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:
provide information regarding independent living, emancipation, and the Department of Human Services
educate about maneuvering through the foster care system
instill self-esteem and self-confidence
offer advocacy for the students and teach them to advocate for themselves
link them to supportive adults and assist with permanency planning
improve independent living skills and prepare for aging out
connect students with others with similar experiences
create an alliance with the new local service providing shelter to girls when they age out of the system and become homeless.
The Foster and Kinship Care Support Group started with eleven students. Four were actively residing in foster care, two in kinship care, and one recently aged out of the system. One student resided with her boyfriend’s family. Another member was residing with her father’s ex-wife. One was living in a semi-independent living facility, and one student had aged out of the foster care system and was living on her own. One member was adopted through the foster care system. There were only two male members of the group. The group was operational for approximately eight weeks. We had one member who transitioned into a new foster home, but did return to the school and the group. She reported that this group was very helpful to her during this transition. We had another member who moved to another foster home and did not stay at the school.
The first sessions were spent establishing rapport and creating the group rules. We clearly explained to the students that this would be their group and they had complete control over what content was focused on. We asked the students to think about their needs and expectations to direct our content. The foster care students wanted information about emancipation and how “the system” operates. Other members were primarily concerned with independent living skills. All of them wanted to be able to talk about their feelings regarding their past and current living environments. Additional concerns consisted of resources, understanding their rights, and being able to express themselves.
The official curriculum for the group included an activity for each session. Typical topics included personal history, trust, self esteem, identity issues, independent living skills, job interview information, education benefits, and emancipation. However, each session started by giving each member the opportunity to share or discuss anything that the group could help with. Sometimes students shared journal entries, discussed concerns about their foster parents or biological parents, or shared information about something they learned. Typically, this lasted for about half of the session, and the remaining half hour was devoted to an activity aimed at the group objectives.
In our third session, we gave each participant a binder to help them organize themselves. I bought a binder specifically for foster care kids from a Web site. Each participant was given category dividers, paper, pens, calendars, and logs to make their own binders. Binders included sections for journals, notes, court papers, education, contacts, resources, and other materials. We taught them how to use this tool to their advantage. This activity was received well, and they enjoyed the opportunity to start taking some control and ownership over their lives. It was a good resource for them, and in every meeting, someone shared how the binder had assisted them in some way.
In one of the following meetings, a foster care student reported that she was having a really rough week and asked to share her journal entry with the group. She read about two pages of emotional purging, but one sentence really summed it up for me. “When I wake up in the morning and go downstairs for breakfast, I don't see family. I see strangers.” Every single student in the group validated her emotions with words of understanding, support, and encouragement. I really believe that this group has made a positive impact on each member.
The group received approval to continue on an on-going basis. The intention is that next year’s graduate student interns will continue to facilitate and further develop this group. Hopefully, they will be able to start meeting earlier in the year.
Students reported that they enjoyed coming to group and felt secure in their confidentiality. Students also said the group was a positive experience. Several members reported that they appreciated the resources, independent living information, and tools they obtained. All of the members told me that our support group was comforting and that it felt good to have a place to talk about being sold by their mother for drugs, being homeless, having drug addicted parents, and not being wanted. The support and validation offered and received by each participant was absolutely valuable to every student. They could talk freely about their worst experiences safely and without judgment, because in this group, that is what is “normal.”
Through these weekly group therapy sessions, I witnessed the members offering each other support, understanding, friendship, advice, and knowledge. I noticed that they were building friendships with a potential for lasting bonds. They appeared to trust each other more than any other adults and most of their general student population peers. I believe that we gave them a positive experience, and I feel good about the tools and information we provided to them. I am hopeful that this group will continue in my absence, and I look forward to the opportunity to start similar groups in the future.
Pam Ladetto earned her MSW from Michigan State University, her BS from Northern Michigan University, and her MOM degree from Sophia and Alexis. Pam is an adoptee and proud adoptive parent. She has dedicated herself personally and professionally to non-traditional family issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Spring 2012, Vol. 19, No. 2. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher/editor for permission to reprint/reproduce.