"I think our society says we have an obligation to protect kids who are not being protected by their own families," said Mary Jo Sabaitis, Foster Care Program Manager at D.A Blodgett St. John's. "We want to give kids an opportunity to experience life in a way that is functional and healthy."
Yet society tells another story about these kids.
While many families interested in fostering youth will jump at the opportunity to work with a young child, they tend to steer away from teenagers. In April, 22 of the 68 teenagers in D.A. Blodgett St. John's care were still in need of a foster home placement.
From the news to primetime television shows, teens in foster care are cast as the opposite of functional and healthy—almost always poised for a fight with their peers or foster parents. Almost always on the tips of their toes, ready to run away. Almost always angry, frustrated and difficult to work with.
Because teens in foster care do have a backstory of neglect or abuse, Sabaitis notes there might be some truth to those stereotypes. Yet those stereotypes are far from the whole story.
"Kids aren't just pulled from their home for no reason at all. All the kids who come into foster care have experienced trauma, sometimes at multiple levels. When you're working with traumatized teenagers, then you're going to have more issues with ups and downs, and maybe some more drama in the family. There is some real truth to that. What you don't hear as much of are the kids who are connected with their foster families and doing well."
In 2017, D.A. Blodgett St. John's had seven kids in the program who were eligible for high school graduation—and all seven graduated. Many kids leave foster care and able to receive higher education, either through college or a skilled trade. They get married. Have their own kids. Grow and develop into good parents themselves.
"I can't tell you how many times I've gotten calls back from kids who have said how important their foster families were to them and what they've learned from them."
D.A. Blodgett St. John's views foster care as more than temporary housing. It is more than providing a place to sleep and food to eat until a child can be reunited with his or her family. It is a home. When a child is abused or neglected by his or her parents or another family member, foster parents are able to provide emotional support.
Foster parents are not on an island alone. D.A. Blodgett St. John's and other agencies provide training and resources to help foster parents successfully navigate raising a teen through normal developmental stages and any conflict that may arise due to emotional trauma.
When it comes to teenagers in foster care, kids are kids. And they need to learn.
"Kids aren't going to learn unless they make mistakes. Nobody's kids are going to learn unless they make mistakes. Our kids tend to make more mistakes because they have a smaller foundation of healthy skills to figure out how to manage solutions."
Sabitis recalls one teen who was sexually abused and whose mother was mentally ill. Her foster parents developed a relationship with her so that when she made mistakes or got herself into trouble, she would talk to them about it. Instead of telling her what to do, they would ask her: What do you think you need to do? Many times, she would not have an answer because she did not have the funnel of knowledge to pull a solution from. Her foster parents would then give her possible solutions and talk her through the ramifications.
Today, that girl is in a successful marriage and the mother to two adopted kids.
"To be in a safe home, a safe place, to have modeling from adults ... That gives us an opportunity to try and break the cycle of abuse. We really need homes for these kids."
Written by Cassie Westrate, staff writer for West Michigan Woman.