Still, we have been lucky. I was shocked when I first heard about foster parents who had terrible trouble trying to get their foster kids into therapy. Barriers I've heard about include agencies that require all therapy be approved by the caseworker or foster care agency instead of allowing foster parents to make direct referrals, caseworkers with no mental health training who don't believe a child needs therapy, managed care organizations that limit a child's access to appropriate emotional and psychiatric care, and living in areas where few therapists or psychiatrists take Medicaid or those who do have little or no experience working with foster youth. Foster parents who are experienced at navigating the mental health and Medicaid systems sometimes struggle to access therapy for their kids - Foster parents who are less educated or experienced in this area are up against even bigger barriers.
Foster children are all survivors of trauma, first the trauma of abuse and/or neglect and/or the death of parents... and then the trauma of the foster care system itself. Even amazing foster parents cannot fully insulate foster children from the way the system re-traumatizes them. I believe all foster children should have therapeutic services available to them if and when they need them. In addition, it is outrageous to me that foster children usually get the least skilled therapists. Because their medical and therapeutic needs are usually covered by medicaid, foster children typically get therapy through community mental health clinics that employ green, fresh-out-of-school therapists who not only have little experience with the complex trauma our children have lived through but also are unlikely to stay in their positions for very long since public mental health clinic jobs are underpaid and are understandably used as stepping stones to better jobs for many newly minted social workers. I have seen how disruptive and painful it can be to a foster child to have to switch therapists multiple times, but it seems unavoidable.
Ryann Blackshere from Fostering Media Connections discusses one amazing organization that is addressing these problems in a new article for the Huffington Post. In her piece, Free Therapy for Foster Youth: An Organization You Need To Know This Foster Care Month, she shares one family's story:
At school [Kayla, age 6] had been acting out on her anger and frustration over her life's instability. She bounced around family members' homes before being adopted.
Her adoptive mother, Donna Stapleton, who had cared for Kayla, her twin sister and younger brother while they were in foster care, was worried. After receiving many reports from the school about her daughter hitting other children and stealing items from the classroom, Stapleton thought the best assistance for her daughter would be therapy. She just didn't know exactly where to look for resources within the child welfare system, and how to pay for not only Kayla, but her other two children, to begin to work through much of the trauma they had experienced growing up.
"There is no list for anything," said Stapleton "You have to be proactive and find things out. The system isn't set up to help you find resources."
A social worker assigned to her children's school told her about A Home Within, a non-profit organization that matches any child who has been in foster care with a volunteer therapist, for as long as the child needs, at no cost.
A Home Within is a network of therapists who volunteer to take on at least one foster (or emancipated) child as a client and to remain as their therapist for as long as they need. That's right - They get no pay for this and they make a commitment no therapist at a community mental health agency has yet been able to make to our children, that barring any moves or unforeseen turn of circumstances, they will remain a consistent presence in the child's life for as long as the child needs their services. This promise of consistency is revolutionary in the world of foster care. In addition, based on a quick glance at some of the therapists listed, many of them are experienced, veteran therapists with their own private practices. They have therapists in 25 states and are continuing to grow.
Blackshere writes about the impact of this program:
Pamela Braswell, a therapist who has volunteered with A Home Within since 1998, has heard from youth she has worked with how that consistent relationship makes a difference. One of her clients, a child with whom she had worked since he was nine years old, expressed to her when he was 21 how their relationship made her different from every other adult in his life.
"Not until later could he say, 'Wow, you really know my history. No one else does,'" Braswell recalls.
If you're a therapist who would like to volunteer to be part of this network of providers, click here for more information. To find a therapist for your foster child, click on this page.
In honor of Foster Care Month, a grateful shout-out to all the therapists out there who are helping our children learn to heal. Yes, especially those "green" therapists I expressed my frustration about above, who are recently out of school and are thrown into underpaid and often-frustrating jobs doing really important work: Helping kids with tons of trauma and inherently unstable lives learn how to feel safe and cope constructively with their fear and pain. Thank you for caring.