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Foster Youth and Mental Health – Podcast

By LifeStance Health on November 18, 2021

Licensed Independent Social Worker Melanie Prepetit joins us to discuss the mental health challenges of youth in the foster care system, challenges to adoption and difficulties foster youth face during the holidays. 

Foster Youth and Mental Health

[00:00:00] Welcome to Convos from the Couch. I’m Nicki Leanza and on this episode, we’ll talk about youth and foster care with Melanie Prepetit. Melanie is a licensed independent social worker with more than 25 years’ experience working with children, teens, and adults. She specializes in Reactive Attachment Disorder, trauma and PTSD.

All of which unfortunately are things that foster youth can struggle with. Melanie brings up so many points about the difficulties that foster youth face, especially during the holiday season, since we know Thanksgiving is right around the corner, she also emphasizes how important it is to get these youth into good foster homes and even better yet adopted.

So please enjoy this episode with Melanie Prepetit.

Welcome to Convos from the Couch from LifeStance Health, where each episode you’ll hear engaging informative [00:01:00] conversations with leading mental health professionals that will help guide you on a journey to leading a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Melanie it’s so good to have you on the show today. Thank you so much for having me on. And this is the perfect time to talk about this topic because November is actually National Adoption Month. I want to get our conversation started by sharing some facts by the Department of Health and Human Services about foster youth.

So they say on any given day, almost 424,000 children are living in the U.S. foster care system and this number has been steadily rising over the years. They also say that over 122,000 of these children are eligible for adoption and they will wait on average for four years to get an adoptive family.

So we see how crucial it is to have this conversation, to help get these kids get adopted. [00:02:00]Absolutely. Absolutely. And you know, 20% of those kids will age out of foster care will end up homeless on their 18th birthday, they have no families to go to there. They’ve aged out. They’re not reunited with their families and they have no one that they can, you know, kind of lean on and get count on.

It is such a striking statistic. I used to be a supervisor at a program helping youth aging out of the foster care system. And so, you know, we did our best, but I also know I saw a lot of kids go homeless as well, which is, it’s just a terrible tragedy for sure. So thank you for sharing that statistic.

Let’s start by telling us a little bit more about your own work with foster youth. Right. So I have probably 25 years of working with children and teens, and that ranged from residential to foster care to adoption and, you know, really specializing in children who have had Attachment Disorders, a lot of [00:03:00] trauma a lot of abuse, things like that.

And so just helping them to you know, learn how to be in families and how to adapt to not turn to their birth families and adjusting to be being in a new family, you know, helping families navigate that as well, which is really important. You mentioned working with Reactive Attachment and one wherever we interrupt especially with foster youth in the system, literally interrupt their attachments with their biological families, things like that.

Can you tell us a little bit about the importance of attachment? Oh, well, I mean, it’s, it’s yeah, definitely. I mean, it starts from the moment their child is born really, you know, attaching to their families. And if they’re experiencing abuse in their birth home that it’s disrupted then, and when they’re removed, it’s just multiple caregivers, you know, in most kids in foster care, I think it says that they’ve been like up to three homes in the times that they are average.

While they’re in foster care. So, [00:04:00] you know, just having consistent caregiving, consistent information, consistent, nurturing you know, you know, thrown into the abuse that they’ve experienced or neglect or abandonment by the parent or other caregivers for that matter. You know, all of those things sort of damage their ability to feel safe and attached to in relation to.

Which emphasizes the need for making sure we get them into stable foster homes, or if they’re not returning to their biological family, that we get them into good adoptive homes as well. Absolutely. It’s so key to figuring out what’s the best placement for the child and where they’re going to thrive.

I’m guessing with this time of the year with how it is coming up, it can make things really difficult for foster youth. So you can, can you talk more about that? Right. So I think that, you know, you know, in media and things like that, you know, happy holidays and happy Thanksgiving and all the families getting together, you know, I think that we often forget that there are children who don’t have [00:05:00] their biological families to go back to, or with a foster family, but the foster family is going to travel and have that foster child, like in respite with somebody else for the holiday. So they’re not even with the family that they’ve been staying with, you know, so it’s really complicated, happy time, like they’re sort of, you know, sometimes appended or they’re rituals that they had with their birth families are the same as the foster homes.

