Category Archives: foster care

Singing a different tune

I’m not a music educator or music therapist, but I’m a music lover and an occasional music maker, and I know the power that music has in my own life. The importance of music in the lives of the children and teens I have worked with is so huge that it often comes into play in the therapy. Sometimes, it IS the therapy. Consider this example:

A ten year-old African-American girl is in a long-term placement with a Dominican foster mother who is planning to adopt her. The child has a beautiful voice and loves to sing along with the Latin music that’s played all the time in the home. In our weekly art therapy sessions, she sings these songs while she works, and teaches them to me so I can sing along with her. We fall into the habit of singing together every week, and our singing is filled with energy and fun. After a number of years, the placement is disrupted (an all too frequent occurrence in foster care) at the foster mother’s request; she feels overwhelmed by the child’s problems and changes her mind about adoption. The child is replaced with an elderly churchgoing African-American woman. In therapy sessions, the child continues to sing Latin songs for a long time, but the fun is gone and there is a pervasive sense of sadness and longing to her singing. At home, she attends church regularly with her new foster mother. Over the course of a few months, the songs in our sessions slowly change from Latin music to hymns, and eventually she starts to sing the hymns with a sure, powerful voice. The Latin songs disappear from her repertoire. And it is this musical communication that tells me she is beginning to absorb the loss and to form a new attachment.

Burning down the house

For 23 out of my 30 years as an art therapist, I worked with kids in foster care. And I’ll probably always continue to be involved with that system in one way or another. How could I have worked so long in a system that is such a nightmare? Why would I want to continue?

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My Block, girl, 8 years old

The children we worked with were poor, abused, neglected, unheard, invisible. With few exceptions, they were beautiful kids, although sometimes it took awhile to be able to see that. They were depressed. They were filled with rage. Sometimes they acted out in aggressive ways. Kids who have been told all their lives that they’re worthless tend to destroy things, their own or other people’s. They often try to destroy relationships. I don’t think any of us ever thought of their behavior as “wrong,” though. They had been given no other way to express themselves to show the world how they were feeling. One thing we never did:

We never blamed the child.

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Untitled, girl, 12 years old

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The Boy in the Scribble Scrabble Suit, boy, 7 years old

Sometimes, when behavior got really out of control, we did have to contain kids. This involved hospitals, residential treatments, changes of placement. Sometimes it involved the criminal justice system. Heartbreak city for everyone. But we did what we had to do to keep everyone safe. One thing we never did, though:

We never blamed the child.

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Untitled, boy, 10 years old

So many of my colleagues were just such superstars. Foster care is filled with people who are ready to jump in and do their best, who care deeply about kids and their families. Really, why else would anybody work in foster care? The system’s a nightmare, the options always feel very limited, and the money’s lousy. But the mission is pure wonderful. We tried to create safety for children and those around them, to listen to what they had to say about their lives, to help them start to trust others and love themselves, to feel better, to act better. We tried to help their families get back on their feet. This usually involved a great deal of struggle for the kids and everyone connected to them. We were often frustrated, with the system, with the kids, with the parents. We tore our hair out when they made bad decisions, which they did frequently. In the end, there were successes, and there were failures. One thing we never did, though:

We never blamed the child.

The relationships I formed with the children, teens, parents, and colleagues during these years have enriched my life in the most profound ways imaginable.

Why is it any different for whole communities that are poor, abused, neglected, unheard, invisible? I don’t blame anyone for trying to contain the violence in Baltimore, but I do blame those who want to blame the victims, instead of offering them support, services, caring, safety from the storm, listening ears, respect. If we all tried to offer those things, it would change all our lives in the most profound ways imaginable.

Picturing foster care

I have always felt this painting, done many years ago by a 9 year-old boy, was the most perfect metaphor for what it must feel like to be in foster care.

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His story about it was this: “The flower is caught in a snowstorm.” (The snow is painted in blood red.) “A nice lady comes along and picks the flower to save it from dying in the snowstorm.” (But once she picks the flower, it’s only a matter of time before it will die anyway, right?)

This picture always seemed to be the essence of the foster care dilemma: If I’m left in the storm, I’ll perish. But if I’m uprooted from my home soil, I’ll perish too. Some heartbreak just can’t be expressed in words.

Inspiration: Watts Towers

IMG_0184 2Although I’ve visited LA many times, it took me years to make it to the amazing Watts Towers. When I finally did, I was awed. The towers and the whole compound (17 interconnected structures) were built over a period of 33 years (1921-1954) by an Italian immigrant named Simon (aka Sam) Rodia…in his spare time! As related to me by a tour guide, he suffered multiple losses, first his brother and then his daughter, became a reclusive alcoholic, and was finally abandoned by his family. He reemerged after some years, bought a narrow lot in Watts, and began to build (singlehandedly) this remarkable place.

