Hang in There

February 26, 2019
Vicky Garafola, LCSW

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Fostering Families Today and is reposted with permission.

At age 14, I had been working at a restaurant for a few months when I decided I was going to commit suicide by going into the restroom during my shift and taking an entire bottle of pills. When I finished swallowing all the pills, I continued bussing tables until I felt an urge to tell my manager what I had done. He called 911, and I was hospitalized for over a week. I was sure I had lost my job, which I enjoyed, but to my surprise, when I called the restaurant, he told me to get better so I could come back to work.

That job became a stable part of my life, which was often chaotic, with family conflicts, me struggling with my identity, and eventually my parents moving across the country and me living with my grandmother. I worked there until I went to college. I think the stability of that job, and the bond I formed with my coworkers and the manager gave me a sense of belonging, and helped me survive those drama-filled years. I am still in touch with the restaurant owner, who became like a mentor, and am grateful for the second chance and support I was given.

That and other experiences, led me to want to be a therapist so I could help others, similar to how I had been helped. My first internship was in a group home, where I saw many teenagers age out of the system with no permanent home or stability. While I started out thinking I could help through therapy, I quickly learned that these kids were extremely resilient, but due to different circumstances, were unable to find permanency through adoption or reunification.

When I was 26, a juvenile justice ­involved youth I was mentoring through a program called Girls and Gangs was struggling with homelessness, and ended up moving in with me. At age 27 I went through the process to become a foster parent through Los Angeles County, and have had anywhere from two to four youth living with me at any given time since then. I also continue to work as a clinical supervisor for a nonprofit that focuses on the mental health needs of kids who have experienced trauma.

As a foster parent, sometimes it can feel that we are battling every system to help these youth get a fair shot. Not only are we working with the youth’s behaviors and trauma history, but also school concerns, legal issues, court dates, visitations and general bureaucracy. At times it can seem overwhelming. I think the hardest time for me was when I gave a seven-day notice (when a foster parent asks a social worker to move a child from their home and move them to another home) on a child because I felt like I could not manage her behavior and keep her safe. I felt like I had failed her, since I always wanted to be there unconditionally.

While at the time I felt like giving a seven-day notice was the best route, that child’s behaviors became more dangerous after leaving, and she went to three more placements after my home, with her finally landing in a short-term residential treatment program, where she continues to work on transitioning to a lower level of care like a foster home.

Children with challenging behaviors and backgrounds can be difficult to parent, but if somehow you can ride the wave of whatever is causing the most drama at the time, things do get better. Kids naturally start improving when they feel a sense of stability and security, and they will test limits for several different reasons. They might prefer to feel in control, and like they got themselves removed from a placement, rather than being moved without knowing when or why. They also might have experienced so much trauma that they are still in fight or fight mode, which might have been adaptive at one time, but now is causing them to react aggressively to perceived threats that are not current dangers. They might be adjusting to a new area, culture and rules while struggling with learning what is expected of them. It is important to figure out the underlying need behind their behaviors, and to be as nonjudgmental and consistent as possible.

While the classes to become a foster parent did help prepare me, I think what helped me more were the experiences I had interfacing with the mental health system in my childhood. My experience in the child mental health system included seven hospitalizations, having psychiatrists continuously changing my medication, resulting in me having been on 10 different medications at different points, the many switches of therapists, and the times I felt understood and safe, compared to the times I felt frustrated and crazy. What I came to learn is that someone does not need a degree to help a child succeed, but someone who is able to help that youth feel accepted and like they are worth something, like the manager of the restaurant I worked at, can help youth far more than any professional. All of these experiences, the good and the bad, prepared me for the challenges that come with being a foster parent.

The first youth who moved in with me almost four years ago went through many struggles. We wrote many behavior contracts with expectations, but she is still living here, working, and in college, and she is proud of herself for “beating the statistics.” The youngest child who ever moved in with me was 9 and also struggled with hospitalizations, similar to mine, but with a lot of support and effort, she is still in my home. She is now 12, more stable, and I am in the process of adopting her.

Every youth who has ever entered my home has had at least four previous placements, but some as many as 10. It’s no wonder that it is difficult to trust, difficult to adjust, and that challenging behaviors surface. A quote that stays with me, by Father Greg Boyle is, “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” This applies to more than just poverty, but also to trauma. If there is a way to stay there with a youth, and somehow manage to preserve their placement, that will help them more than any tutoring or therapy service.

As a young, single, lesbian, working, foster parent with my own history of mental health issues, I am not a typical foster parent. However, different youth in the system do better with different types of families, and there is no one-size-fits-all foster home. As foster parents we must try to figure out what works for the kids in our home, and for us, and to try and find peace that will help the child stay as long as they need to. If a situation with a child becomes challenged and a child must leave your home, it’s important to try to keep the relationship open. Their past relationships are everything, so whether it be prior placements, or biological family, try your best to keep that contact open, which will help them adjust and improve their self-esteem in the long run.

Never underestimate your impact on a child’s life, or the work that you are doing to improve outcomes, as a foster parent. Whether you find out your impact soon, in the long run, or you never do, just know how much any amount of stability and unconditional care can change the trajectory of a child. Even when it gets tough, seek support, hang in there, and hopefully the situation will improve over time.

Vicky Garafola, LCSW, is an LA County resource parent. Garafola graduated from UCLA with a degree in psychology and sociology. She earned a Masters in Social Work from USC, and currently works as a clinical supervisor at Children’s Institute. She lives in Compton with her family and is looking forward to finalizing her first adoption and also continuing to be there with her kids on their journeys.