Sense of Belonging: Kinship, Companionship, Community, and Gender Identity in Foster Care

NOTE – It is necessary, now, to make a correction of an error in this post, and to better fit these posts up with a bit more vocabulary to enhance understanding of gender issues in foster care generally. Repeatedly throughout this post, I used the term transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) to refer to children and adults who are not cisgender. Cisgender [PDF pg. 1], according to the American Psychological Associations’ “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People” is an “adjective used to describe a person whose gender identity and gender expression align with sex assigned at birth; a person who is not TGNC.” The issue with the TGNC terminology is that it is, in and of itself, exclusionary. A better terminology would be trans and gender non-binary (TGNB) because it fundamentally recognizes that gender is a spectrum, rather than a binary state.

As stated in my last post, transgender and gender non-conforming youth face unique and grave challenges in the foster care system. At its core, the fundamental risk faced by trans and gender non-binary (TGNB) youth is that they will suffer mistreatment, due to prejudice or indifference, in the care of non-specialized group homes—group homes that, as a result of the federal and state reforms seeking to move away from such institutions, will lack specially trained staff and targeted programming. This change means that TGNB youth will either be in group homes that don’t address their needs or be isolated in resource homes that also lack specialized training and programming.

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The Conundrums of Scaling Up

This post is part of the series of posts where I explore the question “Why does a pilot project succeed, but the following implementations fail?” In my previous post, I looked at how even successful social impact pilot projects fail to show similar results on being replicated due to various factors. I also hinted at pilot projects’ added complexity: while experiments only need to be replicated, pilot projects also need to be scaled up. In this post, I will deal with three essential aspects of scaling up that need to be accounted for: (1) the manner in which we define scaling up and its impact on funding; (2) the locational peculiarities of certain projects and finally, (3) the economics of demand and supply in scaling up.

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ACE Detection and Treatment: A Holistic Approach for Foster Youth

As explained in my previous posts, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are detrimental to juvenile development and have lasting affects that shape adult behavior. Therefore, the subsection of youth in the foster care system is vulnerable to the detrimental affects of ACEs and should be afforded additional care and services.

But since ACEs seem to be fairly pervasive, how do we determine who has ACEs and how many they have?

Implementation of a Universal Form of ACE Testing:

The 1998 Kaiser-CDC study that introduced ACEs found that 52% of participants reported at least 1 ACE, and 25% of participants had more than 2 ACEs. It is unlikely that the Kaiser-CDC ACE findings have decreased given that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, greatly surpassing our neighbors abroad.  In the US, almost 1 in 28 children have a parent who is incarcerated. For that reason, it is important that a standardized ACE test is implemented as a base determination of child trauma and as a mechanism to assess what services may be beneficial to youth who are entering the dependency system.

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The Dangers of Repressed Trauma: Mario’s Story of Overcoming Adverse Childhood Experiences

In my last post, I discussed ACEs and their effects on a macro-level. As previously discussed, adults with high ACE scores are more likely to exhibit maladaptive behaviors, including drug and alcohol use disorders. In 2017, approximately 19.7 million American citizens, aged 12 and older, had a substance abuse disorder related to abuse of alcohol or illicit drugs. In 2016 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conducted a review of all drug overdose data. They found that accidental drug overdose was the cause of death for 63,632 Americans in 2016. The rate of overdose deaths increased in all categories, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socio-economic class.

Additionally, drug and alcohol disorders place a great strain on the criminal justice system. In 2018, 456,000 people were incarcerated for drug possession, trafficking, or other non-violent drug offense. According to a 2017 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug abuse and addiction cost the American economy more than $740 billion annually in “lost workplace productivity, healthcare expenses, and crime-related costs.” When the cost of addiction tops $740 billion and places such a strain on society, we are all affected by addiction, whether or not we personally struggle with substance abuse.

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The Dangerous Classes: Why is Kinship Care the Hot New Thing?

In my last post, I explained why kinship foster care is the ideal out-of-home placement for children in foster care. The concept of extended families taking care of each other’s children is not new. Even today, millions of children are being raised by their relatives in informal kinship care, where government agencies are never involved. The modern increase in kinship care was a result of legislation intended to alleviate the nation’s decades-long foster home shortage. With their back against the wall, lawmakers are finally supporting the types of policies we should have used all along: placing kids with their families. Why did it take so long?

In this post, I will discuss the history of the Child Welfare System with a focus on socioeconomic class, and how that history impacts our system today. The forerunners of today’s Child Welfare System were right to focus on placing kids with families but were wrong about which families were best. That history helps explain why kinship care has been historically disfavored.

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What Youth Need

Now that we have discussed how the basic needs of children include love, protection, a sense of nurturing and belonging, stability, and support, how do we ensure that youth within the foster care system are provided with these staples so they need not seek them from outside influences such as gangs? In this post, I will talk about how community-based services can help minimize and hopefully prevent gang involvement for youth within the foster care system, as well as ways in which we, as members of the community, may be able to provide these children with some sense of stability and consistency while they are in the chaos that is currently the foster care system.

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Integrated Dually-Involved Youth Courts are Beneficial for Everyone.

Now that we are familiar with the population of dually involved youth (DIY) and we see how using an integrated systems approach is beneficial for them, I will, in this post, explore why this model is not used more often and propose policy changes to implement it in more jurisdictions across the United States.

As a threshold issue, figuring out exactly which jurisdictions currently use an integrated systems approach for dually-involved youth can be tricky because many jurisdictions that use an integrated model have different variations of it, and I have not found any one resource that lists them all. The reason for the variations is that, although using integrated models is helpful for DIY, using a one-size fits all approach is unlikely to get the best results for any one place. Each jurisdiction should implement an integrated model in a way that is best for their particular community. The most comprehensive list of jurisdictions using an integrated model I have found uses the Crossover Youth Practice Model (CYPM). According to this data, 103 counties in 21 states have implemented or are in the process of implementing the CYPM. To put that in perspective, there are 3,142 counties or county equivalents in the United States, which means only about 3 percent of counties in the United States use this model. This number, of course, does not take into account jurisdictions using another version of the integrated systems model.

DIY courts are not the norm. Why are they not implemented more?

One possible reason DIY courts are not the norm could be due to a lack of publicity. In 2017, over 443,000 children in the United States spent time in foster care. It is estimated that about 25 percent of those children will be involved in the criminal justice system within two years of leaving care.  This figure does not include the children already involved in the juvenile justice system while they are in some sort of foster care. Using these numbers as a guide, if we estimate that every year somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 children and young adults will be involved in both the foster care and criminal justice systems, that is only .06 percent of the population of the U.S. Given that such a small percentage of people fit into this category, it is easy to see why more people are not aware of the difficulties of treating DIY.

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Gangs as Pseudo-Families: Giving Youth What They “Need”

From the outside looking in, gangs are comparable to family systems. In fact, as I will explain below, some gangs explicitly refer to themselves as “families” or “brotherhoods” and have mottos that encompass this familial idea. Robert Muller, a psychologist specializing in trauma, explained “that young adults join gangs because they both act as a surrogate family, as well as provide a sense of belonging…” Based on interviews conducted with current and former gang members, Muller stated:

Several gang members said that being part of a gang meant you were never alone in the world, which is similar to how many people describe being part of a close-knit family or group of friends. Gangs provide members a sense of belonging and protection they do not receive from other relationships or experiences in life.

(emphasis added)

Is this sense of belonging and protection what attracts children to gangs in the first place? The interviews Muller relied on revealed that “Bloods, Crips, and MS13 members all say they can identify with ‘Scarface.’ The feeling of being an outsider, dismissed and looked down on, is what gang members say drew them to their crews.” This explains why children in the foster care system may be more prone to joining gangs: they are often times, unfortunately, labelled as outsiders and looked at differently in comparison to children who are not involved in the child welfare system – a key reason they may feel alone and like they do not belong anywhere.

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Inequality for Youth: Why Do Foster Youth & Juvenile Offenders Receive Different Treatment?

