Investing in Older Youth in Foster Care: Reflections of an adoptive mother of 14 and a foster mother of over 70
by Gail Neher
My husband John and I live in northern Maine. We are the parents of one biological son and 14 adoptees. When our son Jared went off to college, the house was quiet and lonely. In 1988, while sitting in our bedroom one night in New Mexico watching the evening news, a 12-year-old girl in residential care was featured on Wednesday’s Child. She just wanted a place to go for Christmas. It was as though lightening struck our house. There is no logical explanation, but this appeal set us on a completely unexpected and uncharted journey. Unfortunately, this particular girl did not become part of our family, but she continues to be a guiding spirit in all we do for children. Still, by the end of the year-long process in New Mexico, we were the parents of a sibling group of three – Melanie (4), Joseph (8) and David (12).
From that point on, we were hooked.
A year or so later, we received a call about two little girls needing a short-term foster home. We had not wanted to foster because I knew I would struggle saying goodbye. But they needed us and we answered the call by becoming licensed therapeutic foster parents. And our hearts were broken as they returned to a terribly abusive home. There was nothing we could do for them, but from this experience we formed our master strategy for fostering.
John and I decided to provide a safe and loving environment for girls whose legal ties with their biological families were severed and who had run the gamut of available foster homes and services. Many were facing legal difficulties or already involved with the justice system. One 14-year-old was living in a shelter because she was “too difficult” for a foster family. These are truly the children with broken spirits and wounded hearts.
Over the last 28 years, we have opened our doors to more than 70 teenage girls. We believe they deserve to experience a safe and nurturing environment, to learn how to live in a healthy and active family, and to re frame their histories as they move forward into adulthood. Each child has a different story, yet the theme remains the same. Some are able to rise above their pasts; some will always struggle. Since 2002, 11 of these young women (including two sets of siblings) have requested to join our family permanently. Others have returned to their biological families, moved on to other foster homes, gone into residential treatment or gained independence from the system. We remain in contact with many, thanks to social media, and they know we remain committed to their welfare.
The need for families for these young people continues to escalate. Teenagers are not for everyone. This is a time in their lives when they are yearning and learning to be independent. They often play this out in very challenging behaviors. Putting teens into foster homes creates a struggle younger children don’t face, because they have been programmed to be letting go just as we try to “reel” them in. Healthy relationships can be so foreign for this age group, and families often feel they are only providing “three hots and a cot.” Expectations have to be adjusted with each young woman.
I often tell the girls my job is to teach them how to lunch and to shop. This sounds simple, but in reality it is about nurturing each individual while teaching her how to cooperate within the group. Our philosophy is to provide an opportunity for a young person to heal from their history, to accept that history as a building block and to move forward with support. Whenever possible, we partner with the young woman’s birth family as a sign of solidarity.
During National Adoption Month, I call special attention to our older youth in foster care who so desperately need permanency. We are pleased the federal government is spotlighting this unique and important subset of our foster care population this month. The transition into adulthood is difficult for all young people. For those with a history of broken relationships and trauma, this may not occur until they are in their 30s or even later. They need someone to walk ahead as a guide; to walk behind to encourage; but mostly to walk beside as they find their way. They are our hope for the future and we need to be their hope for the present.
Gail and John are recipients of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s 2016 Angels in Adoption award and attended three days of special events associated with the Angels in Adoption Program in Washington, D.C. in September of this year.