Empowerment + Agency

There are two words that have become very instrumental in shaping the lens through which I understand my role as a foster parent:


Empowerment refers to “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.”

Agency refers to “a means of exerting power or influence; instrumentality.”

All children need to feel a sense of empowerment and control in their lives. They need to feel like they have a say in the matter, that their voice counts.

All children need this—but children in foster care need this most of all.

Children in foster care have had everything familiar taken from them, as well as the opportunities to have a voice in the biggest aspects of their daily life (where they live, where they go to school, who is taking care of them, etc.) This leaves children feeling frustrated, depressed, angry, and confused.

Foster parents would do well to find ways to help rebuild these kids’ sense of empowerment and agency.

In this video, I give a simple look at how these two concepts inform my approach to children in my care. This is just a starting point, of course—there are so very many ways foster parents can help to give the kids in their care a sense of empowerment and agency. In this video, I talk about how to do it in the home. I did not even begin talking about how to help foster youth feel empowered to advocated for themselves outside your home—with social workers, educators, etc.

I hope you find this insightful as you consider how to support and relate to the children in your care!

The Foster Parent’s Glossary: CASA or GAL

casa_logoI speak Spanish, and now that my daughter is enrolled in a Spanish-immersion pre-school, I get to practice often. So when I hear someone say, “Does your kid have a CASA?” I think to myself, “Um, yes! We have a HOUSE!”

Um, different CASA.

If you’re involved in foster care, a CASA is a “Court-Appointed Special Advocate,” and if you have a foster child, you want them to have a CASA. Or, in some states, a GAL (Guardian Ad Litem.)

What is a CASA or GAL? What does (s)he do?

CASA/GAL volunteers are appointed by judges to watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children, to make sure they don’t get lost in the overburdened legal and social service system or languish in inappropriate group or foster homes. Volunteers stay with each case until it is closed and the child is placed in a safe, permanent home. For many abused children, their CASA/GAL volunteer will be the one constant adult presence in their lives. (www.casaforchildren.org)

That’s the official description.

But from experience, I can tell you that a great CASA/GAL comes to their kids’ birthday parties and soccer games. (S)he comes to your house to get to know the kids (and make sure they get to know her). (S)he shows up to court every time there’s a hearing (and there are a lot of hearings) even if you, the foster parent, can’t make it. (S)he goes to the last-known address of the birth parents to try to connect with them, to get to know them as well. (S)he prepares reports (including photos) and makes recommendations. (S)he is invested in the lives of her/his cases.

In an ideal world, every foster child would automatically have a CASA/GAL. (Well, in an ideal world, there would be no foster children, but stay with me here.) In an ideal world, every foster child would have a CASA/GAL, but the thing is, CASAs and GALs are volunteers, and there are simply not enough CASAs or GALs to ensure that every foster child will have one. (When our children had been with us for ten months, something came up that concerned me. They did not have a CASA, so I began calling the main CASA office in my city. That’s when I was told that there are about 500 CASA volunteers in my state for the nearly 10,000 children placed each year in foster care. Every CASA would have to take on twenty children in order for each of them to be represented, which is completely unfeasible.)

I have spoken with foster parents who either had no CASA or had a less-than-awesome one. Keep in mind, these folks are volunteers. Some volunteers take their jobs as seriously as if they were making six-figures to get the job done (that was the case with ours). Some, unfortunately, give their cases the bare minimum. Either way, it’s important to have as much support as you possibly can for your kids. If they come to you and don’t have a CASA, do what you can to get them one. Make phone calls. Be a squeaky wheel. (To find the CASA office in your state or county, Google “CASA in (your state).”

To learn more about what CASAs and GALs do, click here.

To learn more about becoming a CASA or GAL, click here.

To read one woman’s story about the difference a CASA can make in a foster child’s life, check out Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s memoir, “Three Little Words.” 

To get a broader, more dramatic idea of what CASAs and GALs do, the TV show The Guardian is a great intro. (It’s included with Amazon Prime 🙂

The Foster Parent’s Glossary: AMYGDALA

eqbrain_optical_stim_enI have never studied neuroscience. I was a music major, and later a communications major, so neither focus of my studies involved studying the brain (except for some cursory info on how music impacts the brain). But when I became a foster parent, I quickly realized that I needed to become a student of the brain.

One word that has come up often as I have studied how to parent children who have experienced trauma early in life (from the womb, in fact), is the word “amygdala.” Perhaps you are familiar with this, but in case you’re not, here’s a bit of info that will be very helpful in understanding some of things you might experience as you parent your foster children.

This post from the blog Neurons Firing gives a simple, brief explanation of what the amygdala is and how it functions. In brief, “The amygdala deals with our emotions, helps process our memories, and gets totally absorbed in managing our response to fear and stress.”

This Time magazine article explains how childhood trauma affects brain development and can have a lasting impact on behavior well into adulthood. The author writes, “Painful experiences early in life can alter the brain in lasting ways. A difficult reality for psychiatrists and counselors ofchild abuse is that young victims are at high risk of becoming offenders themselves one day, although it’s unclear why. But now a team of behavioral geneticists in Switzerland report a possible reason: early psychological trauma may actually cause lasting changes in the brain that promote aggressive behavior in adulthood.”

And lastly, this article from Empowered to Connect goes into more detail about the implications of the specific types of trauma (abuse and neglect) that many foster children experience. They offer this encouraging conclusion: “While it is true that many children who come from the hard places have the appearance of mental illness, we are confident from our decade of research based intervention development that many children have “crazy” behaviors which can be disarmed by disarming their belief that they are cornered in a hard place and by disarming the work of the amygdala and other primitive brain structures that keep the child in a chronic Fight, Flight, or Freeze mode. Data from our camp and from our intensive home program provide documentation that our children’s stress hormone, cortisol, can be cut in half in a period of days when they feel safe. In addition, data from our research document the fact that the excitatory neurotransmitters that drive mental illness can be cut in half when a child knows that they are safe.”

I cannot emphasize how helpful this information has been when it has come to parenting children in our home who have experienced early trauma. While we do use things like consequences and natural outcomes to teach our children, we have come to see that no amount of conversation or consequences will affect our kids’ behavior if they are operating from a place of panic (fight, flight, or freeze). They are incapable of being rational or even hearing us in those moments. As we have focused on helping them feel safe and connected, we have seen great progress.