The state of the State’s youth looks at the collective experiences of youth in care in the children’s aid society. My work with youth in care of the Children’s Aid Society (CAS), has given me a glimpse into a multi-faceted and complex issue that most youths face in care. I have observed that while in care, youth’s lives are transformed, their
families are pulled apart and put on trial as their past experiences are dissected and analyzed. As a result, their future opportunities are questionable within the discourse of modern society. Many youth struggle with being able to manage the changes within their lives, and thus, often resort to maladaptive coping skills and affiliation with delinquent groups that create a false sense of belonging and individual success. As youth develop and graduate through the child welfare system, they are often released from that very system…depending upon their commitment to the Society, with an insufficient support system. In addition, they have few meaningful attachments that are healthy or foundations to build their future upon. The social issues facing youth living as Crown wards within the child welfare system, the challenges that they face as youth, and how they are affected by these issues are remarkable and requires further examination. Altogether, it is a tumultuous time for our youth when they are in care and when they are leaving the Society’s care.
The period of adolescents is a time of optimal growth and development as youth begin to refine their identity and skills as they emerge into adulthood. Theorists such as Erikson and Piaget have focused upon understanding this special time for youth. For example, Erikson found that the external world played an important role in creating meaningful experiences and life events to form a child’s identity. Erikson theorized that the family interaction is a part of the social environment that helps shape a child’s identity, experiences in the world, and their ability to cope with the crisis (Ishwaran, 1979). As the youth develops they learn to view the social world, “as an organic unit with its attendant laws, roles and functions, to dissolve his sense of egocentricity by a sense of moral solidarity, to engage in diverse social interaction and communication to relate to adult authority with a sense of equality and justice” (Ishwaran, 1979, pg. 11). The diagnostic perspective, as one author writes is related to the psychoanalytic research by Freud, looks at the influence of children and past experiences in how they affect the person’s functioning within their present lives (Turner, 1999). Understanding that a youth is a combination product of their history helps social workers within child welfare to diagnose and treat the difficulties that youth express in their daily lives. Attachment theorists place important emphasis on the child’s ability to connect with the outside world. Attachment is defined as “the emotional bond between an individual and another person, group or institution” involving a sense of belonging, acceptance, solidarity, social affirmation and identity as, “a person’s sense of self-definition in relation to others whom s/he is like in some ways and not like in other ways” (Cottrell, 1996 pg.15). A “parent-youth relationship perhaps the primary human associations, not only socializes the young both for membership in their particular culture, but also serves as an interpersonal arena for cultural change.” (Peterson, et. Al , 2005, pg. 8-9). Studies demonstrate that healthy parent-teen relationships were connected and perceived with school connectedness and protective against health risks. Further health and risk behaviors were studied to be connected and tied to self-esteem, adjustment to school, relationship with parents, and low sexual activity (http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/childhood-youth). Peterson argues that acceptance and rejection are on polarized continuum, where acceptance is marked by warmth, affection, care, comfort, concern, etc. whereas rejection is characterized by cold, hostile, neglectful, and un-differential rejecting. A poor attachment or lack thereof makes it difficult for the youth to relate to the world in a healthy and positive manner. Thus the literature suggests that youth with these poor attachment and parent relations remain at risk for success within their social and personal environment.
Given that the external experiences or “nurture” argument for psychologists impacts the development for youth, the present transition for youth into adulthood is often an stressor for youth, especially youth in care. Wilkinson writes that adolescence is a stressful time manifested by changes in the body, social status and cognitive abilities (2003). As youth, they struggle to affirm their personal identity, which is their, “sense of self-definition in relation to others whom he/she is like in some ways and not like in other ways” (Cottrell, 1996, pg. 5). Youth resolve their personal identity with their social group prior to their relations with their family; thus as youth move away from family connections they seek to forge connections with social groups and support networks that confirm and shape their own identities (Cottrell, 1996). Wilkinson further identifies that adolescence, “is a time of pursuit of some universal goals for adolescence: social affiliation, task mastery, social identity and autonomy” (2003, pg. 7). Without positive role models and social groups, there can be a tendency for youth to associate with negative peer groups and gangs who foster the sense of belonging that youth are searching for to develop their sense of self. Youth who are unable to cope with these profound changes, are met with a great deal of stress leading to situations such as low self-esteem, depression, poor interpersonal skills, insecurity, anxiousness, impulsive behavior, and a sense of no control (Cobb, 1992).
Further, Wilkinson argues that the development process of youth vary by race, social class, gender community, and family background citing her own work with African American youth. She stated that these youth need to reconcile their ethnic identity in relation to the majority which further leads to assimilation, alienation, withdrawal and integration (2003). There are currently 42% of children of care who come from minority backgrounds, which represents a disproportionate number from Aboriginal and ethnic minorities’ families and backgrounds. These numbers may also help to explain their difficulties with assimilating with the mainstream, in addition to other factors such as poverty, cultural differences, economic barriers, inequality and racism within the child welfare system, and lack of special social supports to name a few (Wallace, et.al, 2005).
