There is now a podcast for almost any topic out there from politics, philosophy, crime investigation, and yes, even foster care! The now infamous series Serial, with over 80 million downloads, brought the podcast to its now current status of the “go to” on demand listen while engaging in our day to day tasks. Well, truth be told, I am one of those many millions that downloaded every episode and waited impatiently each week for a new episode. Serial can blamed as the gateway to my addiction to podcast listening. I confess I am a serious podcast aficionado! My true obsession is podcasts that feature storytelling such as This American Life, The Moth, and Snap Judgment. Sarah Larson, in the article “Serial,” Podcasts, and Humanizing the News in The New Yorker, summarizes lessons learned by a panel of radio journalists from Ira Glass, host and producer of This American Life. She states,
The ideas about radio journalism that Glass taught them, they said, included having something at stake, having an element of surprise, having a larger story and smaller anecdotes that support it, and having moments of authentic emotion.
So what does this have to do with this blog about foster care and personhood? Well, simply put, it’s combining two of my two passions: podcasts and researching the impact of foster care on children. Now, I change my focus from searching for written stories and various images about the foster care experience to audio examples. In my exploration, I came across many podcasts surrounding foster care; however, most of them focus on foster care parents, which is important to this field but not what I was looking for.
I came upon a podcast called Make a Mental Note with Chris Quarto, PhD. Dr. Quarto is a clinical psychologist who creates a weekly podcast of interviews with various mental health professionals and discusses their views on various clinical topics. In a recent episode, he spoke with Sheri Pickover, LPC about her clinical experience working with children and families involved with the child welfare system. The episode is entitled Helping Children of the Child Welfare System. The podcast was in an interview format where Dr. Quarto asks Sheri Pickover questions about herself and her practice in a typical dialogue.
Many dimensions of the child welfare system discussed in the interview are, I feel, in conjunction with my feelings about working with children in foster care. We share similar views of the complexity of the child welfare system when attempting to work on both micro and macro level challenges such as parental neglect and poverty.
She spoke about the way that children tend to feel who are placed in foster care settings, giving multiple cases examples of her therapy with children and her attempt to understand how children feel from her therapy sessions. Ms. Pickover states
The overall feeling of children is the loss of the sense of safety; their sense of not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow/the stability is gone.
Sheri Pickover made a point that I found fascinating. She stated that there is a tendency in child welfare to view parents and their children through a moral lens instead of a therapeutic one. This trend is found during assessment of a family in treatment. The moral lens tends to lay blame and instill shame and guilt about challenges within the family circumstances. I find this to be astoundly true in my individual work with children in foster care as well. Viewing children’s behavior as “bad” or “out of control” and labeling them as “troublemakers” and “attention seekers” is utilizing a moral lens (good vs. bad). The apparent problem with using this lens, besides the shame it imposes on children, is the lack of understanding why a child’s specific behavior is occurring. For a child living within a foster care experience, the reason behind maladaptive behaviors can be fear, effects of past abuse and neglect, and overarching trauma.
Misunderstanding behaviors of children in foster care is what brings me to another podcast I would like to share. On an episode of This American Life entitled Anatomy of a Doubt, the team shares a story about an 18-year-old girl who was raped while in a supportive housing program funded by the state child welfare system. Through interviews and casual conversations, interspersed with minor comments of the narrator, the emotional and compelling story about Marie unfolds. The story begins with Marie reporting her rape to the police and two previous foster parents who all thought that she was lying about her assault and was “attention seeking” as she was not emotional enough to have been raped. One of her previous foster parents even spoke to the police and was pivotal in swaying the investigation to focus on an interrogation of Marie’s alleged false accusations that lead to her formal charge of “false reporting”.
Her previous foster parent describes Marie’s behavior as “flirting” with a male case manager the day after her assault with giggles and laughs while “rolling on the grass”. She stated that she showed no signs of distress as she would expect of someone who was just raped the day earlier. The police describe similar behavior of Marie stating that at first she was crying but then her story changed as did her behavior when she admitted she was unsure about the rape.
Marie describes her behavior in the story as “flipping the switch” to avoid the emotions to escape the pain, hurt, and fear. Behaviors that Marie was demonstrating do occur in children who have been traumatized, especially those who have a childhood history of abuse and foster care placement. Marie had previously been sexually abused and had been placed in approximately 11 different foster homes in her short 18 years of life. She learned to suppress and separate her mind and body from her emotions and thoughts in attempt for self-preservation. Her mental state after her trauma due to the assault, was shock; which, accounts for her incongruent response to the incident.
In addition, no one in her life, especially the two previous foster mothers and the police–protectors, believed her story, so she just wanted to separate herself from all of it to avoid feeling the pain and rejection. Time after time in my work with children who have experienced some form of trauma, they present the same confused behaviors. While not wanting to spoil the episode (go listen, it’s worth it trust me), the story becomes more complex to include the injustice of the investigation as well as the lack of knowledge of the supportive housing staff, foster parents, and police had about the effects of complex trauma for young adults in child welfare.
While offering two varying types of podcasts to listen to about the foster care experience, I am still quite drawn to the narratives of the lived experience. I feel that there are powerful moments by individuals telling their own stories in their own words for all to experience. The elements that Ira Glass suggests above around what makes good radio journalism is my goal. While I hope that you will find my first attempt at a podcast about the lived foster care noteworthy in my next post, I will keep on listening to the expertise of others.