PEACE FOR KIDS
Did you know that there are currently 30,000 children in the foster care system in Los Angeles County, alone? When a child is uprooted from the only home he or she has ever known, the psychological effects can be damaging and, in many cases, permanent.
In recognition of National Foster Care Month, Wiles Magazine is proud to spotlight Peace 4 Kids. Through programs like Plants of Hope and Love Me Now, Peace 4 Kids achieves its mission of empowering foster kids and at-risk youth by providing community as family.
Wiles recently spoke to Peace 4 Kids’ Executive Director, Zaid Gayle. Here are some of the insights he shared with us.
WILES: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES THAT MITIGATE A CHILD BEING PLACED IN FOSTER CARE?
ZG: Most people think that kids are placed into the foster care system because of sexual or physical abuse. However, “general neglect” is the dominant reason that kids end up in the system. A “general neglect” circumstance may arise if a child lives in a single-parent home and there aren’t enough resources to provide adequate day or evening care for the child while the parent is at work. Another example of “general neglect” is a parent who is battling a substance abuse problem. In these instances, the family must appear in court where a judge will evaluate whether or not the parent needs to have their parental rights terminated. If the parent is permitted to retain their rights, the judge may require them to attend a parent training class, and the child will be placed in a foster care parent or group home until they’ve completed the class. However, if the parent is non-compliant, their child will remain in foster care until they find a permanent home – through adoption, legal guardianship, or with a relative.
WILES: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MAJOR FLAWS WITH THE FOSTER CARE SYSTEM?
ZG: One major flaw with the foster care system is that it is incentivized by money. Since people get money for taking foster kids in, the more foster kids they have, the more money they get. There’s no real incentive to resolve the issues that lead to a child being placed in foster care in the first place.
WILES: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES THAT CHILDREN IN FOSTER CARE, SPECIFICALLY, FACE?
ZG: The lack of stability and continuity are challenges that are both unique, and exacerbate everything else. Regardless of the reason a child may enter the system, removing them from their childhood home – which, even if it’s an abusive home is the only home they’ve known – is, in itself, a trauma. Uprooting a child and placing them in a new environment where they don’t feel safe leads to their inability to trust adults and build relationships. This affects them in school and in any environment where they have to interface with adults, because they’ve already developed unhealthy relationships with adults. This is a major reason why children who are placed in foster care for prolonged lengths of time are three times as likely as their peers to become teen parents. That, too, is cyclical, as they are also two times as likely to have their own children one day end up in the foster care system, as well.
WILES: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE EMOTIONAL EFFECTS OF THIS CYCLE?
ZG: At the end of the day, the children begin to feel that they’re not valued, and it also impacts the way they view others’ values. For instance, one of our older girls – who just graduated from Loyola Marymount University – used to describe how, in one of her foster homes, the family ate chicken with a knife and fork. She was scolded, in the home, when she began eating her chicken with her hands – which is how she ate chicken in her own home. So she adopted their method of eating chicken with utensils. When, three months later, she was placed in a different foster home, she was ridiculed for eating chicken with utensils, because that family ate chicken with their hands.
Children in the foster care system constantly have to negotiate different environments and adapt to different people. And, seemingly, as soon as they find a comfortable rhythm, they’re uprooted and placed in a new environment where the rules all change. Not surprisingly, they quickly learn to not place a value on anything, because everything they value, they lose.
WILES: PEACE 4 KIDS OFFERS WONDERFUL OPPORTUNITIES FOR ADULT VOLUNTEERS TO MENTOR KIDS. PLEASE DISCUSS SOME OF YOUR PROGRAMS.
ZG: The Love Me Now Group emerged as a response from our staff members who were seeing that many of our young women were having a difficult time developing their values around issues like sexuality and self-worth. Love Me Now is a gender-specific group mentoring program that meets every Saturday where young girls can openly discuss issues of femininity in order to have a successful journey into womanhood. The group helps girls explore ways of overcoming past traumas through art and expression.
Nothing is off the table – they talk about everything from sex and what it means, to their own sexual abuse and how to protect themselves from future abuse. Males are not allowed to participate, but we’ve recently rolled out an equivalent group for boys with the same “LMN” acronym – which stands for “Leadership, Manhood and Nobility.”
Our Emancipation Services Program is also vital. Very early in our organization’s existence, we began noticing how, as youth began transitioning out of the foster care system, many of them would end up homeless, jobless, and so on. Their lives would simply turn upside down once they turned 18.
Our youth were very instrumental in launching our transition youth service advocacy campaign; and the “All I did was turn 18” law – which went into effect in January – will offer youth the option of staying in the system until they turn 21. Youth will now be able to legally stay in foster care and receive financial support – which gives them a longer window of opportunity to gain education, employment and vocational skills.
WILES: WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ADULTS WHO MAY BE CONSIDERING BECOMING FOSTER PARENTS?
ZG: Do it. There are not enough foster parents to support the needs of the youth. It’s important for anyone contemplating becoming a foster parent to really understand what they’re getting into. It may seem like a temporary situation, but it’s a lifelong commitment. As a foster parent, you can make a profound impact on kids; and those kids will remember and revere the people who supported them along the way.
WILES: WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE PEACE FOR KIDS, AS AN ORGANIZATION, IN 5 YEARS?
ZG: Overall, I would like to see a re-framing of the how child welfare system, in general, views youth in foster care. Our youth are currently working on a research project to try to fix the things that are wrong with the system – including retraining social workers and key personnel in the school system. Many of the existing practices and methodologies they employ aren’t effective because they don’t address the core issue that kids in foster care don’t trust adults. That lack of trust prevents the kids from being able to accept support from teachers, law enforcement and so on.
Instead of reinforcing the stigma already attached to foster care, we should examine the strengths that develop as a result of a child being in foster care. For instance, the girl who had to learn and re-learn how to eat chicken was regularly accused of being a “manipulator” because she didn’t want to eat in front of people out of fear of being embarrassed. For her, it’s not manipulation it’s negotiation. Being in foster care actually helped her develop great life skills like negotiation, being able to adapt to new environments and how to advocate for oneself. These are skills that are highly sought after in business world, and this is the plane where we need to meet our youth so that they can have a better projection for their lives.
In 5 years, I hope we can publish a report that will re-train social workers on how to embrace the cultural identity of foster kids and make “foster kid” a positive brand instead of a negative one.
WILES: WHAT’S THE CALL TO ACTION FOR PEOPLE WHO MAY WANT TO SUPPORT PEACE 4 KIDS?
ZG: Eighty percent (80%) of our direct services come from our volunteer population, so we’re always looking for volunteers. For those who are unable to volunteer, donations are helpful and we offer opportunities for anyone who may want to sponsor a kid in the program. And, equally important, is raising awareness. If you read an article like this about foster care, don’t just hold the information – make it a conversation and share what they’ve learned with others. When people talk, most are surprised by just how many people have been exposed to the foster care system. The more we talk about it, the more effective we will become at helping our communities understand how much value and positive energy these kids bring to the world.
For more information about Peace 4 Kids, please visit: www.peace4kids.org