Teens in foster care present a unique set of challenges and are often the hardest age group to place in foster homes. The Youth & Family Services Caring Center in El Reno has a newly launched teen foster care program designed to help teens in foster care find permanent connections. At the heart of the program is that same opportunity for teens and potential foster parents to meet on multiple occasions before committing to a placement.
“We can give the parties enough time to get to know each other and know it is a good match,” YFS Executive Director Dee Blose. “Youth like to have some choice just like the rest of us.”
The program stems from the reality that teens are often the hardest age group to place.
“A lot of people shy away from the idea of fostering teenagers,” said Blose. “Teenagers can talk back, they can challenge you and that can be scary. [But they] need somebody to invest in them, and they need a place to call home.”
Studies show that when youth age out of the foster care system without an adoptive home, foster home or reuniting with biological family, they are more likely to become homeless, end up in prison or have children who also end up in foster care.
While they acquiesce that not all parents love the teenage years, foster parents Rick and Kristi Murphy have developed a passion for this age group. With each of their foster teens, Kristi and Rick focus on setting boundaries and offering lots of patience and unconditional love. They abide by a promise they made to each other before their journey began.
“We decided before we took our first teen that we would be the last foster family they ever had – that we would become their ‘forever’ family,” Kristi said. “And as such, we treat them with the same expectations, respect, love and care that we would any other member of our family.”
That methodology has translated into long-term relationships. The teens who have lived with the Murphys but are now out on their own still come over to do laundry, eat dinner or play games. Kristi talks to them every day. She applauds YFS workers for staying in contact with the teens even after they’ve aged out of foster care too, providing them another support system.
But Kristi admits that getting to that place of trust with teens is challenging. When children have been in state custody for a long time, they have likely been let down and hurt by many people who were supposed to love, help and protect them.
“It is very hard to teach them to trust anyone or how to love someone with healthy boundaries,” Kristi said. “Or how to accept themselves as lovable.”
Blose says YFS recognizes the natural hardships that come with parenting foster teens, and the new program is prepared to help its foster parents through the most difficult days.
“As life happens, like we know it will, we want our shelter services to be one of the available alternative caregivers or respite care providers for the family to access in those moments when we all think a little time and space can make a difference in placement stability,” said Blose.
In addition to the challenges of helping their foster teens heal from the trauma they have endured, Rick and Kristi teach them to drive, ensure they stay in school, teach them how to do laundry, open joint checking accounts to teach financial basics, practice job interview skills, encourage participation in sports, arts or whatever activities interest them and model positive relationship-building skills with friends and loved ones. With the guidance of YFS, they also have helped their foster teens reestablish safe, healthy relationships with biological family members. In the midst of the everyday struggles, Kristi says she has experienced great joy in her teens’ ‘ah-ha’ moments.
“When they recognize that it is not their fault and accept that they are loved for who they are,” Kristi said of her most fulfilling moments as a foster mom, “and when they start to consider you an important part of their life, like the first hug that they initiate or the first phone call just to talk without needing anything.”
[Editor’s Note: Erin Page recently received a Gold Award from the Parenting Media Association for her coverage of foster care in MetroFamily Magazine.]