Mentoring

Just today, learned about this organization. Many youth in foster care remain there if not adopted at a relatively young age until they “age out” as it is called. Are forced out on their own. I first discovered the Atlanta Angels whose Mission Statement reads – to walk alongside children, youth, and families in the foster care community by offering consistent support through intentional giving, relationship building, and mentorship.

They go on to define these 3 aspects – Intentional Giving is the giving of thoughtful and personal resources, gifts, and care packages that meet the real needs of the child and their entire family. Relationship Building is devoting time and energy to fostering healthy relationships that promote healing through connections and interpersonal bonding. And finally, Mentorship is equipping and empowering the youth in their program to be prepared for independent living and to reach their fullest potential.

The Atlanta Angels are a chapter of a national organization – the National Angels – which seems to have grown out of another more local organization – the Austin Angels. I’m glad to know there are other similar organizations across the United States. This program created the Dare to Dream (for youth ages 15-22) and Dare to Dream Jr (for youth ages 11-14) outreach efforts. These are intended to provide one-on-one mentorship to youth in foster care. Their mentors are advocates, guides, role models, valued friends, and available resources who guide youth that they may successfully accomplishment their developmental milestones.

Young people who have grown up within the foster care system have experienced instability in their lives and often disproportionately suffer with learning disabilities, limited life skills, health issues, and emotional and behavioral struggles that lead to negative developmental outcomes. Youth who age out of foster care without having been adopted or reunified with their families have less financial, emotional, and social support than their peers, yet they are often expected to be as self-sufficient as those who have familial support and guidance. This lack of assistance and resources combined with the various traumas these youth have experienced negatively affects their success and overall well being. As a result of having to overcome a childhood of abuse and neglect, removal from their parents, unstable living arrangements, multiple foster placements, and weak support systems, youth who age out of care enter young adulthood without a healthy foundation upon which they can build their futures and work to break the generational cycles that affect youth in care. 

Mentors provide the wisdom, advice, encouragement, and community that these youth need to thrive later on in life. A mentor involved in this program commits to meeting with the youth every other week to set goals and help them achieve their dreams. The organization hopes these relationships will last a lifetime, but the program only asks for a year’s commitment in some cases. Mentors matched with a high school student are strongly encouraged to stay with the youth until high school graduation. The simple act of a mentor telling their youth “I believe in you,” “You are special,” and “You are going to do great things” can change their path completely.

Needing Attention

Though my children are not adopted, when the youngest son was born, at about 2 years old for him and 6 for the older boy, there developed a lot of problems.  I would wake up every morning thinking I am not going to fight with him and within 20 minutes he would act up and I would react.  My dad had quite a temper that terrified us when we were growing up even though he never laid a hand on us – just seeing his face turning red was enough to suppress us for fear of going too far.

Also, my mom and youngest sister had a terrible relationship and so I knew how important it was to turn the situation around as quickly as possible.  My husband started taking the younger one and I started taking the older one when each parent needed to have direct responsibility for one kid.  That took care of it in only a matter of months.  Thankfully.  All that was needed was the direct attention that had been in short supply as I cared for an infant.

Today, I was reading about a foster parent having trouble with older foster children (ages 9 and 12) who also has 4 younger biological girls (ages 2, 3, 4 & 6).  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the acting out and behavior problems of the older foster children are cries for attention.  It is tough enough to have been removed from one’s original parents . . . just that explains much.  I do know how this situation came to pass as a kind of natural trajectory but it doesn’t appear to have a good prognosis though the foster parents are trying and do care.  It may be that they simply cannot give enough with the other demands in their immediate family.

An Atlantic article in 2015 details some of the behavioral problems that adoptees exhibit.  This is the happy story a lot of people believe –

There is something temptingly tidy about the idea of adoption: A family with extra love and resources meets a child in desperate need of both. The happy ending almost writes itself.

Only that is often not the story that actually exists.  At the start of kindergarten, one study showed, about one in four adopted children has a diagnosed disability, twice the rate of children being raised by both biological parents. Adopted children were significantly likelier than birth children to have behavior and learning problems; teachers reported they were worse at paying attention in class, and less able to persevere on difficult tasks.

A follow-up study suggests the problems for adopted children not only fail to fade with time—they multiply.  A growing chorus of voices are challenging the popular Pollyannaism around adoption including adoptees who are now speaking out.  Add me to that chorus.

Adoptive parents tend to be especially sensitive about their children’s well-being, and aggressive in obtaining diagnoses and related treatment for them. In other words, the very qualities that make adoptive parents stand out—their resources, their proactivity—also prompt them to seek out expert care at the earliest sign of trouble.

With parents this dedicated, why do adopted children seem to struggle so much?   One theory might be based in knowledge about attachment – a strong bond with at least one nurturing adult—usually the mother—is essential to a child thriving.  Mother/child separations cannot help but be part of the problem.