Transience within their natural homes and within care leads to instability within the development of the child in their environment. A disrupted education for youth who move from different schools leads to gaps within their education, and increases their risk of early drop-out from school, and difficulties in reading. In a similar assessment, another group of researchers wrote that educational achievement among crown wards was also below that of the general population. In their analysis of the system, they found that youth in care experienced barriers to achieving their educational outcomes due to instability and changes in school. In areas of employment opportunities, support services, and income status, the same researchers also found that youth in care continued to experience similar barriers that restricted their ability to find material success within society and a support circle of family and mentors (Wallace, Stuart and Ali, 20005). High transience within one’s life and poor attachment leads to difficulties for youth to develop meaningful relationships with others such as adults, and authority figures. Jones remarks that instability and transience increased the likelihood for an unsuccessful outcome for youth in care adding, “The disruptions in the lives of children removed from their birth families often include frequent changes in caregivers, schools, and social workers as one of the largest contributing factors to the instability experienced by youth in care” (Jones, 2005, pg. 406).
Many youth have criminal records and have been incarcerated sometime in their history (Jones, 2005). A similar article stated, “studies indicate that foster youth tend to have higher levels of problem behaviors than their age mates and are more likely to have been incarcerated or in trouble with the law” (Farruggia, Greenberger, Chen, and Heckhausen, 2006). There existed a correlation for the older youth, who came into care, with the number of criminal arrests. The researchers also found that youth who experienced several placement changes in group homes and foster homes were unable to develop a secure attachment with any primary caregivers (Haapasalo, 2000).
Many youth in care are victims of child abuse in varying forms and have experienced a great deal of trauma. “Evidence indicated that child abuse may result in antisocial behavior, depression, withdrawn behavior, and inappropriate sexual activity” (Browne, 2002). Many youth in care carry several mental health diagnoses such as eating disorder, conduct disorder, depression, bi-polar disorder, Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder, and much more. Suicide rates for example are low among youth in care however a variety of youth often engage in self-harm behaviors such as, “throwing themselves out of moving cars, drinking poisons, pushing tacks into their body, severe head banding, and trying to hang themselves” (Goodman, 2005). Risking behaviors also include promiscuity and high sexual behavior, substance abuse including alcohol and illegal drugs, AWOL, involvement in criminal behavior and gangs not listed in reports gathered through my research but prominent within my client base. In addition, many youth act out behaviorally within their natural and out of home placements in a verbal and physical manner, and in some cases required a physical intervention by police or staff within a residential setting.
The first step in intervention and prevention work is learning to understand the problems that youth face within their families and in care, and then providing a list of tools that are effective in managing the way that the child welfare system intervenes and prevents these issues from occurring.
Child welfare agencies should provide the necessary intervention when a child is unable to live with their families in a timely manner as well as permanency planning beyond their childhood years as a step towards changing the lives of youth in care. Training and compensating foster parents for work with children and youth in terms of understanding their attachment, special needs youth, the effects of trauma and how to address the behaviors children exhibit will work to prevent placement breakdown and permanent surrogate families for youth in care.
Some agencies are using intervention methods to support youth to remain in their natural homes and educate and manage parents with the difficulties of raising youth within this world. As youth graduate from the system, there needs to be more social support available to maintain a positive relationship with some, “individuals who took an interest in their well being, their emotional health, physical comfort and material needs, and who could help them feel special…” (Rutman, et. Al, 2001, pg. 37). Another goal for youth transitioning out of care would be to teach them the skills for interdependence and independent living by giving them more skills, training youth, providing opportunities for responsibility, increasing support and counseling during the transition, and establishing connection with other agencies to support any further needs that will be required as adults (Rutman, et.al, 2001).
There are inequalities in the expectation that they must behave and think as other youth their age. There are inequalities in the system that gives them adult responsibility and isolates and institutionalizes youth from their communities, and places expectations upon them to function within society.
These youth are developing in a society where the gaps between the wealthy and the poor are increasing and the opportunities for educational and employment success are questionable for those who are poor. Youth who graduate from the system do not have the economic means to survive within this particular economic system, yet they are forced to by government legislation that enforces their emancipation from care at very young ages (Wharf and McKenzie, 1998). Finally, there are inequalities in the legislation on children’s rights even through no national declaration on the rights of children (Wallace, 2005).
Overall, being a youth in care may lead to an experience of barriers they face in developing a foundation within the world and changing their historical roots that may have been mired with generations of disruptions and experiences of trauma. Social and economic factors militate against successful outcomes for youth. Transience, poverty, low education, poor mental health, poor social influences, disrupted sense of identities, abuse and neglect are few of the social and economic factors facing youth within our world today. It is important that we give a voice to youth’s experiences and advocate changes through their understanding of what is in their best interests. Ultimately, despite their past experiences, it is the responsibility of the youth to overcome or remain oppressed by the barriers that they face. It is important that we continue to consider, “the power of an individual’s will and ability to act, change, and self-determine, and [use] the tools of time and agency structure to motivate [youth] to deal with their problems (Turner, 1999, pg. 185).