can read about 10 of them here. Maybe if more people knew the signs of abuse, Stoni Ann Blair and Stephen Gage Berry wouldn’t have been found in a freezer.

Above all, we need to develop a sense of social responsibility for kids. It’s sort of sick that we want to keep these children out of sight, but then blame them for ending up in prison.

Many Michigan universities have developed initiatives to help young adults in the foster care system. CMU is not listed among those universities that have a foster care initiative on the Michigan government website. These initiatives include success centers and scholarships.

However, it’s on all of us to empower these kids to make it to college. It takes teachers making adjustments, business leaders donating time and money, school counselors understanding and helping and everyone caring.

My mom has spent countless hours taking phone calls, testifying in court and doing paperwork in the hopes of making a difference in these kids’ lives.

We all can’t devote as much time as her, but we can all do something. We all need to step up.

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