Plummer Home Blog

Welcome to Plummer’s blog. It’s about our work with children, and will focus especially on our foster care program, which finds safe and caring homes for kids who need them. Right now in Massachusetts, there’s a critical shortage of foster families. This blog aims to help people understand more about foster care: how it works, how you can become a foster parent, and what the experience is like from the perspective of both adults and children. It will try to dispel some myths about being a foster parent and offer parenting tips for foster parents or anyone caring for a child. We’ll also interview foster parents and kids in foster care, as well as professionals in the field – caring people who want to help kids get through a tough time in their lives.

Foster Parenting Dilemmas: Understanding Puzzling Behaviors

Girl with suitcaseAll children and teenagers exhibit challenging behaviors at times. Usually parents have an idea where such behaviors are coming from. Is the child hungry, cranky, or perhaps experiencing typical challenges and insecurities of the teenage years?

When we understand a behavior, it’s easier to respond in a way that is helpful for the child and comfortable for the parent. Often foster children act in ways that seem to make no sense to their foster parents. A young foster child who is desperate for playmates may consistently push away other children. Or an adolescent foster daughter may act out before an event she has been eagerly anticipating. A foster child may hoard food in his room, attracting both “critters” and the confusion of his foster parents, who provide plenty of food for their family.

A concept called the “invisible suitcase” can be a helpful way to understand such puzzling behaviors: http://bit.ly/1T1cDWR. Children in foster care typically bring with them just a few physical possessions, but along with that they bring the sum total of all of their life experiences. These experiences are the contents of the invisible suitcase.

If a child has learned that he’s not lovable, he carries that feeling in the invisible suitcase he brings to his foster home. And he’ll likely act accordingly as if to ensure that others affirm his negative view of himself. If a child has learned that she can’t trust adults, she carries that in her invisible suitcase and may be resistant to trusting a new adult in her life.

Rest assured, it’s not personal! The behavior that makes no sense to you likely makes perfect sense to your foster child.

You can help unpack that invisible suitcase. Over time, as you provide a healing, loving and consistent set of experiences, the contents of the suitcase will disappear. This will help your foster child let go of the suitcase and move on to tackling the more typical challenges of growing up. We’ll address some specific strategies for managing challenging behaviors in foster care in a future post.

And remember, you’re not alone. These puzzling behaviors can be difficult to manage. Reach out to fellow foster parents and to the social worker at your foster care agency.

Note: For more information on the concept of the invisible suitcase check out http://bit.ly/1T1cDWR on the website of The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

When Foster Parents Get Children on Short Notice

Foster parents don’t always have time to get to know a child who is coming to live with them. In fact, it is sometimes only a few hours between when a child is removed from their home to when they arrive at the home of a foster family. So how can you help your foster child settle in?

Start by explaining your routines so the child gets a sense of how your family operates. Remember that every family has different ways of organizing their lives. Some families have mealtime routines which involve even young children in food preparation, setting the table and cleanup. In other families children are called to the table when it is time to eat and are not expected to do much more than clear their plate after eating. Both routines are perfectly normal and work well for most families. For a foster child in a new home your “normal” routine may be totally different from anything he or she has known in his previous home.

children-403582_1280Explain bit by bit how things work in your home and give him a reminder before he is expected to participate in a family routine. For example, saying that there will be fifteen more minutes before the television is turned off lets him know what to expect and protects him from feeling caught off guard. He still may not want the television turned off but he will have been given a chance to prepare for it.

Moving into a new environment where everything is unfamiliar can be overwhelming for anyone. Patiently helping your foster child “learn the ropes” of your home can make a big difference.

It’s also helpful to ask him how he is used to doing things. Especially with older children and teens it may be important to be flexible whenever possible about smaller things. Getting homework done is a non-negotiable; where it gets done may be something you can flex on.

At Plummer we appreciate how hard our foster families work to welcome new children into their homes. Explaining your family’s routines and demonstrating how things work in your home will help your new foster child feel comfortable and accepted. And that’s good for everyone.

Foster Youth and Grief

boy 2A child in the foster care system gets angry, acts out, or has a temper tantrum. They are labeled as “difficult” or “oppositional.”

