Category Archives: foster care

It takes a village

In my preceding post, I wrote about my art therapy work with a child in foster care. In fact, more than one Christmas went by during this child’s time in foster care, and, along with the child and her parent, many people worked really hard to help make change happen. Here’s a list of the people on the team that worked to send this child home for Christmas this year:

  • Foster parent
  • Case worker
  • Case supervisor
  • Sociotherapist
  • Psychiatrist
  • Art therapist
  • Clinical administrator
  • Psychologist
  • Speech and language pathologist
  • Educational specialist
  • Educational coordinator
  • School personnel
  • Hospital personnel
  • Child’s attorney
  • Child’s law guardian
  • Birth mother’s attorney
  • Agency’s attorney
  • Housing specialist
  • ACS case worker

A lot of people, right? Here are some of the things they did:

  • Parented the child by providing for physical, emotional, and behavioral needs.
  • Coordinated all aspects of services and case planning.
  • Gathered history.
  • Formed a bond with child and with birth mother to create a feeling of trust and safety and facilitate progress.
  • Oversaw all social work, clinical, educational, and legal aspects of the case.
  • Documented everything with intake forms, quarterly summaries, progress notes.
  • Coordinated weekly family visits.
  • Attended various meetings re: planning, birth mother’s progress, emotional and behavioral concerns, educational concerns.
  • Consulted with the case workers for the other four siblings.
  • Visited the foster home weekly to work with foster parent and child to develop a behavior management plan.
  • Performed psychiatric evaluations and made recommendations for services and medication.
  • Provided monthly medication monitoring.
  • Met with child for weekly therapy.
  • Provided crisis intervention.
  • Performed psychological evaluations and made service recommendations.
  • Performed speech and language evaluations and made service recommendations.
  • Performed educational evaluations and made service recommendations.
  • Coordinated with school to monitor academic progress and behavioral problems.
  • Assisted birth mother in obtaining housing.
  • Represented child’s legal interests.
  • Represented birth mom’s legal interests.
  • Represented agency’s legal interests.
  • Oversaw all aspects of the agency’s casework.

A lot goes on behind the scenes, so I know I’ve left out some people and omitted some of the millions of things they did. For example, people inside and outside the agency provided services for mom (parenting classes, rehab, therapy). I also should mention the emotional toll of making hard decisions in a child’s interests when there are no good options and a dearth of good resources and services. But I think this gives a good idea of the huge support needed to help make change in one child’s life.

If you are interested in learning more about the foster care system and the myriad moral and practical dilemmas involved, there’s no better book than To The End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, by Cris Beam. Here’s the NYTimes review.

A Christmas Carol

Like the Charles Dicken’s tale, this one’s about transformation and haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past. It’s about a ten year-old foster child with big trauma in her past and very aggressive behavior, which leads to a hospitalization, and then to art therapy with me. For a long time she is mostly non-verbal and sullen in the sessions, although clearly smart, and she mostly doesn’t trust me. Her birth mom has a history of heavy substance abuse and they’ve lived through lots of domestic violence. Mom has made many positive changes after a long uphill climb, and she is fighting to get her children back, all five of them. All this child wants for Christmas, she tells me, is to go home. I am awed by how hard she works to overcome the challenges she faces. Often she is not successful and beats up on herself. But she tries as hard as any kid could possibly try. She’s a fighter.

She loves to sing and dance. She is truly an amazing dancer, and regularly dances in our sessions. She doesn’t want to talk to me but she wants to dance for me. I am wowed by what a great dancer she is! At some point, she asks to use my iPhone to find music she can dance to, and I show her how to use Spotify to play the songs she likes. This Spotify/dance thing becomes part of our weekly routine. Sometimes she comes in and does nothing but sing and dance for the whole session.

When she’s not singing and dancing, she wants to make iPods and iPhones. She might not be talking much, but she’s got communication on her mind. She enlists me to cut the devices out of cardboard with my exacto knife and to help her copy the screen from my phone. Then she decorates them and makes earphones out of pipe cleaners. She makes many of them, and they all look pretty much like this reproduction:

phone buttons


phone jewels


One day she comes in after having had a very bad fight in school, refusing to speak, looking angry at the world and probably herself. She gives me the cold shoulder. I give her my iPhone and ask her to find a song that describes her day. As angry as she is, she can’t resist an iPhone, and she types “I Don’t Care” into the Spotify search bar. A lot of songs come up with this title, and she goes through them one by one until she finds one with a loud, angry, punk sound. This one, she says. Then we listen for awhile as the grating song bombards us, and talk a little about what happened.

A few weeks later she comes in feeling great and asks to use my phone to find some music. I ask her to pick a song to describe her life this week. She doesn’t hesitate. The Climb, by Miley Cyrus. She launches into it with great feeling. Although she’s an amazing dancer, she doesn’t actually have a great voice, and the fact that she’s singing a little off-key only makes her impassioned singing more beautiful.

She gets what she wants for Christmas this year. She and all of her siblings go home to their mom by early September. I haven’t had any word of how they’re doing. Keeping my fingers crossed for them. God bless us, everyone!

I can almost see it
That dream I am dreaming
But there’s a voice inside my head saying
You’ll never reach it

Every step I’m taking
Every move I make feels
Lost with no direction
My faith is shaking

But I gotta keep trying
Gotta keep my head held high

There’s always gonna be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose

Ain’t about how fast I get there
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side
It’s the climb

The struggles I’m facing
The chances I’m taking
Sometimes might knock me down
But no, I’m not breaking

I may not know it
But these are the moments that
I’m gonna remember most, yeah
Just gotta keep going

And I, I got to be strong
Just keep pushing on…

Christmas in care

This is the first holiday season in twenty-four years that I’m not working in foster care. But I find that my head and heart are there anyway. Holiday time in the foster care world is kind of rough. Foster care staff, and lots of parents, go out of their way to make it special, with parties, gifts, and good cheer, but no matter how you cut it, these kids are not home for the holidays. There’s that old Perry Como tune:

Oh there’s no place like home for the holidays,
‘Cause no matter how far away you roam,
If you want to be happy in a million ways,
For the holidays,
You can’t beat home, sweet home.

And no matter how sweet home isn’t, most foster children feel just like the song says. This is a time when artmaking really helps kids. Birth parents and siblings are on every child’s mind, and decorations, cards, and gift-making rule. The world around us gets more colorful, and that gets reflected in the art. The energy generated by all this activity helps children feel less isolated, more engaged and part of the world, and allows them to express their connections to others in non-verbal but very concrete ways. 

Images of houses are always common in the art of foster children, but never more than during the holidays, when the air just seems thick with longing for home.