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Rodia used scrap steel pipes, which he bent to shape by using the nearby railroad tracks as a vise. He covered them with wire mesh and mortar into which he embedded broken glass bottles, cracked tile, broken dishes, seashells, you name it. He worked in a nearby pottery factory and brought home damaged pieces to add to his work, and the neighborhood kids contributed by bringing him the junk they collected.

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IMG_0182 2The ladder-like structures on the outside of the towers allowed him to climb with all his materials and tools, and he just kept adding rungs as he built higher and higher. The tallest towers are over 99 feet.

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When I came back, I showed pictures of the towers to some of the teens I worked with in foster care. Rodia’s story of loss and recovery really spoke to them. They were greatly inspired by his work, and began to experiment with embedding found and collected objects into their clay pieces, enhancing the autobiographical aspect of their own work. One of my teen clients used heart imagery in all of her work and was particularly fond of working with clay. Seeing all the heart images incorporated into the tower structures, she felt a deep connection with Rodia, and the exposure to his work helped her to reach for more depth in her own work.

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This is a good example of how incorporating exposure to the work of relevant artists can really deepen the art therapy experience. I have been able to arrange a few gallery and museum visits with clients, but photos and books can also do the trick.

You can find more info, photos, and videos here.

Anonymous, sort of

It’s not unusual for therapy clients to be curious about their therapist’s other clients. In the case of an art therapist, this curiosity Is intensified by the physical evidence, the materials and artwork, left by other clients in the art therapy room.

In the case of an art therapist working in a foster care agency, this curiosity is an ever-present topic. There is a family-like atmosphere in a foster care agency, where foster parents are often relatives or friends or at least acquaintances, and foster children become part of their social circles. Agency staff (case workers, therapists, psychiatrists, medical staff, etc) are shared by many children, which furthers the communal sense. Many of the kids stay in the system for years, so those who were my clients often knew each other, and my teen clients were sometimes good friends. Although kids often feel supported by this sense of community, they often feel exposed and smothered by it too. (Sounds like family, right?) Although they’re curious to know about OTHER clients, they don’t want anyone in THEIR business.

Maintaining boundaries and confidentiality in these circumstances is challenging, with so many interactions and all kinds of scenarios being played out publicly, right in the lobby. But it’s important to try.

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I love this cardboard tube piece that hung over the desk in my office because it seems a great metaphor for all these issues around community and privacy. The staff in our medical clinic, just down the hall from me, knew I used a lot of recycled materials, and they began collecting the cardboard tubes from inside the rolls of examining table paper. The tubes turned out to be really appealing to some kids, and they began painting them in their sessions and hanging them up all over the art therapy room. Eventually, when I moved from one office to another, the tubes became consolidated into one hanging. So the various artists are unknown to each other, but yet it imparts a sense of community while revealing nothing else.

Madonna and child

At this time of year, images of madonna and child are everywhere. (No, not THAT Madonna.) For me, the power of this image is not in its religious context, but rather in the context of the many years I spent working in foster care. Those of us working in foster care are always hoping for a beautiful, loving connection for each and every child.

Here are some madonna and child images from around the world.

Japan: Sadao Watanabe, 1991

France: Pablo Picasso 1921-22

Ethiopia: Artist Unknown, ca1450

England: Henry Moore, 1943-44

India: Artist and date unknown

Italy: Andrea Della Robbia,16th Century

France: Henri Matisse, 1949

Hide and seek

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It’s a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found. -D.W. Winnicott

True in any game of hide and seek, and meaningful in deeper ways. Winnicott, the British pediatrician/psychoanalyst, was a wise and playful man, and an important influence for me in work with kids.

A fifteen year-old girl comes into my office and refuses to speak, to draw, to do anything. We have known each other for years, have seen each other every week in art therapy sessions, and have lots of history together. Ours is a strong relationship, but these days she’s pretty unhappy, and having to come to therapy makes her feel even worse. She barely even bothers to roll her eyes at me when I talk to her, just puts her head down on the table. It’s going to be a long 50 minutes. So I start drawing her. There’s really not much else I can do. For a long time, she doesn’t stir. But she has been listening to the scratching sounds of the colored pencils I’m using, and she is curious about what I’m drawing. Eventually it’s too much for her, and she lifts her head.

at015She is visibly pleased by the drawing, or maybe just by the fact that I drew her, and we chat a little bit, nothing heavy, before she leaves. She thinks I ruined the drawing with those spikes coming out of her arms, and I can’t disagree. She laughs when I tell her I was just trying to draw her porcupine quills. Things feel comfortable, things feel safe. We are both relieved.

The following week she’s not talking again.

It’s a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found. Sometimes the best gift we can give is to be present, and wait until someone wants to be found. And find a way to remind them that they probably really DO want to be found.

Thanksgiving

I am counting my many blessings this Thanksgiving, and also feeling kind of sad. I sometimes get happy holidays texts from teens that I saw in art therapy, and today I heard from a former client who is not doing so well. She’s an amazing girl, very dear to me, and we have a lot of history together.