But could these behaviors be an expected symptom of their grief?

Shenandoah Chefalo writes about this very topic in Youth Today. She convincingly argues that while we often allow for outbursts of a grieving person after the death of a loved one, we are not as likely to have that same understanding for a tough youth in foster care that may have lost all they have known and is familiar to them.

She reminds us that “These children have suffered a tremendous loss — a deep sadness and grief that often goes unrecognized and leads to deeper traumas.” It encourages those who care for youth in the system to remember that one of the most important roles of foster parents involves helping youth identify and cope with their grief.

To read more of Chefalo’s article, click here.

Fostering Older Youth: Let the Healing Begin

“Kids need families to grow up – that’s just what they need.” 

girl-676185_1280That’s what a Plummer foster youth said and we believe it’s true, no matter the age or circumstance of the young person in care. Sadly, thousands of youth exit the foster care system every year without a family to call their own. They often face homelessness, unemployment and worse. People who foster teens and older youth can help make sure this doesn’t happen.

Many older youth in foster care have been moved over and over again. They’ve grown up thinking that their next move may be just around the corner. That just one mistake can lead to them being moved from their current foster home into another, or into a group home. In all likelihood they’ve changed schools repeatedly and fallen behind.  We know that bouncing from place to place like this, never knowing who they will be living with next, makes it difficult for foster youth to trust anyone.

Adults who foster these young people are in a position to make a profound difference. When a youth in foster care begins to understand that someone is committed to stopping them from bouncing around the foster care system and is determined to help them find a permanent family, it frees her to begin to heal.

Plummer’s goal is for a Plummer foster home to be a young person’s last foster home. This doesn’t mean the foster parent(s) will adopt. What it means is that the foster parent(s) understand how harmful it is for a child to keep bouncing around from place to place and are willing to do the best they can to make their home the last stop before that child finds a permanent family. Sometimes the foster family may indeed become the permanent family, most times they will not.

We know we are raising the bar for foster care. We’re doing it because we deeply believe it’s what is best for kids. We provide our foster families extra support to hang in through the tough times. Foster youth do best when a permanent family is the goal for them. The path to that permanent family is through a committed foster family.

Imagine changing a child’s life course from one headed toward homelessness to one headed toward a forever family. Won’t you join us in changing lives?

Taking Care of yourself as a Foster Parent

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parent self careAs a foster parent, it can be easy to fall into the belief that all of our time, attention, and emotional energy should be focused on your children. After all, their needs are great: they may be recovering from trauma, they may have special needs, and at the very least they will need lots of support to feel comfortable and accepted in a new household. At the end of a long day, it can be easy for foster parents to forget to take care of themselves.

But there is good reason to strive for balance. After all, healthy families are created when all family members, adults and children alike, feel listened to, loved, and taken care of. It may be difficult, but as a parent it is extremely important to ask for the space, time and opportunity to care for yourself.

One way to start is by building your support system. Talking with friends, family or professionals will allow you to express any powerful emotions, such as frustration, sadness or fear, before they build into stress that can affect your health.  Friends and family can also provide concrete support, such as watching your children when you want to take some time to get a haircut, do some fun shopping, or visit with friends.  Don’t be afraid to ask!

Even during the busiest days, taking care of yourself can be as easy as actively seeking out moments of joy. Download some of your favorite songs to your smart phone and listen to them in the car when driving between errands and appointments. Turn a grocery store run into a scavenger hunt for your kids, making up silly clues along the way. Throw a dance party in your living room. Keep a book by your bedside and read a page of two before going to sleep. Incorporating positive times into your routine will be easier if you start with the little things.

Foster parents deserve to take time for themselves. Nurturing and caring for a foster child can be some of the most demanding and worthy work that anyone can do. Building care for yourself into your life will teach your children the importance of the cultivation of joy, respect for one’s self, and setting limits so that the family works for everyone. It can be easy to forget how much our children learn from the examples that we set for them. Make sure you set an example by taking care of yourself.

Making Birth Family Visits Successful for Your Foster Child

dad-909510_1280Birth family visits are important for children in foster care. They allow family connections to stay strong. They can reassure both children and adults that the people they care about are still part of their lives even if they aren’t living together. Children and youth in foster care who have regular contact with their birth families have fewer fantasies about the families they have been separated from and may be better able to understand that they can care for both birth and foster families.

At the same time, birth family visits can be a source of stress. Birth parents may feel that a scheduled visit is a test of their ability to care for their child. Foster children may worry about their birth families and feel guilty about the things available to them in their foster home. Foster parents may worry about how their foster child will handle the pressure of a birth family visit and if the experience will make it harder for their child to thrive in their foster family.

As a foster parent, there are things you can do to help make these visits easier. Begin with the understanding that although your foster son or daughter may not be able to talk about it, he or she may struggle with feelings of being caught between two families. These feelings may get worse before or after birth family contact. You can gently acknowledge these feeling by telling your foster child that you know it can be hard for him or her to go back and forth between families.

Also, be openly supportive of the birth family contact. Let your foster child know you are glad he or she is going to spend time with birth family. Help your foster child prepare for the visit and send him or her off with your encouragement. Let them know what will be happening in your home after their return.

Some kids need a quiet transition time after returning from a birth family visit. They may need to “chill” in their room and rejoin the family after some time has passed. Others may want to fill you in on the details of their visit right away. Ask older kids directly what is helpful for them.

In any case, give them some time to unwind and understand that feelings and thoughts about their birth families are never far away. Your ongoing respect of their birth family connections is one of the many things you can do to make birth family contact a positive experience for everyone involved.

Families for Life – Why all kids need them and how foster parents can help

planTeenagers don’t need families. They don’t even want families.

Really?

Sometimes that’s what people think. And if a teen actually expresses this sentiment, it is tempting to accept their statements at face value. This can lead to tragic consequences for young people in the foster care / group care system.

When young people leave the child welfare system with no family to count on, nobody they know is committed to them forever, the outcomes are grim. High rates of homelessness, unemployment, early parenting – you name it.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. When you don’t have a family, who teaches you even the most basic life skills? Who explains how to find an apartment, and be a responsible tenant? Who teaches you how to manage money? Or about the importance of brushing your teeth?

Youth in foster care and group care live in an unpredictable world in which they have no say over what happens to them. Strangers make decisions that profoundly impact a young person’s life – judges, social workers, teachers, lawyers, foster parents – people trying to do the right thing but who, at the end of the day, have no long-term commitment to, or responsibility for, the child.

At Plummer Home, we believe that all young people — including teenagers — need permanent families and we place a high priority on making this happen. For that reason, our group care and foster care programs place a high priority on connecting kids with permanent families. To be sure, we spend a lot of time teaching them skills and helping them connect with community — two other things necessary for success – but we never give up on finding family. This is as true for our 13 years olds as it is for our 21 year olds.

If you become a foster parent with Plummer, our goal is that you will be the last foster placement for that child. That doesn’t mean you will provide the child’s permanent home, but is does mean that you believe, as we do, that repeated moves are harmful. And that you will help us achieve the goal of finding a permanent place for your foster child. Our goal is a permanent family, one that doesn’t disappear when a kid turns a certain age. Parents are forever.

To learn more about fostering, call us at 978-935-9555 or visit us at plummerhome.org/fostercare. Your love can make all the difference. Thank you!

Connecting: The Gift of Aaron Katz

connecting

“Music has been my life path since I was very little. To be able to meet a kid that doesn’t have that and then to help them find it and help them find themselves is incredibly rewarding. It’s such a gift.” So says Aaron Katz, Plummer Home and On Point Music Program Leader.

“We are constantly trying different ways to engage our kids” says Executive Director James Lister, “it’s a major component to running a good residential program. Kids come to us with a variety of pasts, and it’s really difficult to engage them and really difficult for them to trust us.”

When I think about Aaron, “I see such a talented musician but also recognize that there’s a lot of talented musicians, and not everyone can engage our kids in a way that Aaron can. And the combination together is very, very powerful.”

One could say that Katz was born with drumsticks in his hands. Both his parents were musicians, his father a drummer and his mother a singer and music therapist. Katz has been playing the drums, teaching himself piano and composing songs for as long as he can remember.

