By Cindy Atoji Keene
Unsettling child welfare reports have been catapulting foster care into the headlines lately, but longtime social worker Lucy Collins insists that the foster care system is far from broken. While there are issues to be resolved, Collins, a family recruitment coordinator for The Home for Little Wanderers, said what the state’s most vulnerable youth really need are more people willing to defend and care for them. “And that includes additional potential foster care homes for the hundreds children waiting for loving shelter and care,” said Collins, a fierce advocate at this non-profit child and family service agency. She coordinates with the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families (DCF) to place youth who need a safe place to heal from the trauma they have experienced. In Massachusetts alone there are over 7,000 youth in foster care, many of them victims of abuse and neglect.
Q: You travel around the region, promoting the need for foster families and holding informational meetings for interested parents. But you’re the first to admit that being a foster parent isn’t easy. What are some of the challenges?
A: Often children in foster homes struggle with emotional or behavioral issues which can be extremely challenging. Families must be willing to manage difficult behaviors like defiance, stealing, substance abuse, running away, and aggression. I tell people to ask themselves questions like: Can you tolerate bed wetting, lying, and hostility, and understand these are symptoms of a child in need? Can you help a child develop a sense of belonging in your home, even though their stay is temporary? Can you set clear limits, and be both firm and understanding in your discipline? Progress with a troubled child can be minuscule; they might finally say “please” or “thank you” or bring a failing grade up to a D+. These triumphs are sometimes overshadowed by the constant negative struggles the family deals with. But when they can focus on these achievements, everyone benefits.
Q: How do most foster care kids end up there?
A: Children come into care because their families can’t take care of them; drugs and alcohol abuse often come into play, as well as mental health issues. These kids are often abused physically, sexually or emotionally; maybe there is domestic violence. When a child is removed from their family, placing them into a foster home – rather than a group care facility – is the most “normal” setting for a child. They continue to be part of a family but have the opportunity to learn healthier family dynamics while their biological family is receiving the support and help they need. At The Home for Little Wanderers, we recruit, train and license foster parents to work with children to help them move forward to a permanent goal, which could be reunification with their biological family, adoption, guardianship or, for older youth, independent living. So some of our foster children will go home to their biological families.
Q: There is a misconception that children in foster care have too much “baggage” to become successful but success stories do exist. What success stories can you share? A: My favorite story is of a young man I tried to help during the time I worked in Plymouth. He was 16 years old and headstrong – we often butted heads. About 14 years after this guy had left the program, I received a phone call from him. He said ‘I know I caused you a lot of grief and was a huge pain, but I really appreciate all you did for me.’ He was now gainfully employed, married and had children. And this young man is just one of many of the foster kids that has become a successful adult. These are the kids I think of when I think of when I think of success.
Q: Are there any misconceptions about the foster care system that you think need to be clarified?
A: So often the reports about foster care are scary and very negative. But we don’t have to buy into that reality. There are so many wonderful and heartwarming stories of foster families and foster kids. I should know – I’ve had the opportunity to be part of some of these cases and I’ve worked with some of the best kids and foster families around. I can understand the frustrations and disappointments as well as excitement, joy and triumphs our foster families experience with the children they foster.
Q: Many social workers deal with burnout – how do you cope with the emotional toll of your job?
A: I love my job and wake up at 4 a.m. every day to commute from the Cape to my office in Dorchester. That doesn’t mean I don’t have days where I would love to be sitting on a beach with a great James Patterson book.