The Lived Experience of Foster Care

“Do you feel that being in foster care has the changed the way you view yourself?” “How has where you lived and who you lived with impacted the way you see the world?” “How about your view of others?”  “Do you think that your experience before and during your foster care placement will have any  longstanding effects on your life in the future?”

From my experience as a licensed clinical social worker, working primarily in child welfare over the past 20 years, I have never seen these questions implicitly asked or explored with children and youth placed in foster care.  Assessments of these children typically concentrate on present behaviors and/or symptoms, but do not dig deeper to the heart of how the foster care experience impacts their developing personhood.

Unfortunately, the system does not demand a closer examination of the impact of placement in foster care on their identity.  On a micro level the system is concerned with safety and well-being. And the macro level remains focused on outcomes found through aggregate data of externalizing behaviors or areas, such as staying in school and monitoring criminal activity.

So what remains is the question of how foster care impacts a person and why no one is asking the children themselves?

Children enter the child welfare system due to their caregivers inability to ensure safety and wellbeing, which in turn threatens the very same.  This inability to care for, attend to, supervise, or appropriately discipline children is typically what creates the need for formal intervention. The child welfare system first seeks to assist children and families to rectify issues so they can remain in their own homes; however when this fails, children enter foster care.

The experience of being in foster care has a profound influence on the developing child as cited in many studies.  However, the lived experience of foster care, what happens in foster care placement and how it impacts a child’s development of self–who they are and who they will become is neglected in practice. Where I feel the practice falls short is addressing the depths to which children are impacted–down to the core of their sense of self; even to cause an elimination of self through suicide. This extreme consequence as in the case of Gabriel Meyers from Florida; he committed suicide while placed in a foster home at age seven.  I wonder how this tragedy does not outrage us, as social workers, and cause a grand moment of pause to ask how foster care affects children and how do we respond?

To understand what I mean by personhood, I first look through the lens of philosophy. Hilda Lindemann (2014), a philosopher and ethicist, defines personhood as

the bodily expression of the feelings, thoughts, desires, and intentions that constitute a human personality, as recognized by others, who then respond in certain ways to what they see.  p. 15

The interaction between self and others, along with internal competencies and limitations of an individual, is what shapes the perception of oneself in relation to the other.  Russon (2003), another philosopher, states that

we must come to understand existence as simply the dynamic of embodiment within which the two poles of self and other come to be defined, and out of which the substance of their development into complex self-identities grows. p. 26

These perspectives of personhood are the foundation of which this project is built. Simply, to understand the development of personhood (the idea of self or identity) we must examine the relationship between the interactions between the self and other.  The other, in this exploration, is a system and those who are involved within it i.e. family court, judges, lawyers, foster parents, case workers, and therapists.


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