Imagine being removed from your family home and placed in foster care. Perhaps you endured abuse or neglect, and home life wasn’t great — but the trauma of being separated from actual family and going to live with strangers can be lonely, terrifying, even traumatic in its own right, even when the home you go to is loving and welcoming.
Imagine wondering for months, then years, if you’d ever go back home to your family. Imagine learning one day, after carrying hope like a security blanket, that you can’t go back to your home, ever, and then wondering if anyone will love you enough to adopt you. Imagine getting to the point that you no longer yearn for adoption but just the stability and confidence to make it through each day on your own, to build a life that is better than the one you’ve lived so far.
Imagine all this happening before you turned 16.
This is a very real scenario for so many teens in Michigan who enter the foster care system and for one reason or another stay there until they age out of the system and become adults. It’s a lonely, scary path, one that we try to make easier and full of support.
In Michigan, there are 13,500 kids in foster care, of whom 1,800 are age 16 or older. Last year, we opened four new Independent Living Plus homes for teens, bringing our total to 12 throughout the state, serving 49 youth in ILP and 132 in Independent Living. These homes are for teens in care, with supervision and support, intending to arm them with the skills they need to live on their own. We anticipate more homes opening this year, too, as there is such a great need.
Every year in May, we try valiantly to spread the word about the dire need for caring adults to welcome youth and teens in foster care into their homes and their lives. It’s that time again and also time for the 15th annual Michigan Teen Conference, an event bringing together hundreds of teens in foster care to build the skills and connections they need to succeed in life.
Lots of people don’t like teens. They think they’re difficult or challenging. Often, they are — but think about all the hormonal and developmental changes teens endure in very short order. It’s no wonder they sometimes can be surly!
Still, some of us just love working with teens. We see the potential they have, the spark in their eyes, their passion for possibility despite what life has handed them thus far.
For a teen who chooses Independent Living Plus, they’ve been in care for years and for various reasons never reunified with their family or found a forever home. They get to a point that they don’t want to be adopted. It’s too hard to let someone new in. Their family failed them, and it’s too scary to consider attaching to a new family.
They need us, though. They need caring adults to connect with, to guide them toward employment, and self-sustainable housing and healthy relationships. They need us as a sounding board, as a refuge, as a comfort, as a companion.
Are you that adult? Because if you are, I can find a teen to pair you with, and you won’t be sorry.
When I was growing up, I had my parents to support me through college. They were there when I needed them as an adult. Teens in the system don’t have that home base. Some reconnect with their birth family after they become adults, but often it’s not a positive support in their life.
A caring adult could be a mentor with whom the teen develops a long-term relationship, spends time with, goes to for help in navigating life.
We also need that support. When we open a new ILP house, we need furnishings, linens, pots and pans, painting or clean-up help. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I believe that is true every single day that we do this important work.
A lot of people are fearful of teenagers. And teenagers in foster care have endured a lot of trauma.
Any teenager can have an attitude, considering what they go through during these years.
But this is necessary work, and we all need to be involved. It’s really about supporting a kid who has had a tough life and knowing that doesn’t mean they’re a bad person.
You may not realize that — and frankly, they may not either. To believe in yourself, you need others to believe in you. Think of how far a teen might go with a cheerleader in their corner.
At our Michigan Teen Conference in June, we’re focusing a lot of workshops on using teen stories in positive ways. Just because things happen to you early in life does not mean they have to define you. Or maybe, they define you in positive ways rather than negative.
Just being in foster care doesn’t mean a kid is damaged or tainted. They have to see their potential beyond the external factors of the life they were dealt. That begins with us. We have a responsibility to lift up every child in this world, to see in them what they can’t yet see in themselves.
It’s not OK to fear teens or turn a blind eye to those without the support they deserve. Every single adult in our communities should turn their hearts toward teens yearning for connection, for acceptance, to hear the words “you are enough.”
So much happens in your teenage years. Teens in foster care are just teens who need someone to stand by them through thick and thin and still be there tomorrow — and next week.
We are fiercely dedicated to them because they need us. Are you up for the challenge?
Laura Mitchell is executive director of foster care for Samaritas and has worked in foster care for 30 years. She is based in Grand Rapids.