I. Introduction: How Does Society Want To Treat Its Children?

            There is a shared belief in society that children should grow up in environments that are conducive to living healthy and productive lives. There are certain things that we believe that all children need and deserve. Those beliefs are even enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which sets out the rights that must be realized for children to develop their full potential: to be free from hunger and want, neglect and abuse. When these things might be lacking, society has in place mechanisms to try and remedy those deficiencies. Judge Leonard P. Edwards, in an article for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, wrote that “[w]hen the family fails or is unable to rear its child within acceptable norms, society has an interest in intervening to achieve its own goals.” Children are our future and it is the shared goal of a society to raise them as best we can. However, there are times when circumstances compel the state to act in the best interest of the child.

            It is because of that fact that society has procedures and systems to protect and nurture children to the best of our ability. Some youth are removed from their unsafe homes and placed into foster care and some youth commit offenses and are then incarcerated. In my last post, I wrote about how children in the juvenile justice system face similar traumas as children in the foster care system might experience and are often even the very same children, yet the treatment they receive is vastly different. The question is why? What is different about the youth that would necessitate a difference in treatment? These youth are often the same and they have all experienced similar trauma. Yet, because of a few different circumstances surrounding the trauma these youth might be experiencing (being removed from their homes and placed in foster care vs. being removed from their homes and being incarcerated) they receive different support.

            Society also collectively believes that children under a certain age lack a “level of maturity, thought process, decision-making, and experience” compared to individuals above the age of majority. We therefore generally distinguish between children and adults with regard to criminal culpability “We punish [criminal acts] because we believe such harm is morally deserved by a particular individual for a particular act.”  However, is that what we want for our children? We recognize that children should be treated differently than adults and that rehabilitative measures would be better for them and society, yet the reality is considerably different. In Miller v. Alabama (2012), a 14-year-old committed murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Supreme Court held that mandatory life imprisonment without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, writing “that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform…they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.”

There is certainly a different societal view on the two populations, foster youth and juvenile justice youth, but they are all still children and youth that are deserving of all that we believe children deserve. Both systems can be traumatizing, but we tend to think one set of youth deserve what they are getting because they have committed some criminal/delinquent act. This is especially true for children and youth that commit particularly heinous or violent crimes because instinctively, we believe they should be punished.  This idea is given credence in Chief Justice Roberts’s Miller  dissent, where he wrote “society may determine that [protecting the innocent from violence] requires removing those guilty of the most heinous murders from its midst, both as protection for its other members and as a concrete expression of its standards of decency.” Yet the fact that these children and youth still are treated differently despite experiencing similar trauma is unjust. These children all deserve similar support when they experience difficult circumstances.

            In this post I will go through a brief overview of the criminal justice system and juvenile justice system as well as the theories underlying them. Then I will discuss issues with the juvenile justice system and its implementation and some of the realities of juvenile justice. I will also discuss some reforms to the issues addressed. Finally, I will discuss possible policy suggestions and further plans of action.

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Youth within the Foster Care System Don’t Have “Families”

Families are the cornerstone of America’s social fabric. They are also the foundation for human development. Maslow’s hierarchy is a theory that people have a five-tier hierarchical set of needs: physiological needs, a need for safety, a need for love and belonging, a need for self-esteem, and a need for self-actualization. The family as a unit tends to create positive outcomes in almost all aspects of a child’s life because a family typically provides stability, love, comfort, support, protection, and a sense of belonging, along with so many other basic necessities that are essential to the overall development of a child. Although many children, especially children who are involved with the foster care system, emerge from what society considers “chaotic” families, those families still provide some sense of comfort and foundation for the child

Because children in the foster care system live apart from their biological parents, there is often times a disruption in their development of attachment and sense of belonging to their biological family, which occurs while they are trying to form new relations with their caregivers in the foster care system. If a child is provided with a secure and nurturing environment, he or she is capable of making positive developments; however, if the child is unable to find that security and comfort in at least one of their adult caregivers, he or she may begin to seek out and form attachments to undesirable social influences, such as gangs.

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