Foster youth must navigate holiday season, wellbeing

Pandemic has made matters much worse

Merdies Hayes | 12/10/2020, 6:25 a.m.
The holiday season can be an electric—and often hectic—time of year...
CASA of Los Angeles CASA-LA

The holiday season can be an electric—and often hectic—time of year.

This year, of course, the coronavirus pandemic has placed extra stress on families who must navigate the boundaries of social distancing, testing and closures of some of their favorite holiday haunts.

It’s worse for foster children. These youngsters ranging from toddlers to teenagers are typically estranged from many loved ones, be they parents, grandparents siblings or other relatives. It isn’t easy to arrange regular visits and interaction between family members. In the pandemic, it’s even more difficult because of health and travel restrictions.

There are people and groups who recognize and address the challenges facing foster youth. CASA-LA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) is a community-supported organization dedicated to working one-on-one with children who have suffered the most serious cases of abuse or neglect.

There are no “volunteers” working with CASA-LA. They prefer the term “advocates” who work closely with a child to form a trusting relationship. They become a friend to that child -- someone who cares. CASA-LA advocates help children in important ways, comforting them through emotional trauma and transition. They help arrange for needed health care and social services. They talk with teachers and participate with children in enrichment activities. And when necessary, they communicate with social workers and at times will advise judges about the child’s welfare.

“There are so many concerns for the wellbeing of foster children, especially during the holidays,” said Wende Julian, president of CASA-LA. “Right now, isolation is a prime concern. We want to make sure that these youth are cared for in their mental, physical and social wellbeing. The pandemic has resulted in a lack of access to therapists, teachers and family.”

Julian is referring to what the county-wide shutdown is doing to these young people who naturally experience loneliness and apprehension in terms of social interaction. The caseload is daunting. There are an estimated 30,000 youth countywide who fall into this social spectrum, 20,000 of whom reside in foster care, and another 10,000 living in either family, group or probation homes. Then there are the youth who eventually “age out” of the system. After they reach the age of 18, their plight is not always a happy one.

“Many foster kids end up homeless or incarcerated for a variety of reasons,” Julian explained. “Once they leave the foster care system, they unfortunately have little to no experience or skillset to venture out on their own. They sometimes fall prey to the ‘streets’ (e.g. drugs, prostitution, homelessness) and can find themselves in terrible situations.

CASA-LA, also located in Lancaster, is among the largest of regional programs in a national and state-wide network serving children in foster care. Studies have shown that foster youth connected with CASA-LA advocates receive more assistance than children without these services. They are more likely to be adopted or returned to their families. Equally important, these youth are less likely to re-enter the child welfare system.

On the opposite end, however, other studies have shown that children in the dependency court system face substantial obstacles in receiving the basic care that all children need: emotional support, parental guidance, and a stable and loving caregiver. More than that, foster children often lack appropriate education and vocational training, medical care, and the counseling they need to grow into productive adults.

Many foster youth suffer from medical or emotional trauma. Isolation, significantly exacerbated by the pandemic, can make matters worse.

What’s more, there are non-minor dependents to consider. Those in their late teens who are unlikely by then to be adopted. In short order, they experience housing difficulties—especially now—and have little recourse from “hustling” or doing what they can to survive the mean streets of LA and beyond.

Julian said her organization alleviates the feelings of abandonment and alienation that can scar young lives. This is done, she explained, by “harnessing the compassion and generosity” of caring adults or “one caring adult to one child in need—that can be the turning point in a life that has been disrupted,” Julian said.

Children in foster care have conflicting loyalties and lost dreams, thereby making the holidays an even more difficult time. Foster youth often report feeling especially vulnerable, lonely and sad at a time when most kids their age feel exactly the opposite. The holiday season reminds them that they are not with their biological family. Often this is a blessing. Other times, it is a curse.

Julian further explained that, sometimes, foster children tend to “pull away” and withdraw during the holidays. This detachment, she noted, is not intended to be an insult or a reflection of how they may feel about their new parents, but rather they seek more one-on-one time for personal reflection and reassurance that they are loved and appreciated. The busy holiday schedule doesn’t always allow for this interaction.

There are ways that the foster family can help remedy this dilemma. If you are a foster parent, try these tips suggested by CASA-LA:

— Ask the child if there are any traditions their family had and decide if these good memories can be included into your traditions;

— Ask the child if they have any concerns about the holidays. A “big heart” and a hug can soothe the anxiety they may be feeling;

— Facilitate visits with loved ones. The holidays are about giving and thinking of others. If the child doesn’t get to connect with fond memories, the point of the holidays may be lost on them;

— If at all possible, extend an invitation to the biological family members. While the pandemic may prevent a large sit-down dinner, you can communicate via social media to make sure the child stays in touch with loved ones;

— Assist in purchasing or making holiday gifts, or in sending cards to their family and friends. This can go a long way into making the child feel at home as well as being an integral member of the family;

— Finally, help the child make sure their loved ones are okay. Knowing that relatives and friends have the basic needs may ease a young person’s mind through the always-emotional holidays.