Children's Voice May/Jun 2009

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One On One

Questions and Answers with CWLA Staff

In honor of National Foster Care Month, we asked CWLA staff about their experiences with the foster care system and how it has affected their work.

Connie Hayek

Director, National
Data Analysis System

I have worked in child welfare for over 20 years, starting my career as a line worker in foster care with a public agency. Eventually I took a university position where I had minimal contact with children and families. It seemed like the perfect time to become a licensed foster parent and a CASA volunteer worker.

I learned first-hand what a difficult task it is to take on the responsibility of caring for a child who has experienced the trauma of removal from their home. As a social worker, I could put difficult situations aside at the end of the day. As a foster parent, I couldn't do that. I had to deal with the fallout of whatever happened-events related to the child welfare agency's involvement and the routine things that occur for every child. Being a foster parent is probably the most difficult piece of the child welfare puzzle, and usually the most undervalued.

While I often think of the families I've worked with, the children that I came to know as a CASA volunteer have probably influenced my attitudes the most. I spent over five years with one boy, who is now a teen. I visited him and spoke for him in court through multiple placements in foster homes, group homes, hospitals, and finally with a relative. It was probably the most frustrating and rewarding experience I've had in this field.

When going through training, I said that I knew what children in the system go through. After my experience fostering and volunteering, I feel like I can say that I began to know what children go through. Now my mantra is permanence; children need permanence in their schools, in their neighborhoods, in their activities, and most importantly, in their families.

Stephanie Schanck

Assistant to the President/
Human Resources Coordinator

My first experience with the child welfare system was in 2000 when my sister's four children were removed from her home. I got a call from a social worker saying my sister had given her my phone number, and they wanted to know if I could take the children. I remember we finished the call, and I sat in my car and realized, "I don't need to think about this." I called her right back and said I would come and get all of them, because the choices were to take all of them or have them put in the system and be split up. When they first came to my home, it was only supposed to be for three months. And then here we are all these years later, and I still have them. I adopted them in 2007.

At the time I took the children, I had three children of my own. My youngest nephew was only 3, and because I was working, I needed to have day care set up for him. But after the kids were placed with me, I was pretty much on my own. I think, had the Fostering Connections legislation been passed at the time, my process would have been different. It might have been helpful in terms of child care, medical assistance, financial assistance, and any additional help that the kids probably could have benefited from, like having a counselor come out to the house and talk to the kids. Because if you think about it, they woke up one morning with their mom, and they went to bed that evening at my house-no one really took the time to explain to them what was happening.

My sister's three school-aged children were all failing in school, two of them had already repeated a grade. After being with me for one marking period, they were all on the honor roll, and they've been for the most part of it making the honor roll ever since. But it really wasn't me; it was them. It was the fact they had a stable place, they were able to sleep through the night, and they had consistency. They knew that I had expectations, and if they got a good grade on something, I would really applaud them, and they loved that.

Since I've gotten my nieces and nephews, I've advocated for them. I was very consistent with my message: I wanted them to stay together, and I wanted to make sure that they were able to live a normal life at any cost. My older nephew kind of gave me that charge. I remember one day I asked him what he wanted me to do, because it was getting to the point that it seemed as if they were pitting me against my sister. He said, "I want you to fight for us."

My experience fostering and then adopting my niece and nephews has impacted me greatly. Prior to getting my sister's kids, I can't remember thinking about the foster care system. Now I realize that it's not just about me and my family. It's made me think about others. So I started volunteering with foster youth, and I plan to become a foster parent again once the children go off to college. I want to play a significant role in the lives of other children and help them transition into healthy adults. I do volunteer work with an organization called DC Cares, where at times I have the opportunity to work with foster youth. After being there for a little while, what would always help them to connect with me was sharing that I was a foster parent and was taking care of my niece and nephews. And they would say, 'That's great, I wish I would have had someone who would have done that for me.' It is interesting and heartbreaking at the same time, because you hear these kids that just want someone to see past the walls that they put up.

I got my sister's children when I was still in my mid-20s. As a teenager and in my early 20s, I wasn't thinking about anyone else. I feel now like I was missing something. Having my sister's children has changed me drastically, and it's shown me a part about myself that I love and that I want to continue to have.

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