Nov 28, 2016
In 2015, Bethany Christian Services of Michigan, Grand Rapids, launched a grant-funded pilot program called Operation Forever Family (OFF). The branch hired a small team of young professionals who personally know what it’s like to be a teen in foster care and age out of the system. Each was given a list of six to eight youth who wish to be adopted. Working closely with these teens, the recruiters personally advocate for them and try to find adoptive families where the teens can thrive.
OFF recruiters Amber Clingman and Jean-Claude Lambert share what it’s really like to be a teen in foster care and what it takes to find these youth a forever family.
In general, describe the teens you are serving.
All are 13–17 years old, and they all live in Michigan. We work with kids who are considered “hardest to place.” They’ve been in numerous foster placements—some more than 20—and may also have experienced a disrupted adoption. All have been waiting at least four years for a family, some more than 10.
Where are the teens living now?
Most live in residential foster care, a placement facility that resembles a small college campus. Their lives are very structured—when they get up, when they eat, where they go to school, who they’re with all day, and when they go to sleep. Everything is locked, even their bedroom doors. The kids need permission from three different people to go off campus.
Residential care can give kids a place to stay, but it’s definitely not a family setting. The staff rotates every eight hours, and they are not allowed to touch the kids or have any emotional connection. Living this way affects kids’ development and growth. They can get stuck in a cycle of difficult behaviors living in a unit with 20 other kids, where all of their issues come together and magnify. Our kids ask us all the time if we have found them a family yet. Some understandably just want to get out of there, but most genuinely want a family that will love and nurture them. But even for those kids, it can be tough to make the transition from institutional life to a family.
What common teen experiences are different for these kids?
Kids living in residential care can’t go to sporting events, go to a friend’s house, or hang out with friends after school (they go to school on campus with the kids they live with). Kids who have spent years in foster care switch schools so many times that they are often behind their peers. They might be 17 and taking courses with 15-year-old freshmen. That can affect their self-esteem and set them back even further, all because of events that were beyond their control.
Kids who don’t have a family have big questions about their future, from “Who will teach me how to budget or help me get my first car?” to “How will I survive?” They are used to chronic staff turnover, not long-term support. But all it takes is one caring adult to turn their story into a success—a teacher, a friend, a doctor. The OFF program can provide that caring adult for these kids.
What parts of their stories resonate with you?
AMBER: All of our kids have stories that are similar to ours. When they talk about things in their past, I think, “Hold on, I remember going through that,” and it can bring things to the surface I haven’t thought about in years. I worked with a teen who was struggling in her relationship with her biological mom. She’d say, “She’s my mom and I love her, but she’s not ever going to be able to take care of me.” I struggled with that at 16, and I still do. I know what it’s like to love your mom but feel guilty that you are apart from her—even though her choices are what put you in foster care. Ten years later, I can say, “She is your biological mom, but she is not an appropriate parent for you.” There’s a piece of us in every one of our kids.”
Will you be a caring adult who can turn a teen’s story into success?