In my 15 years of advocacy experience, nothing has had such urgency as normalcy for children and youth in foster care. The term itself might not be used by participants for a foster youth survey, or in a focus group, but the feeling from youth and alumni is the same. Without a place of normalcy, youth struggle to thrive. Normalcy is an innate need, and our brains and bodies are constantly in a state of stabilization. Youth need opportunities to heal and grow from their past, so they can transition to adulthood. I’ve experienced personally how I was able to thrive because of the benefits of normalcy, even though I was in foster care.
Each child who enters the system will have their own definition of what normalcy means to them, but their goals and recommendations will be similar, such as the following:
- Unburden youth in the system, mitigate the sharp feelings of loss they experience.
- Create opportunities to connect, and to make mistakes.
- They are still learning, be there when they fall.
- Make it easier, less complicated to participate in activities important to them.
- Set them up for success.
- Teach them how to thrive within the system.
- Don’t take things they say personally.
- Don’t take away things they enjoy like sports, arts, work, community activities.
- Find other clear ways to redirect them and guide them.
The pinnacle of normalcy for me, as a teenager in foster care, was being able to participate in a study abroad experience as a freshman through Arcadia University. In 2005, fresh out of high school and still in the foster care system, I hopped on a plane for the first time and flew all the way to Scotland with a cohort of about 30 other students for our very first semester of college. There were no safety checks or home visits, even though I suspect none of my caseworkers at the time would have minded this. This was pre-Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoption Act, and I was fortunate that Pennsylvania at the time was allowing youth to stay in care beyond the age of 18. The ability to remain in the care and support of the agency allowed me to achieve success after high school. It created a safe transition to adulthood. Years later, I found out about how the agency advocated on my behalf to allow me to go on this trip with full support and resources. Imagine if I had been forced to sign out of care in order to participate in this amazing opportunity. This was an accomplishment I was very proud of, and it was because I was able to reap the benefits of the normalcy I experienced while in foster care.
After 13 years of being a foster kid, I aged out at the age of 21 in 2007. I was in the middle of college, and luckily had the resources to thrive. I use the term “foster kid” here because it is what I considered myself then. At the time, I think what made the difference for me in my “success” was that I fought for and received many of the experiences I longed for. I’m a natural advocate and my voice is my power, skills I was putting to use as a member of the Pennsylvania Youth Advisory Board (YAB) and the Pennsylvania Child Welfare Resource Center’s Youth Ambassador Program. Thankfully, through the humble beginnings of Facebook, I came into contact with another budding program called the Foster Care Alumni of America (FCAA), where I first heard the term “alumni.” Today the YAB and FCAA are strong advocates and strive to share the voices of our most vulnerable youth.
It’s important to note that I often question whether I got to participate in a normal range of activities because of my ability to “be good” and to “people please.” While I did work hard toward my goals, I have to wonder what life would look like if I did not have those ways of coping. I had these coping skills, as opposed to others, because I was really scared of not belonging or not being wanted. As I got older, it became less likely that I would find permanency, so I turned my attention to a more attainable goal and that was to be as much like my peers as possible. I also had the grand goal of going to college and beating the statistics. These skills really served me well until I graduated in 2009, and then had to face all of the emotions I was still harboring, with no real outlet for them. It is because of normalcy that I had such a strong self-held belief in my abilities to overcome all obstacles. I knew how to express myself through art, I knew I had the maturity to articulate my wants and needs, and through all of my activities I created a network of lifelong connections.
I had several foster siblings who struggled in the system because of their difficulties with these abilities. I don’t think that normalcy should be contingent on a youth’s ability to be good or to people-please. I gained so much through my experiences playing sports, practicing for school plays, traveling to summer camp, part-time employment and whatever else my heart desired. It was my opportunity to make normal what was not normal.
While I still grappled with serious identity and coping issues, I was able to simultaneously reap the benefits without coping being the main goal. If, for a second, someone told me I was playing field hockey to deal with trauma, or to gain social skills, I probably would have quit right then. But instead, I played field hockey because I loved how it made me feel. It made me proud of what my body could do. It allowed me to make friends when it could be quite hard otherwise, and in some ways the hard, physical work helped me to work off all of that painful emotional energy that comes with being a child of the system. Today, as a 32-year-old, my emotional well-being could certainly benefit from playing three hours of field hockey every day instead of the stagnant desk jockey I’ve become. It’s also really hard to make new friends in your 30s!
For each foster youth, the definition of normalcy varies. I recently facilitated a panel presentation by youth advocates about normalcy, and it was a beautiful reminder of how intuitively young people who have been a part of the system understand normalcy, trauma and brain development. The youth leaders on that panel poured their hearts out about their experiences and how they were formulating their current living and working environments.
Even though I’m an alumnus of the system, I was surprised by how much these seemingly easygoing youth were carrying with them. They spoke about how hard it was to function some days at work, school or in family life. This might be a “normal” experience for young adults, but the youth on the panel had also experienced trauma, instability in a living arrangement or placement, and a struggle to connect or “belong.” I have come in contact with enough current and former foster youth of all ages to know that we all struggle with the same things. I often share with groups that I train that it is amazing how much these youth can overcome if they have the right sense of belonging, opportunities for normalcy and the right supportive adults by their sides.
We, alumni and current constituents of the system, grasp the importance because we acutely feel it every day. The extreme lack of normalcy or stabilization leaves too many youths coming out of foster care with toxic levels of stress, anxiety and physical issues. We struggle to maintain healthy relationships, and often do not have intact families to lean on.
Foster Care Alumni of America (FCAA) seeks to improve outcomes by creating opportunities for individuals. Each year across the country, family picnics are held to re-create a function of connection. FosterWalks are held in order to raise awareness about the outcomes of those who have left the system. It’s also another way for alumni to connect and share what connects them. It is such a blessing, after a long season, to be able to sit down with my brothers and sisters and to say, “I’m not the only one.”
Normalcy was the reason I was able to become so successful after foster care. Even though there are times when I still struggle with the effects of trauma, separation and loss, I have other skills, positive memories, natural connections and knowledge of myself that help carry me through.
Barbara Huggins is the co-founder of Pennsylvania Chapter for Foster Care Alumni of America. Previously she managed the Pennsylvania Youth Advisory Board for five years. Huggins enjoys spending time with friends and family, and considers those she loves some of her richest resources. Her first born is a spunky dog named Jackson.