I am a social worker working in Minnesota in
foster care. I am having difficulty working with one of my families who
are very conservative in their worldview. It all started when one of the
kids we had placed in their home disrupted and left. The kid had
disrupted from a previous home due to sibling conflicts and some
aggressive behaviors, but the foster parent fed into these behaviors and
escalated them. This young woman (17) has some developmental delays,
some severe reactive attachment, weak boundaries and poor impulse
control and emotional regulation, which would undermine relationships in
very immature ways.
At the new foster home she stole a sibling's T-shirt and wore it to school. The sibling flew into a rage and these foster parents, not knowing what to do to get the girl to take the shirt off, called the police. When the police arrived the girl with the shirt on took it off and was belligerent to the police and at one point yelled at them that they couldn't do anything to her. Now mind you, this is a girl who has been arrested for domestic assault twice previously and has been in care since she was 10 and whose mom can be very emotionally and verbally abusive with poor boundaries etc. My read was that they couldn't hurt her any more than she was already hurting and she screamed that at the top of her lungs when she was disempowered through her act of trying to take power for herself. The foster parents were appalled that the girl said this to the cops and that the cops did not arrest her, ("She disrespected the badge! Evidently she needs to learn to respect authority.") We tried mediating the foster sibs but the foster parent advocated that they just leave each other alone. Eventually another squabble broke out and the T-shirt stealing girl pushed the other girl at the bus stop. Now the other girl in my mind was not a passive victim but a young woman with a biting tongue and quite sharp, who picked on the T-shirt stealing girl (sorry about my labels, trying to stay confidential). I figured this was a relationship issue that was compounding poor impulse control and the short temper of this young woman. The other had a significant trauma history and scapegoated others as her perpetrators (part of her PTSD symptoms).
Anyways long story short, the girl who assaulted the other was placed in a residential treatment facility and the foster parents felt that I didn't have them back because I had tried to advocate for this girl and explain that her aggressive behavior was a symptom of her powerlessness, poor social skills, anger management , relationship skills and reactive attachment behavior. They viewed her as manipulative and deviant, willfully being nice one moment and flying off the handle another to get what she wanted. Very individual focus. I was trying to explain behavior as a form of communication and not something to be squashed. For instance for stealing the girls T-shirt they wanted to ground her for a day for every hour she had the other girls t-shirt (40 days - sound biblical?). I argued that was a bit punitive and unnatural. They figured since the police couldn't keep her in line someone needed to teach her a lesson. I suggested she do something restorative like wash the girls clothes (with supervision) for a week or do her chores for a month (she and no money to pay for the shirt). They scoffed (literally) at my too lenient consequence.
And so it started. I gave the the
Reclaiming Youth at Risk by Larry Brendtro as a foundation of my
philosophy for working with kids and tried to educate about RAD and
teaching this youth better ways to cope (and the other girl to lay off
the sarcasm and biting quips - they really just set this girl off and I
wondered at how the other girl was benefiting from having so much power
- she had just left a rather nasty foster care experience and
was feeling pretty fragile herself).
Now when the girl finally was pulled from the home the foster parents told me they were "unwilling to care for her at this point but that if she was able to get some skills they would take her back." The foster parents struggled with feeling as if they failed and then moved on to attacking me for setting them up and not having them back because this girl was too tough. I wrote in my discharge that the family was unwilling and unable to care for this kid and we requested her to be moved. They took offense at this and so it goes. I said I would change the wording and that I was trying to be honest and not underhanded, but they assumed that I was being passive aggressive.
I am struggling about how to work with this family. I really think they do good work for the most part. This kid was a handful and a half and while I think there might have been opportunities for them to do things differently, I do not think they are bad foster parents. Part of this is my own ideology that we are all works in progress, and can learn from things if we keep an open mind. I don't think they were able to care for this kid and were unwilling to continue and I respect that. Incidentally the other girl fits in their home exceptionally well, is best friends with their 20 year old son, is going to college next month and is sarcastic and likes to argue. But they are offended by my statement that they are unwilling and unable to provide the structure and care that this other child required. I guess that can be read as putting them down; I was really just trying to be honest to the girl and not just to their perception of her which I felt was not fair. But it is easier to blame the kid for her faults and not look at how the other girl or they could have done things differently. Maybe I did the whole empathy and education thing wrong.
They also accused me of being too lenient on kids and lax in my judgment and morals because I listen to music that glorifies sex and drugs and I swear around kids ("disrespecting their home"). I swear. I am sure some will say I am unprofessional or immoral. But in my life swearing was small potatoes and frankly part of how we talked to describe things. Some of the kids I work with swear and when one swears with them one joins and we can talk about what those words mean and think of other ones. I generally am open to kids talking to me how they want to and about what they want. But for this family I am sinning and that is difficult for them.
I struggle with their judgmental stance and, while I strive to be aware of my judgment ,I work really hard not to act through it. They talk about teaching kids the ten commandments and require all kids to go to church Wednesday and Sunday. They talk openly about being born-again and speak politics that frankly offend me. I let it go and try to deal with the therapeutic issues in the lives of the kids, but when I have a different opinion or perspective I am seen as challenging theirs and I often get set up in situations where they paint me as being too lenient, because I want to look at the relationship aspects of sibling conflict rather than point fingers at the most physically aggressive but emotionally and developmentally immature and disorganized kid. But now I am just making excuses for her. She really needs to be held accountable for her behavior. What if we pay attention to what her behavior is trying to communicate?
I just don't know how to work with this family in a way that I feel as though I am doing youth work and not just punishing kids as deviant individuals. It feels like their Christian moral mindset and limited exposure to kids outside of their rural community judges that everything out there is the problem and since they have found the answer they are bringing the 'Good News' to the world. They are unwilling to hear another perspective besides their own. It's like I want to work in a postmodern way in a modern family. Shades of grey in a black and white world and where we look behind the behavior and to the person and what they are about and where they are trying to go. They want to cleanse children of their sinful ways. I have to figure out if I can be (and how I will be) cool with this.
This work is tough and I am trying, but sometimes I just get burned. I'd love perspective. What do I need to hear, do differently? How do I rebuild trust with this family who think I am a lily lenient liberal with no morals? They say I can't change them and I say that we need to work together. Are these contrary positions?