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Working with Foster Kids

Rachel Crumpler

“You have to find the right one,” Ty said as he sifted through the stack of colored papers. He selected a piece of red construction paper, and looked expectantly at me. I pulled a blue sheet and placed it out for inspection. Ty gave a serious nod and continued to explain the steps to create a ‘fly plane’ as his five-year-old fingers creased the paper into messy functional folds.

I worked with youth in the New York City foster care system for eight years. Through different non-profit organizations, I had the opportunity to teach art and movement classes in agencies during visitation times for children and their biological families.

christie 1Life is not always easy for a child in the foster care system. Children are placed in care when child protective services determines that they are not safe at home due to risk of maltreatment, neglect, or abuse. Nationally, over 400,000 youth are in foster care. The average length of time in care is 33 months. During that time, children usually experience more than one placement; they stay in different residences—with relatives, foster parents, group homes or institutions. Youth in care often live in a constant state of change.*

“Are you gonna psychologize me?” was a frequently asked question as children often entered the room wary, unsure of my role at the agency. I would reassure them: “No, you don’t even have to talk to me if you don’t want to. Do you want to use the clay? I can cut off a piece for you.”

tyshawn dinoMy presence would not alter the course of their lives. I saw these children infrequently. That understanding strangely afforded me a special role in the agency; the art room seemed to function as a safe space, a place to just be—to create, to move (or not) without judgment. No class was the same. Some days the whole family would participate in an activity; more often, children would come to keep their hands busy while they waited for their parents to arrive. Some children I met only once; others I would get to know over several years.

Benjamin burst into the room angry. After several weeks of seeking to destroy the artwork of his brothers, we set a new routine. He would bang the door open; I would hand him a pile of tissue paper. He would rip, kick, crush and, on a good day, karate-chop the paper until it lay in shreds on the floor.

handAngel crossed her arms tightly across her chest. She watched as the rest of the children ran, jumped, crept, slithered, and leapt across the room. Each invitation to participate she met with a short shake of her head. Once she allowed a small movement in response; her arms dropped to her side. The others in the room paused and then mirrored her motion. Angel returned to stand with her arms folded tight across her chest.

Priscilla wanted. Cleaning up after class, I always had Priscilla pulling on my arm. “Can I take that?” “I need those.” I tried explaining: “If I give you all the crayons today, we will not have any to use next week.” “But, but . . .” She always had an answer. Finally, I started bringing a small box of treasures—sparkling gems, glittery stickers, metallic pens. She would choose one item at the end of each class; she always wanted more.

snailBart slipped into a chair near me. He wouldn’t draw. He didn’t want any paint. He wanted to sit. Some days, he would tell me about something that happened at school. Other days, he would ask me questions about where I taught, where I lived, what music I liked. One afternoon, he asked: “Are you having a bad day?” I was having a terrible day, actually, struggling to maintain a calm demeanor—I thought I was doing a pretty good job. “How did you know?” “Well, you’re smiling. You’re always smiling, but your voice sounds tighter today. Is there anything I can do?”

Porsche led. In a room of teenage girls, her voice could always be heard. The crochet class was held in a group residence. The girls would clamor into the rec room, fight over the sparkly yarn, and eventually settle into a semblance of peace as their hooks pulled yarn into scarves, hats, and blankets. The pile of unclaimed pieces grew. “What are we going do with these?” The bickering began: We should sell it at Union Square, no online, no we should reuse the yarn, no. “We are going to give it to mothers and babies in the hospital,” Porsche announced.

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The hardest part was leaving. When a supervisor asked me to switch agencies, I thought it was important to tell the kids before I left. In all honesty, my goodbyes were rarely heard; for most of the children, my departure likely went unnoticed. There would be a new teacher, new art materials, and their visitations would continue as planned. The goodbyes were hard for me. Unknowingly, these children had taught me how to teach, how to listen, and how to love.

 

GO DEEPER

Nationally, about 20,000 youth age out of the foster care system each year without returning home or being adopted. Many face more challenges; youth who spent long periods of time in care are more likely to experience unemployment, homelessness, early pregnancy, incarceration, and mental health issues.

houseSupports, including mentoring programs, can be crucial for youth in care. To find out how you can be involved, contact a local foster care agency or look into some of these online resources:

* (from “Mentor’s Corner: Mentoring youth in foster care,” The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring)

—from devozine (August 2016). Copyright © 2016 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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