And, you know, it’s hard. How will this affect their mental health, their behavior during this time? I’m assuming that would definitely have an effect on them. Absolutely. Absolutely. Because children in foster care are already more prone to depression, anxiety, and things like that as well, just by back to being in foster care.

So, you know, they’re more likely to be more depressed during the holidays, the higher anxiety. You know, increased behaviors, particularly if they’re not going to be included in their foster family’s celebrations, you know, so they’re not even feeling part [00:06:00] of that situation. So again, all those things, you know, impact their, you know, their level of functioning during that time, it’s really hard working out, you know, all kinds of different things.

So I agree. I agree. So what would you tell a foster youth navigating the system? Overall, I would try to, as I’ve done with many teens and that is to, you know, to really take advantage of the resources that are available. Like, I know it’s really difficult, but I think that, you know attending their therapy sessions, you know, really trying to trying to do their schoolwork, trying to use the resources that are available, like with, even with transitional living, you know, they can many times you know, teens can engage in transitional living, or, you know, if they’re finishing their high school, it’s past 18, they can stay in care until they’re 21, you know, as long as they’re in.

So helping them to know, and then they’re raising, you know, they’re sort of accumulating. [00:07:00] Money for themselves. So they’re not homeless and no income or no money at all. But I think it’s just sort of It’s difficult to, you know, try to tell them oh, but just do whatever we tell you to do. But but I think that it’s sort of, because it’s difficult for them to trust.

You know, I think more for us as workers and clinicians and therapists and whatnot is to make sure that we are doing everything we can to make them feel that they can trust us. And that we’re there. And we can help them navigate the system. And for them to ask their caseworker questions about what is available to them, what can they do?

And actually, you know, what I’m thinking right now is just new emphasizing how difficult it would be to be a foster youth and the system isn’t perfect. And you know, things like that, you know, I’m not sure if a lot of people will even recognize how a youth gets into foster care. Right. And maybe walking through that process of how [00:08:00] youth even gets into foster care and then, you know, looking at maybe how parents become foster parents.

So let’s, let’s talk about that. So can you share some of your knowledge and what brings kids into foster care? Well, there’s obviously there’s a lot of different things. I mean, certainly the ones that people are most familiar with or, you know, of, of, you know, at some form of abuse by the parent that is significant enough for them to be removed for safety reasons.

Sometimes the parent is unable to care for the child. I mean, sometimes there, you have some adults that are so severely, mentally ill or intellectually challenged that they are not able to adequately care for their child. And so it’s not that they don’t want to, they just aren’t capable. Even substance usage might be a significant problem as well.

That was the next one. Yeah, definitely. So, so that’s how they end up in, you know, in the foster care system. Obviously you would try to get kids into kinship care if possible. So that would be placed with a family member, which is even more important. You know, if possible [00:09:00] if there’s viable family members that can take them.

Particularly if they’re siblings, you know, sometimes these kids are separated. Yeah, three siblings at different foster homes. So you know, so that also adds just an extra layer. So kinship care is obviously the best choice and then foster care. And then from there, yeah. And so there’s always been a need for foster parents.

You know, the road to becoming a foster parent isn’t as easy as people think, you know, there was specific trainings and things like that. You know, another piece that I don’t think people realize with being a foster parent is that there is a reimbursement to help with the cost of, you know, working with the child and providing the home for the child and things like that.

But it’s not there for the reimbursement. They’re there because they want to help these children out, these very vulnerable youth out and everything. But can you share with us how the process of how [00:10:00] to become a foster. Right. So the process of becoming a foster parent certainly is that there’s so many different organizations that are foster care organizations.

So it’s not just, you know, through the county children’s services, there are other organizations and depending on where you live, there’s obviously some religious based ones and there’s, you know, just community-based ones or through local community, mental health, things like that. So, that would be part of it.

But there’s also a lot of training, you know, they, once they figure out what organization they’d like to work with, there is training that they need to attend a lot of them. And and it’s really important that foster parents sort of pay attention to the information cause it’s going to make a difference on what kind of kids are going to be coming into their homes.

And these ase kids coming with attachment issues. A number of issues and that’s because their attachments have been so interrupted many placements, you know, things like that, especially coming from the trauma of just abuse, neglect. So it’s coming hand in hand with kids [00:11:00] who are really struggling. So it’s really imperative that foster parents are understanding that and making sure they’re going through the training and being at a good place to navigate that with.

