As we discussed in last month’s blog post “How to Stay Sane During the Holidays” this time of year can be challenging for many of us. Shorter days, colder weather, feeling overwhelmed by everything there is to do, or missing friends and loved ones who aren’t with us can cause stress and sadness for many people. The suggestions we offered for staying sane during the holidays, such as learning to say “no” to too many commitments and lowering our expectations, are useful suggestions for anyone, but they are barely adequate for addressing the needs of people experiencing something more than an acute case of the holiday blues.
One of our suggestions for maintaining our mental health during the holidays involves letting go of our worries and focusing our attention on the needs of others. In that spirit, we wanted to take a moment to think about the challenges faced by children in the foster care system at this time of year. If the holidays are a time for family and tradition, think about what that feels like for foster youth who are separated from their biological families or who simply don’t have holiday traditions or memories of their own. Foster kids face unique difficulties during the holidays that most of us have never experienced. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes for a minute and learn more about what we can do to brighten their lives during this time of year.
Complicated Family Emotions
“The holidays are an extremely tough time for current/former children and youth in foster care,” says Sarah Pauter, former foster youth and Founder and CEO of Phenomenal Families, a non-profit working to strengthen families and prevent intergenerational foster system involvement. “Many organizations, particularly residential treatment centers and group homes, tend to see a spike in critical incidents (e.g., fighting, running away, etc.) this time of year since emotions are so high.” With such an emphasis on spending time with family, seeing other families enjoying the holidays together and scenes of familial warmth on TV and in the movies can feel very alienating when you’re in the foster system. “I think a lot of it stems from feelings of abandonment and isolation,” says Paulter. “It’s hard to deny how ‘weird’ we are when Christmas rolls around and we can’t spend it with our families or those closest to us while the rest of America sits around the fireplace with their newly opened gifts watching It’s a Wonderful Life.”
One of the hardest parts of being in the foster system is being separated from siblings. It’s simply not always possible to place all brothers and sisters from one family in the same foster family, and not being around siblings can be especially difficult at this time of year. “Not being around your siblings during the holidays, can be very stressful,” says Jeff Wiemann, Executive Director at Angels Foster Family Network. “We make a special effort to help our foster families meet up during the holidays, so siblings can see each other. At this year’s holiday party, we were able to connect my former foster son with his half-sister, and you should have seen the ear-to-ear smile on her face.”
Even when children in the system have a good foster family to stay with during the holidays, that can create complications of its own. “Many children feel that becoming a part of their foster family and enjoying time with them is a betrayal to their biological family, causing guilt and anxiety around times of celebration,” says Andrea Self, Director of Advocacy for Voices for Children. Having a nice time with one’s foster family may highlight the absence of that type of warm, loving interaction with the child’s own biological family.
Sometimes seeing families together during the holidays doesn’t make foster children miss their families as much as it triggers painful memories about why they are not together. Wieman points out that rates of domestic abuse tend to spike during the holidays and many foster youth have difficult memories of witnessing or directly experiencing abuse themselves at this time of year. Self says that this is where a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) can really step in and help. She says foster children need adults who know how “to recognize a child’s traumatic past and understand how it may impact the child’s feelings or behaviors around these times. For children who have faced trauma, the sense of stability and consistency that a CASA provides is incredibly important.
Ways to Make a Difference
With a better understanding of the unique challenges foster children face during the holidays, we also have a better idea of how to make this time less stressful and more enjoyable. Dropping off some new toys at a local toy drive can certainly brighten a child’s day, but Paulter reminds us to keep donations like this in perspective. She says “I’ll never forget Christmas when I was 6 or 7 years old and my mother was incarcerated. Some agency came over and brought me a Barbie and a set of doll clothes. The gesture was incredibly kind and I appreciated the gift, but it couldn’t possibly make up for the fact that my mother was in prison hundreds of miles away. I don’t think there is any gift you could give a kid to make up for that.”
Year-end donations to local foster agencies and organizations who support the work of CASAs are always appreciated. You’ll find extensive links below if you would like to make a donation to nonprofits doing this important work in San Diego and Imperial Counties. All of these organizations have annual holiday parties where the kids get to eat, receive toys, take pictures with Santa, and celebrate with other kids and foster families. Organizations like Angels Foster Family Network make a special effort to bring siblings together who’ve been placed in different foster homes. Donations can go a long way in helping make the holidays just a little bit brighter and can help organizations better serve these children all year long.
The biggest way to make a difference in the lives of foster children is to sign up to volunteer. Not everyone has the time and resources to become a foster parent or a CASA, but making such a commitment to a child in the system can make an immeasurable difference in that child’s life. There are ways to volunteer in the lives of foster children that are less of a time commitment and responsibility, and every little bit helps. Every job a volunteer can help with frees up resources to find foster home placements and CASA assignments.
A New New Year’s Resolution
If you’ve been considering making a New Year’s resolution but haven’t chosen anything specific yet, maybe resolve to look for new ways to be of service. If you would like to help further the work of those serving children in the foster system in San Diego and Riverside Counties, consider giving your time and/or money to one of the organizations below:
San Diego County
Angels Foster Family Network – Passionately and collaboratively caring for children five and younger with diverse and exceptional families who dedicate themselves to each child’s well-being. They focus on the stable placement of children with nurturing families who foster.
Just in Time for Foster Youth – Engaging a caring community to help transitioning foster youth achieve self-sufficiency and well-being. They believe consistent, long-term help from the heart is the foundation for the success of our youth so that they can thrive and enjoy productive, satisfying lives.
Phenomenal Families – Preventing intergenerational system involvement and childhood adversity by equipping, educating, and empowering pregnant and parenting at-risk youth to flourish in their ultimate roles as parents.
Voices for Children – Transforming the lives of abused children by providing them with volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs). Every child deserves a safe and permanent home and to that end, Voices for Children will provide a CASA to every foster child in crisis and advocate for legal policies and practices that improve the lives of foster children.
CASA of Imperial County – Advocating for abused/neglected children in the Juvenile Court process, addressing legal representation, and advocating for the health and safety of foster youth. This mission has been further expanded to include an emphasis on educational needs/issues as well.
From all of us at Alliance Healthcare Foundation, we wish you the happiest of holidays and a prosperous new year.
– Nancy Sasaki, Executive Director
Alliance Healthcare Foundation