Keeping a Sense of Culture for Kids in Care

Nov 01 2016

Keeping a Sense of Culture for Kids in Care

By Steven Olender

This weekend, twenty-two teens came to the CASA offices for a Teen Advocacy and Permanency Project Meet-Up. The event was themed around Dia de los Muertos, the traditional Mexican holiday honoring the dead and inviting their souls back to visit us. The teens heard from a speaker who explained the holiday and her own connection to it, and then they created their own decorative skull etchings. Some kids at the meet-up were familiar with Dia de los Muertos, having celebrated the holiday in their own homes, but other learned about it for the first time. The teens present had a chance to share with each other and discuss how they personally could incorporate elements into their own lives.

Programs like this are so vital to the work that we do because we have seen, firsthand, how important culture is for the kids that we serve. Children in the child welfare system often struggle to reconcile their own identities when they have been removed from their homes and the families and lives that they know. This struggle is only exacerbated when children are placed with families whose cultural identity does not match their own. "They walk into what is supposed to be home," explains Stephanie Weiss, Director of Advocacy. "Food is different. Smells are different. They can't communicate. It's another trauma."

The most impactful way that we can help mitigate this concern is by keeping children connected to their families. By utilizing our Family Finding program, we strive to find short term or adoptive placements with family members so that children not only can retain their sense of culture but also a sense of self. When they can't be placed with family, we want children to still maintain that connection. If it is safe for them to do so we advocate that kids get phone calls and visits with extended family members and with siblings who are placed in different homes. This can help kids hold onto their identities in the most authentic sense

However, our work advocating for children to retain a sense of culture does not end with placement or visitation rights. If children are placed with a family whose culture does not match their own, we work closely with families to encourage them to incorporate elements of the child's culture into their daily lives. In some cases, that can be as simple as just incorporating certain foods into the family meal plan. In others it can be as much as choosing a different school where children can feel similar to and comfortable with their peers.

In one recent case, the volunteer advocate has made it her mission to ensure that her CASA kid can still have her quinceañera despite being in foster care. She saw how important it was to the girl and also recognized that even if her time in foster care is temporary, missing this important event would be permanent. Her volunteer has tracked down donations for the girl's dresses and a venue for the event. It's something that the girl will be able to hold onto and have positive memories of, in spite of her current challenging situation.

By placing a focus on a child's culture, we acknowledge that their identity matters. Whether it is in large ways, like advocating for a familial placement, or in small ways, like etching decorative skulls, advocates know that helping children hold onto pieces of their culture leads to better outcomes. It is present in every facet of our work.