As a beginning social worker, I did my internship at a large, multi-service family counseling agency in Trumbull County, Ohio. And I will never forget how it felt to leave those kids at the end of the day, wondering if they would have dinner or if anyone would be there to help them with their homework. I also remember knowing innately that the parents we worked with truly loved their children, while the complexities of abuse, addiction, mental illness, poverty and failed systems were more than I could imagine anyone being able to overcome.
One child in particular – who I hope is sitting in a college classroom right now – used to grab my arm and rest his head on my shoulder after each visit, asking, “Please can I stay longer?” As I lingered there a few minutes, I would think to myself three things:
“Can I get in trouble for this?”
“Do they let twenty-year-old students adopt kids?”
And then immediately afterward, “There’s no way I can ever do this job.”
Even then, I knew I wouldn’t be able to maintain the appropriate boundaries needed to provide the kind of support those families deserved. I went on to spend fifteen years working with adults in a variety of settings, but I still sometimes imagine what it would be like to cram a few more beds into our 1,300 square-foot colonial. If love were really all they needed, I’m pretty sure I could be a foster mom. But truthfully, kids who have experienced significant trauma and loss need more than just love. For many different reasons, the answer hasn’t changed after all these years. I’m still not the best person for that job. So now I’m beginning to ask myself a different version of the same question:
If I can’t be a foster parent, what else can I do to help?
Maybe that means writing and talking about the kinds of things foster kids DO need, like well-trained social workers and supportive programs designed to empower kids, respect birth parents and honor all the connections in a child’s life. After all, isn’t that what makes families and communities thrive? Not just one person who swoops in to save the day for a family in crisis, but a community of people who are committed to helping them succeed. Every child and every family needs a network of people who are willing to keep showing up for them – aunts, uncles, siblings, friends, teachers, neighbors, coaches, mentors, counselors and ministers – and children in foster care are no different. I think we all have a chance to be that that for someone, every single day.
How Can I Help?
- Awareness: Ask questions. Start conversations. If you know a family in crisis, take one small step to say that you care. Sometimes this means stopping yourself from passing judgment on another person’s family situation. If someone caught you on your worst day, what would they think of you? Each one of us is so much more than our worst parenting moment.
- Action. Become a mentor. There are many ways to give back and offer supportive connections to youth. Our founding sponsor, the Cleveland Leadership Center, partnered with local media a few years ago to compile a list of programs that provide mentoring opportunities in northeast Ohio, including the Adoption Network of Cleveland’s Permanency Champion program, specifically for kids in foster care. Click here to find out more.
- Advocacy: Support the work of the Waiting Child Fund, a Cleveland-based agency dedicated to advocating for system-wide change in the Ohio foster care system – their sole mission is to ensure that every child in Ohio has a loving, permanent family.