Right, right. And to, and to knowing what they can or can’t handle themselves as well. Like really, truly being honest. Like, can I do this or can I only do this with certain ages or certain, you know, like, you know, male or females or, you know, things like that so that you, you know, you kinda know yourself really well and know what kind of kids you can handle.

That’s important. Otherwise they have enough extra placement. Right, right, right. Another disappointment to add to their lists. Unfortunately, disappointments, I think foster parents also need to recognize that you are bringing your change, the dynamic of your home as you have a foster youth there, and that’s not necessarily negative.

It’s just being mindful. If you have your own children and you’re bringing another child in, you know, making sure things mesh well that the kids are getting along as best as everyone’s able to.[00:12:00]

Oh, sorry. Yeah, yeah, no, that’s a good point. No, please talk more about that. Yeah. I mean, I think you need to talk to your, not only the family that you live with, but also your extended family to, you know, to make sure that you have that support. If that’s important for you, you know, that they are also, you know, behind you, if you need that extra.

So for some reason, you know, or making sure that your kids are on board with it, you know, they’re not going to maybe go as well as you would. Right, right. I agree. Yeah. What else do you think makes it very difficult for use in foster care? What makes it extra difficult? I just think just the uncertainty of what’s happening.

I mean, they don’t have any control over whether their parent is working a case plan or not, you know they don’t have any control over the, whether their parents show up for visits. You know, you throw in sometimes there’s court involvement that they have to testify for certain things. So there’s a lot that makes it [00:13:00] really difficult for them that often we don’t think about those aspects of it as well.

Okay. Melanie, I think we made it clear how difficult the holidays can be for foster youth, but what can we actually tell people to do to help. Right. So there’s a couple of things that people can do even year round with foster care youth is that they often when children are removed from their homes and then then moving from one foster home to another, they don’t have luggage, they don’t have bags, you know, like a duffle bag or anything that their trash bag and imagine how that would make them feel.

Because when you have nothing else to put your stuff in, besides the trash bag. What message does that give to the youth? Right? So what people can do is they can contact organizations and they can donate like duffle bags or, you know, any sort of like any bag that would hold and up for a child to remove, move most of their clothing into something. Some type of luggage, that would [00:14:00]not be not a trash bag, you know, those kinds of bags. And then, you know, oftentimes just because of the resources available in foster homes and things like that, that they don’t often have the same kind of Christmas that kids, you know, biological kids would have in their own home.

And so there’s oftentimes there’s, you know, toy drives and things like that where people can donate, you know, toys and. Close and whatever, you know, new stuff for it to be wrapped up to be given to these foster care kids so that they have a Christmas. That makes me remember a time where my children and I were wrapping how they give us for a foster youth toy drive.

And I had to explain to my kids that these one or two presents we were wrapping for the foster youth may be the only presents they get throughout the holiday season that really opened my kids’ eyes up to what it would be like around the holidays for foster kids. Right. When we can incorporate our, you know, our own children are, you know, [00:15:00] It’s simply nieces and nephews and things like that to help them be even just become a little bit more aware because I’m, they can be more even sensitive to peers, you know, the bay attends school with, you know, so that they can just be a little bit more aware of differences in the world too.

And not everybody hasn’t they have.

Okay. Melanie, as we’re, as we look to wind down our conversation today, is there anything you’ve really like to emphasize for those who are trying to understand the plight of foster youth? Right. I, I think the one thing would be to, as we do with many people in our daily lives is when people are struggling or acting out or things are going on that we just try to remember that we don’t always know, you know, what people are going through or what they’re struggling with and to, just to be kind, you know, I think, you know, using the holidays to be thankful and, you know, and then to be kind, you know, to those around us you know, including foster care kids, [00:16:00] including, you know, coworkers, including everybody and, and, and people that we live with.

So, and that’s a great message for this upcoming holiday season as well. So, so thank you, Melanie. It was great having you on you’re a wealth of knowledge on this topic, and I wish you happy holidays happy holidays to you as well. And thank you so much for having me on.

Thanks everyone for listening to Convos from the Couch from LifeStance Health, where we are re-imagining mental health.

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