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Sep 15, 2017

by Subaricca Robinson MS, ABD, Supervisor/Program Coordinator, Guardian ANGELS Foster Care Program, Bethany Christian Services in Atlanta

We’ve all heard the "horror stories" of teens in foster care acting out. But what about this horror story:

Damon (a pseudonym) was taken to juvenile detention after getting into a fight at school. He has a turbulent family history with many siblings. When he was being released from detention, we had no idea where his family was—the court was unable to locate them. As a minor, he had to be released into foster care.

A young man with special needs, Damon had been picked on and bullied at school. One day, a fight escalated, and officers were called. He became aggressive, which landed him in juvenile detention.

Damon was not a bad kid. He was an angry kid who had been neglected, picked on, and humiliated. He didn't have the emotional tools to express his frustration appropriately. He has no criminal charges on his record, yet he now has the stigma of being a “juvenile offender.”

Today, Damon is living with a foster mom whose son and daughter-in-law are teachers. They are tutoring him and helping him catch up at school. He’s in an environment where he is cared for, valued, and safe; and people who love him are meeting his needs. 

"I'm ready for a change"

Before I came to Bethany, I worked more than 20 years in community corrections, and I can tell you that many teens in juvenile detention are status offenders. Status offenders are minors that committed a “noncriminal” act, but it violates because of the youth’s age. Typical examples are coming home after curfew, skipping school, or being disruptive at home or school—fairly common teen behavior. Many times, teens come into the juvenile justice system when the parents or school officials call the court system for help.

In my experience, in almost every case, there is something else is going on. Kids aren’t disruptive without reason. Once you start peeling back the layers of their outward behavior, you’ll often find trauma, abuse, neglect, or abandonment.

Guardian ANGELS, the program I manage in Atlanta, finds foster parents for teens who are supervised by the juvenile justice system. It’s not an easy task, and no one method works universally. I believe foster parents in this program have to have a heart, a calling, to do this.

One method I’ve used that has been effective is interviewing the youth before placement. When interviewing, I’m looking for a teen who is committed to change. A teen who demonstrates remorse and brokenness, acknowledging, “I’ve come to the end of myself.” When kids are in jail, they have time to think. I’m looking for teens who say, “I’m tired of this—whatever this is—and I’m ready for a change.” That’s it. I’m not asking them to know the process or make a full-fledged commitment to my program. Just to be open to a different way of thinking.

I know foster parents have fears and reservations about parenting teens from the hardest of hard places, but remember that the kids have fears too. They just know how to cover it better and put on a tough face.

They may be feeling like a failure.

They know that their backgrounds are exposed.

They are likely feeling shame and embarrassment.

As the adult, try to put yourself in their shoes. You don’t have to have the same experiences, but be able to relate to them. We all were once teenagers—did you ever feel like an outcast or like you didn’t measure up?

"This is not your destiny"

The first few weeks into the placement are a honeymoon period. As you start peeling back the layers, you might find more services are needed. You may have a counselor and a mentor coming to your home once a week. To be a foster parent for juveniles, you need to be open to and be a part of the teen’s treatment plan—you get right in there with them. In my experience, when teens feel safe with their foster families, they will tell you things they’ve never told a social worker or a probation officer. That’s why I tell foster parents to talk, talk, talk, and keep talking with their teens. 

I was working with a teen who had been in a gang. He took to me early on, and he would tell me things he’d never told anyone else. I transport a lot of teens, and I use this time, sitting side-by-side in the car talking with them. I’d take them to eat their favorite foods just to create more time to listen to what they had to say. This young man sat in my car and told me he was destined to die. He told me about his best friend being shot and dying in his arms. His last words to his friend were, “We are thugs. This is what we do.”

How do you tell a child, “This is not your destiny!” when everything else in his life has led him to believe otherwise. He needs to hear this message, not just this one day, sitting in my car, but over and over again from someone in his life who will see his worth and his gifts and who won’t be afraid of the tough exterior he relies on to protect his heart.

Sometimes, teens who get placed with a foster family get into trouble again (remember, this is the only life some of these kids know), and find themselves back into detention. I think, “Did I miss something? Were they ready? What happened?”

In those moments, I have to regroup. I can’t sit too long and doubt. I have to trust God that in those three months, six months, nine months, or even in that one week that they were in a home with people who cared about them, something was said or done that will bring change down the road. I tell them, “I’m looking for a good home, a safe home, where people will love and care for you. Are you ready?” The reality is, some aren’t ready, and we work to get them the help and support they need. Hopefully, one day they will be willing for a change. 

"You don't have to be afraid"

As you talk to these teens and listen to what they’re saying, you can often find that the “little boy or girl” child inside them has been hurt, rejected, or neglected. Maybe you’re in a position now to provide the help and compassion that wasn’t available then. Teens who “age out” of foster care (about 21,000 across the U.S. each year) have an elevated risk of unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, and incarceration. As a former probation officer, I’ve seen what life is like for these kids on the other side. I’m motivated every day to snatch as many teens as I can from that future. 

I transported a teen from juvenile detention to a foster home that was ready to give him a warm bed and a fresh start. I didn’t have to look hard to find the scared child inside of this young man. He hadn’t slept in three days—the whole time he’d been in the detention center. It took a lot of repetition, in words and actions, for him to receive these messages that most of us take for granted:

You’re safe.

You are surrounded by people who care about you and are here to help you.

Yes, we have some goals to conquer, but right now, you don't have to be afraid.

You can get the rest you need.


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