Caring For Sibling Groups and Other Pressing Needs in Foster Care

Recently America’s Kids Belong hosted a live panel addressing the most pressing needs currently in the foster care system. A variety of panelists joined host, Kristin Allender, Executive Director of TN Kids Belong, on September 26th for this free webinar. All of these panelists have extensive experience with these pressing needs groups within foster care. 

  • Bernie Lattner– single foster/adoptive parent, federal prison chaplain 
  • Sarah McCrory– MSW, Licensed Professional Counselor, Registered Play Therapist
  • Dr. Danisha Keating– former foster youth, guardian of 5 siblings, author of “From Foster to Ph.D.”
  • Adriana and Jamie Howard– former foster/ now adoptive parents (sibling set) Adrianna works with GA Kids Belong
  • Sherrie Beals-Heileman – Therapeutic foster and adoptive parent, Teacher

The conversation began with a baseline understanding of how trauma impacts kids coming into foster care and the impact of being separated from one’s family of origin.

Watch the panel here:

Here are some highlights from answers to the questions being posed throughout the night.

 Sarah McCrory, licensed professional counselor, helped give some definitions and thoughts around this key issue.

What is attachment?

“The impact that being separated from family has on a child is the break in attachment. Attachment helps us build relationships throughout our lives. Of the most important things that helps us build healthy attachment is felt safety.”

What is felt safety?

“Felt safety is not whether a child is safe, but whether that child feels safe. When a child has to leave everything that is familiar and everything that they know is ripped away, then that damages their sense of felt safety.”

Why are sibling bonds so significant?

“If that separation occurs, and then the child loses their siblings, then that can be even more devastating. Our siblings are our first friends, playmates, and confidants. Our siblings may be our protectors, or those whom we protect.” So, if siblings can remain together [in foster care] it helps to protect some of that felt safety.

Q. Why make time for play? Sarah McCrory shared a quote she thinks speaks to this.

“Play disarms fear, builds connectedness and teaches social skills and competencies for life.”-Dr. Karen Purvis

Q. Why do more people need to consider fostering sibling groups?

Jamie and Adrianna Howard (adoptive parents of 4 siblings) spoke about their built-in team of “How-Weirds”, (a funny play off their last name) that their kids so proudly embody.  As a family unit that joined their home there was “immediate buy-in from all of them.”  Adrianna shared how much “they all just wanted so badly to make this thing work.” Jamie announced later that it was the “hardest thing they have ever done,” but “they became the type of people who can handle this,” foster care and adoption thing.” They both agreed it is so worth it!

Danisha Keating, a former foster youth and guardian of five of her siblings as well, shared the comfort of knowing you can process life with your siblings when there is so much uncertainty, and the emotions involved in being in foster care come with a lot of layers. She talked about those bonds with the statement: “For me personally, it is not like they are not going to have hurts, pains, or emotional problems, but we survive better with our siblings!”

Q. What is a Therapeutic Foster Home? 

Sherrie Beals-Heileman (longtime therapeutic foster parent): “A therapeutic foster home usually requires a higher level of care then your traditional foster home. That care can include social, emotional, behavioral, medical, or developmental needs. Foster parents would provide a more structured environment to care for the needs of therapeutic placements.” She also talked about how the training is specific, and extensive, and will vary from state to state. She explained there are many supports that are specific to each placement as a reminder that you are not alone in this space.

Q. Why should people consider providing therapeutic foster care?

It is so common for people to fear what they don’t know.  However, the kids are scared and vulnerable and need more adults willing to step into this space! Sherrie described it this way, “The home is the therapeutic place! So if you can facilitate in your home a therapeutic place for a child or foster youth to heal, or keep them with siblings and provide that, then it is just better for the children all around.”

Q. Why should prospective foster parents consider fostering teens?

Bernie Lattner (long time foster dad) tells a story of why he began fostering teens. He learned of a boy who was born and dropped off at a hospital without a name on his birth certificate. His bio parents relinquished rights and he was unofficially given the name Randall. Then he was passed between countless homes his whole life. He was neglected, abused, and exposed to drugs. So, naturally he developed explosive anger, and didn’t trust anyone. He eventually landed in an emergency foster home. 

This family was the first family who truly cared. Randall, as a teen, asked his foster mom a very vulnerable request, “Will you tuck me in each night?” She answered, “Of course I will! That is the easiest thing you could ask me.” Bernie went on to say that on the boy’s 18th birthday, the foster parents asked him, “Would you allow us to adopt you?  We want to give you this home. We want to give you our name.” Randall accepted this and they went to court. Randall began to cry and read a letter that said: “I’ve never had real parents before. I have waited my entire life to be  treated the way this family has treated me.  And now I have a name, and I have a family.”

Bernie shared that is why we need to consider fostering teens.   Over 20,000 teens each year age out of the foster system without a family or people to love them.

Q. What does a teen need to hear? [Danisha Keating responded]

“Say you are valuable.

You are seen.

I want to know you. 

Saying to them, I wanna walk with you even when you don’t wanna walk with me. 

Those words are what is going to help them.”

Sarah McCrory added later that especially teens, but all kids “need to know that their voice matters.” A strong reminder that we should be telling them that their voice matters, and that they can use their voice to negotiate their needs “This is really important. If they tell us something, and we don’t listen, and we dismiss it, it teaches them that their voice doesn’t matter. We need to be helping them learn how to negotiate their needs, and that’s how they will develop into healthy adults.”

Q. How can we view behavior challenges within these higher needs groups?

Danisha Keating gave her perspective on things to remember as a foster parent. She said how important it is to not just focus on the behavior issues of that child. “We need to stop telling ourselves that they are the problem.” For example, we can’t say that “if we take in a teenager, they’re going to uproot my house.” There might be behavioral issues, but we can say there is a reason the behaviors are happening. “What I have found is that time and time again it is the safety they feel that allows them to push the boundaries and test me.” Though difficult to deal with at times, this testing is a sign of progress because it shows felt safety is happening and that is the primary goal over behavior modification.

Q. How can foster parents help in the counseling process?

Danisha Keating shared a pivotal moment with parenting her siblings when a psychologist told her about the parental role of changing the environment for that child. This person said, “Parents! Stop making the children change their behavior for their environment. Parents, change their environment so that the children can learn what their behavior is.”

Q. What would you say to someone who might be on the fence when considering meeting one of these needs groups?

Jamie Howard resounded, “Get on the journey with your kids, you are not gonna have it all figured out.” Adrianna added, with passion: “There are a million reasons you could think of why not to, but there are ten million why you should. Read the books, try all the things, and don’t quit. If you are tenacious about it, you become the kind of people who can handle it.  Do it and do it for siblings.” (And teens, and kids with therapeutic needs.) 

Danisha Keating closed out the panel with the charge, “We need you, we need more foster parents so that kids are not sleeping on the floors of social services offices or in juvenile detention (jails) because there is nowhere else to place them.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *