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“Hard to Place,” Not Hard to Love

By:  Tzivy Ross, CSW

Coordinator, Homefinding & Outreach, OHEL Children’s Home & Family Services

In the New York City child welfare system, with thousands of abused and/or neglected children in need of foster homes, there are children that are known as “hard to place.”  These are children for whom it has historically been especially difficult to find foster homes for.  “Hard to place” children include sibling groups, minority children, children with special needs and adolescents, who will be the focus of this article. 

Adolescents in need of foster care are generally regarded as “hard to place” by definition.  Many of these teens would benefit tremendously from the structure, support, consistent attention and positive emotional experience that residing within the loving care of a foster family would provide.  Frequently, these children have been through traumatic experiences within their own families that are characterized by conflict and perceived rejection.  They are left hurting, vulnerable and defensive.  Yet they cling to the hope and promise that residing within a new family environment can provide. 

Imagine having to tell these children, “we’re sorry, but we can not find a foster home for you.”   The way that most children interpret these words is “There is not a single family who is willing to take me in.”  How painful a rejection for a child who has already been rejected!  The meaning for these children is clear:  “Nobody wants me.”  Hard to place equals hard to love.  For these children, they often can not help but conclude that impossible to place means impossible to love.

A View From The Inside

At OHEL our “hard to place” adolescents occasionally do have behaviors that can be especially intimidating to potential families, such as oppositional-defiance, persistent running away, inappropriate dress and/or sexual behavior.  In these situations, in our search for a suitable foster home we will often ask the child in question:  “Help us out.  Pretend you are calling from Ohel and trying to find a home for yourself.  How would you describe yourself?  What would be important for a family to know about you?”  This is beneficial as it gives us insight into the individual child and his or her behavior and feelings.  More importantly, it gives these children the opportunity to see themselves through the lens that they wish to be viewed, to become open to their own possibilities, freeing them from the limitations of their previously established “labels” and behavior.

Among the responses that we have received are the following:

•    “I need a family to understand that sometimes I need to tune out and just go to sleep for a few days straight.  Not to ignore everyone, just to take a break from all the pain.”
•    “People think that I don’t care about anything, but that’s not true, I care about a lot of things.”
•    “I run away a lot, but they shouldn’t get scared because I always come back.”
•    “I get p----ed off a lot, but that’s just my job.”
•    “People get weird about the way I dress, but I’m just trying to be me.
•    “Sometimes I really need to be left alone.  I need my space, but then when I don’t want to be alone I want them to care and be there for me.”

These responses represent “hard to place” adolescents who are much more than the sum total of their age, category and behaviors.  They are children who have all been through painful experiences and are seeking safety, acceptance and understanding.  In fact many of their responses represent their struggle toward individuality, separation-individuation and identity formation, which are typical of all adolescents.  These teens have lacked the secure foundation and internalized sense of caring that many other children have been fortunate to have, and thus their struggles are certainly intensified, yet not insurmountable.

What Are We Looking For In a Foster Home?

Caring for an adolescent foster child is certainly not for everyone.  What is needed is an endless amount of patience, commitment toward the process and most importantly, an ability to be fully accepting of the adolescent.

Acceptance

Acceptance means finding something likable and admirable about an adolescent who may be doing everything in his or her power to behave in an unlikable way, and conveying that to him or her in a genuine manner.  Acceptance, however, does not mean permissiveness.  Acceptance means setting appropriate limits on the child’s behavior while still demonstrating caring toward the child.  It means being realistic in your limit-setting, for example, forbidding certain forms of dress within the parameters of your home or in front of your family but not forbidding it completely before the child is ready to relinquish it.

Acceptance means not being easily shocked or manipulated by an adolescent’s acting-out or experimentation, and not taking personally the choices that an adolescent makes while in your home.  It means being able to enforce a consequence for an unacceptable behavior while still conveying an understanding and empathy for the child’s underlying need behind his or her behavior. 

Acceptance means being realistic in your emotional expectations for your foster child.  It means investing emotionally into a child who has been hurt or rejected in the past, without making excessive emotional demands in return before he or she is capable of meeting them.
Finally, acceptance means being able to lend the child the feeling that even though his or her behaviors render them “hard to place,” you understand that he or she is very deserving and capable of being a child that is very much loved.

What is Required?

Ohel faces a shortage of foster homes for adolescent foster children.  We welcome inquiries from families who are interested in caring for this population as well as for all foster children, ages newborn-21.  Ohel provides extensive orientation and training to all families interested in caring for foster children.  A stipend and expenses for clothing, medical needs and tuition are provided by Ohel for a foster child that is in your home. 

It is our hope that no child, irrespective of his or her difficulty, be turned away by Ohel for lack of a foster home.  It is our experience that often those children who are the most “hard to place,” when given the safe haven of a loving and accepting foster home, can ultimately become the very adults who will give us and our community the greatest amount of nachas.  We eagerly await your call.

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