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For kids in foster care, what doesn't make it into the plastic bag can really matter

Oct 29, 2014

State of Opportunity will air a documentary on foster care on Thursday, October 30. In the lead-up to Thursday we're publishing a series of articles that explore specific aspects of the foster care system or challenges kids within that system face.

Credit Christian Guthier / Flickr

Andrew, a superhero-loving nine-year-old boy you’ll soon meet in our newest documentary Finding Home, told us regretfully that his Paper Jamz – a toy guitar he loved – didn't make it into the bag he used for his belongings as he bounced from place to place.

This story isn't unique. In Michigan, over half of kids live in two or more placements while in care and must fill their "suitcase" multiple times. More often than not that "suitcase" is nothing more than a black plastic garbage bag.

Toys aren’t the only things frequently lost or left behind in foster care by kids like Andrew. Other items lost range from favorite keepsakes and photos to essential documents like birth certificates and social security cards.

Arguably the most important things that are lost in care, however, can't be put into a black plastic bag: a sense of stability, feelings of belonging, connections with friends and teachers, and trust.  

Each time a kid moves to a new home, whether that be with a relative, foster family, or residential placement, they must readjust to new surroundings and routines. Every home and family unit have different social norms: some families have designated seats at the dinner table, for example.

For kids coming into those environments for the first time, they have absolutely no idea who sits where at dinner time, or if families even eat together. 

Multiple placements have a lasting impact

Constantly moving from place to place in foster care limits a young person’s ability to feel secure and safe where they live. This may make it difficult for them to ever feel safe and secure, even long after leaving care.

This is largely why the concept of interdependence is both so important and difficult to achieve for people who have experienced foster care. Moving from placement to placement quickly teaches kids they can’t get too attached to the neighborhood friend down the street, the tree they love to climb in the backyard, or the people taking care of them every day.

Being abruptly moved – sometimes with little or no explanation – may train kids to feel like the only person they can really trust or depend on is themselves. Thoughts that accompany this process, such as “why does no one want me? What’s wrong with me?” can be damaging to kids' self-esteem.

No wonder young adults have a difficult time leading stable lives and making lasting connections after leaving care.

So what don’t kids lose when moving from place to place? Their resilience, sense of character, and – unfortunately – the trauma they’ve been through. If only they could leave that behind, too.