Teens Need Families, No Matter What: Identifying Barriers So We Can Overcome Them
As part of National Adoption Month, we’re producing a special blog series focused on older youth in foster care and the importance of family and permanency.
In the United States, at any given time, more than one third of the approximately 400,000 young people in foster care are over the age of 12. According to research, the critical brain development that occurs during teenage years must be supported by strong and stable connections with family, friends, and community. This means helping teenagers embrace and be part of families is essential to healthy development. It is a moral imperative if we are to meet our obligation to youth in the child welfare system.
Unfortunately, each year as a country, we fail to meet this imperative. Recent data shows that 20,000 youth leave the foster care system without a permanent connection to family. To meet our obligation to young people, we must first identify the barriers to connecting youth to family so we can address them directly.
We asked three child welfare professionals – Ilene L. Dubin, Esq.; Stacy Johnson, MSW, JD; and Michael Sanders, MSW* – to consider their experiences and identify the top three barriers to achieving permanency for teens.
1. The Faulty Assumption that Teens Do Not Want Family. All of our interviewees commented that many adults in teens’ lives often assume that they are not interested in being part of or connected to family, either their biological family or a family they create. Sometimes this assumption is based simply on the teen’s age; other times, it may be based on a teen’s initial hesitation about belonging to a family. Regardless of the context, our interviewees stressed that this assumption is often not true and is contrary to an individualized approach we should take with all young people in care. We have to understand why youth are saying no and what they are saying no to.
Every teen is different, and we have to do more to understand their needs and wants to ensure that when they leave care they have lifelong connections with supportive people. We must explore and explain why they deserve a family as we work with them to identify their fears and concerns. Anyone working with teens should examine bias they may hold when it comes to seeking and helping youth achieve permanency. Could a teen who says they don’t want to be in a family have concerns about losing relationships with their family of origin and possibly their identity? As each of our interviewees stated in our respective conversations, “we don’t ever not need a family,” “nothing can replace a teen’s need for love,” and “permanency isn’t just from ages 0-21; permanency is lifelong.”
2. The Failure to Meet Youths’ Needs While They Age. Another barrier to achieving permanency is a failure to meet teens’ specific needs while they are in care. For example, a failure to address a youth’s experience of trauma or behavioral health needs can stand in the way of their readiness to trust or establish connections. Factors that consistently contribute to this barrier, among other things, include: insufficient data, an inability to directly engage youth, and a mismatch of staff and services to identify and address the needs of teens.
When it comes to using data to help teens achieve permanency, Stacy Johnson shared that “functioning without data is like driving without directions or knowledge of where we are going.” We have data on teen entries and exits, but we lack information about who teens connect with and lean on for support while they are in care. An important source of this data is youth themselves. Teens often report that the adults involved in their cases fail to seek and consider their insight and input. “Staffing is critical,” said Michael Sanders. “We need staff who are passionate and committed to working with and listening to teens.”
3. Connecting Youth and Young Adults with Family Is Not a System Priority. Unfortunately, as youth enter their teen years the response from the child welfare system is often to give up on permanency and to prepare them to be alone, Ilene Dubin noted. The system’s response to youth who are about to age out is typically to shift the focus to preparation for adulthood and the hard skills needed to succeed in the adult world. Youth deserve to be prepared for adulthood and also connect with family.
It is essential for all of us – communities, child welfare professionals and others – to invest in youth and remember that “Teens need Families, No Matter What.”
Our next post in this series will highlight the success stories of teens who have achieved permanency in traditional and non-traditional ways and offer suggestions on how to overcome the barriers that are standing in the way of making permanency possible and sustainable for all teens in care.
*Please note: All views expressed are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect their respective employers’ positions.