What Is An Ombudsman and Why Does It Matter?

According to this story from The Roanoke Times, Virginia has just voted to become one of the more than twenty states to hire a children’s ombudsman as part of their child welfare department. What is an ombudsman, and why does it matter?

The National Conference of State Legislatures describes the role of a children’s ombudsman like this:

“an independent, impartial public official with authority and responsibility to receive, investigate or informally address complaints about government actions, and, when appropriate, make findings and recommendations, and publish reports[iii]” 

National Conference of State Legislatures Web Site

An ombudman is a confidential mediator—a neutral go-between and advocate—who has the authority to influence systemic change. Within the system of child welfare, an ombudsman is someone (or an office of someones) parents, foster parents, case managers, social workers, teachers, principals, and even foster youth can go to for help resolving disputes or escalating concerns, with a strong emphasis on addressing systemic concerns.

It is not uncommon for foster families to have problems with their local social service offices, but have no place to go with those complaints. It is no secret that social services offices can be a bureaucratic nightmare, and while the system is filled with hard-working, well-intentioned individuals, the bottom line is that most of those individuals are working against incredible odds, with impossible case loads and constantly moving parts. Because of this, complaints can often be passed around or fall through the cracks without being addressed.

Moreover, while this has never been my experience, and I have worked with incredible case managers who took my concerns seriously and showed incredible support for the children in our care, I have spoken with other foster parents who have not had the same experiences I’ve had. These foster parents have feared retaliation if they complained about how their foster child’s case was being handled. The ombudsman office is meant to offer a place where foster parents can bring their complaints without fear of how it might affect their license or placements.

If you are a foster parent and have a concern about the way your foster child’s case is being managed, start by exploring whether your state has an ombudsman. If it does, get in touch. This web site lists all current state ombudsman offices along with their contact information (you have to scroll to the bottom).

And if your state does not have a children’s ombudsman, write to your state legislators and encourage them to create an office as part of their department of child welfare. It is vital that the systems put in place to manage the well being of vulnerable children have the necessary checks and balances and accountability in place to ensure that no child’s well-being falls through the cracks.

Featured Photo by Michael on Unsplash

Story Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

From Cuddler to CASA

I have lost count of the number of times someone has told me that they really want to be involvd in foster care, and they really care about foster youth,  but they are not in a season of life where they can be foster parents. They wonder how they can help.

How can you make a difference in the life of a foster youth without being a foster parent?

There are a number of ways to answer that question, and my guest in Episode 17 of A Fostered Life Podcast talks about two of them. Laura was a volunteer cuddler in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for years before being introduced to a desperate need in the foster care system after caring for one particular baby for several months. She went through the training and eventually became a CASA – a Court Appointed Special Advocate.

Over the six-plus years Laura has spent as a CASA, she has served over twenty-three children, and in today’s episode, she’s going to share what that experience has been like and what you might expect if you are considering becoming a CASA.

I am so grateful for the work that Laura and others have done and I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did!

5 Ways to Help Your Foster Youth Succeed in School

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Tomorrow is the first day of the new school year for students in Seattle.

For kids in foster care, school can either be a really safe, positive, and supportive space, or it can be yet another source of trauma and shame—or perhaps a mixture of both. Some children have to change schools each time they have a new placement. Some children are stigmatized for being in foster care. Some children lose days and weeks of education because of placement changes during the school year. Some children are so burdened with PTSD, depression, and anxiety that they find learning extremely difficult.

If you are a foster parent who has a child heading back to school, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Give them what they need to succeed. Take them back to school supply shopping armed with the list from their school. Let them pick out their notebooks and folders and backpacks. Make sure they have high-quality supplies. Don’t get them the cheap backpack that will fall apart or the cheap pencils that don’t write well. Make sure they have a space to study at home, and set a system in place to motivate them—perhaps a half hour with a favorite video game once homework is done. Make sure they have nice school clothes that they had a hand in picking out.

Find out what extracurriculars are available to them at school and make sure they know they have your support if they want to join. Things like after school drama club or sports can be exactly what a child in care needs to find a healthy sense of community and self esteem. If they need to get to school early or be picked up later in order to participate, find a way to make it happen for them. Give them every opportunity to have the full school experience!

Coach them on getting enough sleep and eating well. This doesn’t happen overnight, but it is so important. Perhaps for older kids this means letting them know that the internet will be off from 10 PM to 7 AM so they are not online into the wee hours of the night. For younger kids, this means having a set and steady routine.

Be in touch with their teachers and try to stay ahead of academic challenges they are facing. If your child is behind, talk with their teachers and social worker about what supports are available. In Washington, we have access to educational support for kids in foster care through Treehouse and other organizations that support youth in care. Take advantage of whatever is available. If your child is resistant to the support, those folks can often help come up with ways to motivate them. (This might be new to you as a foster parent, but it is not their first rodeo! Rely on their expertise!)

Let your child know you are with them and for them. Words of affirmation combined with thoughtful and intentional actions will go a long way! Try to speak supportive things to them throughout the week. Don’t just focus on how they’re doing in school… ask how they’re feeling about school. One way I love to do this is to share “Roses and Thorns” at dinnertime. What were the best parts of your day (roses) and what were the worst (thorns)? For ideas on how to connect with your kids in conversation, check out The Family Dinner Project for some ideas.

To hear more thoughts for foster parents on helping your foster children succeed in school, check out last week’s podcast! I chatted with Ernest Henderson, Jr., who is Associate Director of Eastern Washington Education Programs at Treehouse. Ernest is not only an education advocate for youth in foster care—he is also a former foster youth AND a former foster parent. He really knows his stuff and had some great insight to share!