Dec 06, 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.
How is the OFF program different than a typical foster-to-adopt scenario?
OFF connects families with teens first in a mentoring role. They get to know the youth and build a relationship without the filter of what might be in the teen’s file. There’s no pressure or expectation that the family will choose to foster or adopt; they are simply providing guidance and support.
If they choose to pursue adoption, they can view the youth’s file and understand their history and what they’ve been through. The family is free to change their mind or move forward based on their personal experience with the youth and the connections they’ve built over time. This creates an easier transition for both the youth and the family when there’s an existing relationship built on trust.
As you recruit adoptive families, what qualities are you looking for?
We get to know our kids and what they want in a family—siblings, city or country, older or younger family, single parent or married. Race and religion are sometimes factors. The kids ask for different things, and that guides how and where we recruit. One youth needed someone who could understand his trauma history and provide a lot of structure. I met with the sergeant of the Grand Rapids Police Department to ask if anyone on his team would be willing to foster or adopt. Of course we encourage them to be open to alternatives—we may not be able to completely match their wish list.
What are their fears about immersing into a family after being “on their own”?
One of our teens said, “I’ve been through so many placements. I don’t know if I could get used to a family.” Many times they’ve heard families say, “We’re here for you; we love you unconditionally,” only to find their bags packed a month later and a social worker picking them up. We believe there’s a family out there for each of these kids, but we can’t expect them to learn to trust overnight. We talk to them about what they’ve been through and why they need a family; but after age 14, they have to give consent to be adopted.
What do you wish readers understood about fostering or adopting teens?
Kids in foster care live day-to-day. They worry about where they will wake up tomorrow. So you can’t expect them to jump right into a “normal” situation when they’ve never experienced a “normal” environment. Dealing with the aftermath of trauma is hard, and adjusting to new rules is hard for any teen. Parents give up too soon when these kids make mistakes. With biological children, you can’t call someone and say, “I don’t want to deal with this.” Our kids don’t get that same latitude.
What parts of their stories resonate with you?
JEAN-CLAUDE: I worked with a boy who had been in three or four different homes. He had some difficult behaviors, and the families would say, “He isn’t a fit.” I was in foster care from age 4 to 18. I was in five different homes and had similar issues with foster parents. I never lived in residential care, but I came close—a foster family threatened to take me to a homeless shelter. So yes, their stories bring back a lot of memories of what we’ve been through. But we can share our stories and encourage them with where we are today. I’m in college and doing well. I tell them, “You can make it through this storm.”
Will you be a caring adult who can turn a teen’s story into success?
- I Remember: Understanding Teens in Residential Foster Care
- An Alternative for Michigan Teens Aging Out of Foster Care