By the time he reached Worcester Academy High School, he was playing in both school and community venues, including his high school jazz band and in orchestra pits for local community musicals. At age 16, Katz secured his first professional paid gig.

Katz received a full music scholarship to the University of New Hampshire. Just one semester short of graduation, the opportunity of a life-time came up and he left college to pursue his dream of being a full-time professional musician writing music and playing drums for his band Percy Hill. Katz played with Percy Hill for over 10 years, touring the country professionally and gaining a large fan base.

State house performance

Katz credits those 10 years on the road as having taught him some valuable life lessons because “once you’ve literally lived in a van with a bunch of musicians you’ve seen just about everything.”

In 2007 Katz started playing with Callie Lipton in a new band called “The Dejas” and he moved to Salem, MA. He put up advertisements that were seen by the Plummer Home program director and Katz was hired part-time to start building a music program.

“It can be very emotional for me to see the kids take music on and become one with it, because it means so much to me,” says Katz.

When asked to think of a word that starts with “C” to conclude our “Key of C” campaign, Katz says “I would definitely say connection, because we’re learning to connect to ourselves, we’re learning to connect to others, we’re learning to connect to something bigger than ourselves, which humbles us and allows us to fully experience the human experience.”

Aaron says working with the kids is like getting a gift. Here at Plummer, we feel like he is the gift.

Please click here to donate to the Plummer Home music program and help some of the most vulnerable kids around receive the gift of music.

Music Gives Me Courage

courage

When Plummer Home asked me to write a blog post for the Key of C Campaign, one word came to mind: Courage. Because music has given me courage.

Music is something I never thought I would be doing. When I came to Plummer Home in the summer of 2014, I had been to many programs, but this one was different to me. I still can remember my first time in the music room. It started with me playing drums and ended with me writing two different songs in about 3 hours.

 

 

I have a history, and it is not the greatest, but that is what makes the music. It helps me because I am able to tell my story without being judged. I know for me music gives a chance to share my story that I would not have been able to do if it was not for it.

 

See my interview on WCVB Chronicle.

Chronicle screenshot

In the Plummer music program I learned to control my feelings in a song and tell in it there. I felt that Aaron, the music teacher, was like another father figure because I really did not have one until the age 18, when I finally got to talk with my biological father. Aaron showed me so many things, like the best way for me to channel my thoughts was through speech and go from there.

Aaron and Chris playing keyboard

The Plummer music program gave me the courage to share what I have to say in either a song or a speech. After a while, Plummer gave me the chance to do two public speaking gigs and each time I had to get told to come down because I have so much to say and I love speaking in front of people now.

The Plummer music program made a teen with a lot of anger to an adult with many dreams. Today I am attending Salem State University and am still in close contact with Plummer Home.

I hope you will consider giving to the Key of C Campaign so other kids with histories like mine can get the same benefits.

Celebrating Holidays with your Foster Children

Christmas cookiesChristmas and Hanukkah can be a joyous time for most, but for many youth in foster care the holiday season can also bring added stress and anxiety.

Dr. John DeGarmo, a foster parent as well as a professional in the field, talks about his experiences fostering youth over the holidays in Foster Focus Magazine. He writes,

 “When they wake up Christmas morning, and are surrounded by people who just may be strangers to them, strangers who are laughing and having fun, it can be a very difficult time for them, indeed. To be sure, it is a day that is a stark reminder to these children that they are not with their own family. It is during the holidays when families are supposed to be together, yet these children in care are not. They are not with their families, and they may not know when they will see them next.”

Dr. DeGarmo gives tips to foster parents on how to help youth through these difficulties. He reminds families that it is expected that some youth will regress during the holidays and revert back to old behaviors or attitudes. Dr. DeGarmo believes that allowing youth their own space to grieve is of utmost importance.

He also recommends that families prepare the foster youth for the holiday by talking about their family’s traditions and asking youth what their own traditions might be. Adding a child’s traditions shows the youth that you care about them and respect their birth family.

To see more of Dr. DeGarmo’s suggestions click here.