Be the Island

Over break, I took the word “break” very seriously and spent much of my time reading, watching movies, and relaxing. One day, I happened upon my HBO On-Demand section of my DVR and scrolled through the choices. There was “Orphan,” a horror movie about adopting a child who turns out to be evil or something. Pass. Don’t like that message. Don’t like horror movies. I also happened upon “The Blind Side,” and thought that I should see that. Not because I like football, but I like positive stories of adoption. I was prepared, however, to hate it because “White lady saves Black kid” isn’t always my favorite theme. See “Nice White Lady” post here for a fabulous Mad TV sketch about this theme.

Needless to say, I cried like a friggin’ baby at the part where (Spoiler Alert: Spoiler Alert: Spoiler Alert) where Michael, the teenage boy, tells his adoptive mom that he’s never had a bed before. I have a special place in my heart for foster kids, and I work with them as a school psychologist all the time. I have had the pleasure of being a therapist for foster youth for the past three years in my private practice. I have had kids tell me horror stories and I have processed their pain with them. I have heard stories of resilience that you wouldn’t believe. And I have, unfortunately, seen kids go through terrible things that they have a hard time recovering from, and their emotional state deteriorates. Just building a relationship with these kids is a challenge, because they have learned not to trust others.

I am reminded of this foster kid I worked with a while back who took about a year to agree to see me. His mom had died and his father had left the family years before that. He was being raised by a single foster mom. In his cumulative folder was a letter from the mom, right before her death, stating her last wishes for her son. I bawled in the archive room reading it, then got it together to get the foster mom to agree to have him see me for counseling.

He refused. I would come to his classroom every week at the same time, and every week he would say he wasn’t coming. I tried giving him a pass so he wouldn’t be embarrassed to have me come to the door. He never came. I did this for a year, never giving up on him. Then, in the spring, his best friend was killed, while they were all playing Russian Roulette with an older brother’s gun. They had seen it on You Tube. He finally came to me. I sat with this boy for hours, and he poured out everything, from the first night he went into foster care to that day. I had never heard him even speak before. He came regularly for a while.

He was acting out in class, as you could imagine. One day, his teacher escorted him and told me all the things he had done in class that were inappropriate so I could talk to him about it. The kid’s head hung in shame. Once the teacher left, I chose a different route than talking about the misbehavior. I said something like, “You know, I care for you when you do well in school and I care for you the same when you act out.” Not looking up, he made a little fist pump to himself and whispered, “Yes!” And then he started talking about his anger and sadness.

I also had the pleasure of working with a young adult client who is currently in medical school. He used to be a foster kid. He had over 15 home placements and 10 or so school placements, a stint in juvenile hall, and a history of running away from foster homes. His parents, his relatives, his siblings were all on drugs or in jail. He turned his life around in his young adulthood and was at a prestigious medical school. I asked him what made a difference for him. He said something so poignant: “When I was in foster care in middle school with this really nice family, I got a taste of normal. I knew I could have a normal life.”

I think that is part of my job as a school psychologist: giving a kid a chance at “normal.” Giving them an experience of an unconditional positive and consistent relationship can give them a taste of normal. As one foster care advocate said (best compliment ever, I cherish it and want it cross-stitched on a pillow or something): “You are an island of sanity in a sea of clowns in this kid’s life.” I think we can all be the island for foster kids. We don’t even have to adopt a budding young pro-football player to do it either.

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Comments on Be the Island

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for your post. We are foster parents and the going is often hard, but we've seen foster children really thrive after they settle into "normal." Our hearts ache when we see them go back to less than normal homes.

  2. Danielle says:

    I love your blog. I'm studying to be a psychologist after taking three years off after my bachelors of psych. I think some people might read it and go… ah! But I read it and know that's what I really want to do as well 🙂 I need to order your book. I just hope I can get a job when I'm done!

  3. MrsZ says:

    Fabulous post! I worked as a social worker for six years for a county run foster care system within both an emergency children's shelter for children just removed from their parents care due to abuse or neglect and within the juvenile dependency courts. In those six years I have a head full of stories of the horrors those kids face. I was always amazed by the resiliency that some kids possessed. Although the things that had occurred to them would have broken so many (myself included) they somehow found and inner strength and kept on going. I can't say enough for these children needing a constant in their lives. They often times get switched from placement to placement, from school to school, and have sporadic inconsistent contact with their parents and often times lose contact with siblings. They need someone who that can rely on to be there.
    Although I left the world of social work, I am happy that my future career as a school psych will still provide me with opportunities to have a positive impact on their lives.

  4. Thank you. THAT is why I want to be a school psychologist, to be able to bring on the most 'normal' experience to kids who would otherwise not be given a chance. Again, thank you.

  5. Nope. You sure don't have to adopt a budding young pro-football player to make a difference in a kids life. I think psychologists who take the time to work with those who are hurt, lost, and forgotten do something equally as important as providing a safe bed for a young person to sleep in–psychologists provide young people a safe place to be heard and to be themselves.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Rebecca,
    Just wondering…
    Do you ever cry when you counsel students or parents? Maybe I'm getting softer as I age, but I find myself fighting to stay "professional" and not cry with students who tell me of their struggles, or parents who are crying over their children's struggles. How do you hold it together? Maybe I'm just an old crybaby…

  7. Rebecca says:

    @Anonymous: I haven't cried with a kid or parent recently, but I have in the past. I don't think its a bad thing to share a real emotion with someone if you're feeling it with them. We are humans before psychologists!

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