In psychology jargon, our relationship would be described as a strong therapeutic alliance. The term describes a relationship between therapist and client in which a sense of safety, trust, and common therapeutic goals is present. It has been said that a strong therapeutic alliance predicts better outcomes in therapy. But I say that a strong therapeutic alliance IS the therapy, and that therapy can’t happen without it. How much a client feels you care always trumps factors such as treatment method.

And so, a deep relationship led to a long Thanksgiving Day conversation with someone that I haven’t seen in a year and a half but care deeply about. And I am thankful for that.

Below is some artwork by kids depicting the therapeutic alliance. I’m the one with the purple hair and glasses.

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This child shows how the sun and rain help a flower to bloom (the yellow arrow from the sun to the flower is hard to see, easier if you click to enlarge). What I love about this picture is the blue arrow, her awareness of how important the relationship is to me, too, how our relationship is a circle, and not at all one-sided.

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Flowers are a common metaphor in pictures about relationships.

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Cheers! The clinical term may be therapeutic alliance, but often the word friendship better describes it.

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Picnic

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At an annual picnic for a therapeutic foster care unit, foster children, their bio and foster siblings, all generations of foster families, and all unit staff members come together for a day of fun: swimming, horse rides, baseball, barbeque, and a community art project for all ages. This is art therapy in a different sense, an art project that’s a fun and healing happening. In this particular unit, the children fare better when they work individually, so this year each person there is given a paper mâche mask to paint and decorate.

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The resulting masks, each one highly unique, are hung on a wall, gallery-style, in the front window of the agency in midtown Manhattan. Children coming to agency appointments proudly lead others to see their work and admire the work of others. Staff members regularly comment that it makes their day to see the masks as they pass them going into work. Passersby are so taken with the masks that they come in off the street to ask if they are for sale. They are tangible works of beauty, and everyone who participates or witnesses the works knows that they are also a triumph of something much bigger.

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Children in foster care commonly struggle with extreme feelings of isolation, with the feeling that they are different, that they are not a part of the world. Seeing their work as part of a whole can be a very powerful experience. Community art events have the potential to create a culture of fun, acceptance, and accomplishment. A group project can be a metaphor for a community that shares space and supplies; that helps neighbors with support, encouragement, suggestions, or an extra hand; that values the contributions of all. Community members experience real joy in seeing the beauty of a communal creation that has been assembled from their individual contributions.

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Mandala

The new year has me thinking about mandalas. Something about coming full circle, back to the beginning again. A mandala is a circle, a symbol of the universe. A Hindu or Buddhist mandala is a circle enclosing a square with a deity on each side that is used as an aid to meditation.

Some art therapists make mandala-making a primary part of their therapy practice. Although this is not true of me, I see a mandala as a representation of wholeness, and experience has shown me that creating mandalas can be very therapeutic. In spiritual traditions, mandalas may be used for focusing attention and establishing a sacred space. In therapy, creating a safe space is paramount, and focus and self-reflection are ongoing goals. With children that are very disorganized, that lack focus, that have difficulty containing themselves, a paper with a pre-drawn circle to work within can be very helpful. It creates a frame, a container, and the circle form surely contributes to a feeling of centeredness. According to Carl Jung, who wrote extensively about mandala symbolism, “The severe pattern imposed by a circular image of this kind compensates the disorder and confusion of the psychic state—namely, through the construction of a central point to which everything is related.”

An eight year-old girl came to see me weekly for art therapy. She and two younger siblings landed in foster care because their father used regular, severe corporal punishment as his primary teaching and discipline strategy. She struggled with severe anxiety, among other things, and each week when I greeted her, her brow was furrowed with worry. But she loved to make art, and found some safety in the sessions. She was easily engaged and lively, and enjoyed the looseness and playfulness of the art process. But experience had taught her to contain herself and to avoid messing up at all costs. So when she did allow herself to loosen up, she could only enjoy it for a little while before the anxiety came flooding back.

In a memorable session, we spent 50 minutes blowing colored feathers into the air (her idea) with a hair dryer (my idea). After we had spent some time on this playful, silly, fun activity, I became aware that she was becoming anxious. This surfaced in the form of a kind of forced jocularity, a change from fun silly to nervous silly. And I knew that giving her a way to contain her anxiety (Jung’s “disorder and confusion of the psychic state”) was very important. So we brought things down to earth and made this mandala (Jung’s “construction of a central point to which everything is related”).

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This time lapse video of Tibetan lamas creating a sacred sand mandala is fascinating to watch. It is over 15 minutes long and spans a four-day process. It’s a slow start, but if you can stick with it, I think you will find that the simple observation of the amazing process is a meditation, and the magnificence of what emerges over time is a revelation. For those who are not Tibetan sand mandala-savvy, there’s a surprise ending.