By: Pam Ladetto, MSW
Teenagers involved in the foster care system are far more likely to drop out of high school, get pregnant, get arrested, and become homeless. These are the same kids who do not have the benefit of a stable home environment or positive role models. This group of teenagers have the common bond of being abandoned, let down, and rejected by their parents and other adults who were entrusted with providing care for them. They have typically been shuffled through several foster homes, schools, therapists, and friends. They don't understand trust or the basic principle of permanency. They do have each other, though. These kids can benefit greatly from social work services.
These are the thoughts and concerns I had when working on an individual basis with three high school students living in foster care at my last MSW field placement through Michigan State University. My research determined that there were even more students than I was aware of residing in kinship care or adopted through the foster care system. My investigations further revealed additional students living with other non-related adults.
I was able to identify eleven students who were being cared for by adults other than their parents. I found these students by getting a list of “homeless students” from the high school administrative staff. I also identified students by coordinating with teachers. All of these students were attending the same high school. They had similar experiences and a common bond. My clinical social work practice classes were teaching me about the power of social work groups, and I wondered about the advantages of a group for this demographic. It seemed that creating a social work group could prove beneficial for these students.
When considering the possibility of a group, I was concerned with taking students out of the classroom, confidentiality, and whether or not they would be interested in participating. The school could provide a safe environment for this unique group of students by giving them a place to talk freely about their past without judgment. They could identify and relate to each other’s struggles, offer support, and share knowledge. This particular minority had difficulty relating to the general high school population. Their life experiences were not comparable to those of the typical teenager. They would be given the opportunity to grieve about their losses, including death, drug abuse, sexual abuse, prostitution, neglect, and homelessness. Most of these kids understand what it feels like to be unloved and unwanted.
My field placement supervisor, Terry P. Reen, LMSW, gave me permission to approach the students and determine their interest. I invited each of the eleven students individually to be a part of the group. I presented it to them as a trial experience, and we would have the opportunity to create this group together. I wanted their help to make this a positive experience not only for them, but for the students who would be entering the high school in the following years. I expected that some would decline based on privacy concerns and the risk of sharing personal information. None of the students declined the offer, and all were very interested and even excited about becoming members.
Under supervision, I was able to produce a rough outline for a group. I reached out to the social work community by asking for advice, direction, and assistance. Initially, I was searching for a standardized curriculum, because I was under the assumption that there were high schools all over the country providing this service. After weeks of contacts and research, I did not find any program that offered group social work services to students living in non-traditional families. However, there were two curricula that were designed for similar groups through different agencies. Both were attempting to prepare foster care youth for permanency placement. I was able to adapt several of their activities for our group.
Another MSW intern and I developed and co-facilitated the group under the direction of our field placement supervisor. Our group met on a weekly basis for one hour during the school day. We met every Wednesday, but rotated hours each week to avoid having students miss the same class regularly. The sessions were held in a private conference room that was in an isolated area of the school. The purpose of the group was to offer support and a safe place for kids living in non-traditional families. Focus was placed on normalization and advocacy. The objectives of the group were to: