A Memo from the Foster Care Lady

“Wait, what do you do?” “Are you a behavior specialist?” “Do you work here?”

As a “Senior Education Specialist” with Treehouse, I've learned I need to field questions from school staff and address the vocabulary that comes with my position.

Treehouse (n). A non-profit that supports WA youth in state foster care to have equitable childhoods. Especially concerned with summer camp, after-school activities, and high school graduation. Provides the Graduation Success program through Education Specialists in select school districts.

Education Specialist (n). (v)? See: Foster Care Lady.

“There are lots of students who struggle. Why pay special attention to foster kids?”

Our broken foster care system deserves its own post, but the reality is this: the system asks youth with little consistency, resources, or support to graduate high school as functional adults at 18. Extreme trauma and loss are known complicating factors. Formally and informally, each foster youth’s deficits are assessed and labels affixed: “Oppositional.” “Run risk.” “Delayed.” These burdens and the traumas that created them follow youth throughout school and long after.

Think back to your school days. Maybe you attended one high school for four years with peers you’d had since elementary. Hopefully, your parents championed you, celebrating your success and encouraging you through struggles; teachers and coaches noted your growth over time. Your village of supportive adults recognized, say, that you excelled at (x), hated (y), and vaguely wanted to be a (whatever).

They saw you.  

If you are a student whose parents are addicted, inward facing, full of hurt or hate, mentally ill, traumatized, dead, neglectful, in denial, or any other crisis in parenting that leads to the foster system, your chances of being “seen” plummet. Upon entry, a revolving door of social workers and attorneys decide who should take you, if you can talk to family, and where to go to school. Chances are, you move a lot. The village that raised and knew you is lost.

Say you land at my school, Lincoln High in Tacoma. Now you’re a stranger to nearly 1500 kids and 100 adults. They’re all part of “Abe Nation,” a tribe, a school family. You know your actual family might or can’t or won’t try to get you back, but you don’t know if you’ll stay here either. Your foster family will decide if they can raise you, if you are making enough progress to stay. Staff wonder why you seem hesitant to engage.

Without intervention, 57% of Washington’s foster youth do not graduate. The stakes of failure are high; homelessness is a looming possibility for alumni of care. Graduation is essential, but it cannot be the only end game for my students--these youth need a personally meaningful plan and attainable goals for the future, a reason to try despite the deck stacked high against them.

Among the Abes in care are a future photojournalist, a female firefighter, and an international businessman. To keep these goals in sight takes an advocate because, let’s face it, it’s harder than hell to be a kid in care. In weekly meetings, my students and I craft goals and address barriers. We review grades and talk about why they skip first period. We order shoes for track and compare nursing programs. We practice the art of self-advocacy, asking teachers for a “redo” when an emotional day leads to a failed or missing work.

While my students are in class, I run interference and call attention to their needs. I attend IEP meetings and argue with administrators for shorter suspensions. I hunt teachers down during their prep so they can vent and build empathy after my students blow out of class. I beg coaches not to cut my kids so they have something good going. I call foster parents and social workers to draw attention to the smallest of wins.

In my time with students, foster care is always on the table. I know and use the lingo. The realities of court, shitty social workers, estranged siblings, and unbelievable loss are not lost in my office. Neither is the fact that these youth are teenagers. We dish on heartbreak and girl drama. We watch YouTube. Together we laugh, and cry, and eat continuously.

Bold letters on our school’s website proclaim a strong statement: “Lincoln High School is committed to graduating ALL students.” If you and your school care similarly for all children, I strongly urge you to call your legislator and advocate for your students in care. This Treehouse resource can help you articulate why your school needs their own foster care lady too.