While I know that “It takes a village to raise a child” has become a tired cliche used to promote ideological purposes without ever being appropriately attributed to any specific “village” (to date, no one has figured out where this phrase actually originates from), you’ll have to forgive me when I say that I still really like it. This phrase evokes so many emotions--togetherness, collaboration, acceptance, worthiness, belonging. In current American culture, these feelings are critical, right? In fact, we often hear about what happens when our children do not grow up with lived experiences that invoke such emotions as belongingness or acceptance--the absence of them being powerful enough to derail whole lives. As a society, we have collectively accepted that a child who is surrounded by a caring and involved “village” is inherently more adjusted, more goal-oriented, more likely to make positive life choices, and more likely to develop positive self-worth and esteem. And well-adjusted individuals beget well adjusted individuals, right? Or so the sentiment goes.
When I started at Family Care Network over 18 years ago, I learned a lesson my very first week that has stayed with me ever since--is that it takes a lot of caring adults to replicate and/or rebuild a child’s “village;” a lot of professional and non-professional people are needed to properly care for a child who has experienced any number of traumas for any number of reasons which has resulted in them becoming involved in Child Welfare Services. It takes a stable and caring parent(s) (biological, foster, adoptive, or even a safe friend), an experienced therapist, an involved teacher (or several), a faithful friend (or more), experienced and present social workers and case managers; a healthy adult mentor and/or role model; one or more Rehabilitation Specialists who can teach coping, communication, life, and social skills; and a governing body over all these people to make sure each person in this child’s life is safe, stable, properly skilled, and appropriately meeting the child’s needs and planning for that child’s future. That’s a lot of people making up a pretty mighty village, right?
Sometimes a village this large and this skilled does the job; everything coalesce and the child brought into care is given all these supports and they flourish. But sometimes isn’t every time. And working in the world of human services, where humans do human things, success looks different for every child, every youth and, as a result, each one of us who support them. I could fill a book with all the issues that can derail a youth’s progress in care; it really runs the gamut from there not being enough engagement, enough staff, enough money, enough time, or enough something. But instead of getting derailed ourselves, I marvel at how our staff artfully bobs and weaves through our kids’ lives, side-stepping pitfalls, while trying creative solutions, staying consistent when consistency is the hardest to give, and building and rebuilding and then rebuilding yet again every youth’s village as their circumstances and needs change. FCNI staff are some pretty amazing acrobatic problem solvers.
And the village building--and rebuilding--doesn’t just involve our youth. FCNI is in the business of helping our families--biological and foster and adoptive--establish strong support systems so they can do the hard work of caring for a child or children who've experienced trauma or heal from trauma themselves. When a family or youth begin services, a lot of importance is placed on their “natural connections,” i.e., the people who surround them and are part of their everyday lives. Natural connections can include neighbors, friends, family members, fellow church members, coaches, and even teachers and coworkers. These are the people who know the youth and/or family best, and want the best for them. They are also the people willing to lend a hand, be a shoulder or sounding board, and offer their help in constructive ways so that those they’re supporting make progress and reach their goals in care. For a social worker or case manager, these natural connections are vital members of their children and family teams, as they’ll continue to be there when services are done.
For our families and youth especially, their natural connections often can make or break their progress and success. Imagine being a youth placed into foster care, and having to move into a stranger’s home. Suddenly, your surroundings are wholly unfamiliar--there are new rules, faces, scents, and sounds everywhere. You also have no idea why you’re there or how long you’ll be there, and no one else knows either. You long for something--anything--that is familiar to help ground you because otherwise you feel completely untethered. And these feelings can trigger a variety of reactions and behaviors in youth, some which only compact their living situation.
Likewise, our foster families and families receiving services, can feel equally untethered. Foster families, while greatly supported by the agency and staff, face a lot of unknowns when they welcome a new child into their home. And while they are trained to handle these unknowns, there are still a lot of emotions and challenges they have to process and deal with--their foster youth’s biological family members, new teachers and school staff, new workers coming in and out of their home, their personal time eaten up by team and school meetings, and the list goes on and on. Similarly, when a biological or other family starts services with FCNI, their challenges are broad and far reaching. They are often struggling to communicate with each other, their relationships are often strained or in crisis, and they may be struggling financially or even be unhoused. All of these obstacles and issues can make families feel isolated from others, including staff and other professionals trying to help them.
By ensuring that all FCNI families--foster, biological and others--have strong, supportive natural connections that they can trust and look to for help within their home communities is imperative and, as such, has become part of FCNI’s treatment planning process. We know that it takes a village outside of the professionals to make sure that healing and success is sustainable because families have a strong sense of belonging, acceptance, and safety long after they’ve parted ways with FCNI.
Rebuilding villages involves a lot of reassessing needs and redefining relationships, while also helping youth and families improve communication, coping, and social skills. And it cannot be done without active team members who lend lots of hands, ideas, and tangible help. Helping looks like transporting kids, making meals, folding laundry, making connections to help with employment and/or housing, supporting a youth’s academic needs, fixing broken appliances and tending to gardens or pets, praying over circumstances, sitting with those who are hurting, sharing a laugh to brighten a day, or offering an ear when someone needs to vent--it is basically being a friend when a friend is most needed but also the most difficult to find.
Who doesn’t need a village, right?
Next week on our blog, we’ll share Lily’s story, demonstrating the power of natural connections for one youth who had no one left to turn to.