Imagine that you are a six-year-old sitting at a dinner table with a family you just met. Unfamiliar faces and voices swirl around you in a confusing mix. You don’t understand why you’ve been brought to this home by strangers. Where are your parents and what did you do wrong that they gave you away to another family? The lady who told you she’s your foster mom puts a plate in front of you and tells you that it’s pork chops for dinner tonight. You stare at your plate in horror, unsure how to proceed. Your own mom has always told you that it’s impolite to not eat what someone gives you for dinner, but you’re not allowed to eat pork. The unfamiliar family starts to eat their food, but you sit there quietly, paralyzed with fear. Your stomach growls in hunger and you can’t remember the last time you had food. But how can you eat this dinner when you’ve always been told it’s not allowed? The lady who gave you the food asks you what is wrong, but you don’t have any words to answer her. The man at the table tells you that you don’t get to leave the table until you eat your dinner. The other kids eat their food and run off to play in the backyard before bed. But you’re not allowed to go with them because you haven’t eaten your food. What can you do? You are lost.
Now, imagine that you are a teenager and you’re living in a group home. It’s been a tough day; another kid in the home has been bullying you all week, and today one of your teachers told you that you will probably have to repeat their class for a second time because you can’t seem to keep up. That night you pull out the sweetgrass braid that your cousin gave you last year on your birthday and burn it to pray and purify after a long and hard day. Accidentally, you get too close to the fire alarm and it goes off in a blare of sound and flashing lights. The entire group home must be evacuated into the cold winter night and the fire department comes. The worst part is that a kid in your dorm tells everyone it was your fault that the alarm went off. You get into big trouble for having a lighter on campus and for burning something in your room. Worst of all, your sweetgrass is taken away, the last piece of your family that you had.
These are just two scenarios that illustrate how difficult a transition may be for children in foster care when they are removed from their homes and families. Often, a child’s background and cultural influences may not be fully considered when they enter the child welfare system. When that occurs, it can throw a child into more confusion and upheaval than they are already experiencing and may cause unnecessary conflict between parties on the case. As a Court Appointed Special Advocate for a child or group of siblings in foster care, you may encounter children of a religious or spiritual background that is different from your own. In those cases, how do you care for the unique needs of each child when they come from a different background?
One of CASA of Yellowstone County’s Core Values is Cultural Awareness, which states, “We embrace the power of diversity and actively seek opportunities to foster cultural competence throughout the CASA organization.” Religious and spiritual practices fall under the umbrella of cultural awareness because they frequently intersect with the cultural traditions of various populations. Working with an impressionable and vulnerable population such as children, CASAs need to have a strong sense of cultural awareness as well as a consciousness of their own experiences, beliefs and backgrounds. They need to remain open-minded and objective in working with a diverse population. When assigned to a case that has unfamiliar religious or spiritual aspects, it’s important to keep an open mind and be intentional in learning about traditions and beliefs.
CASAs are asked to assess the educational, medical, physical, social and emotional needs of a child. But one aspect that may be easily overlooked is the spiritual and religious background of a child. To clarify this point, as a CASA, it is not your role to meet the spiritual or religious needs of a child personally, nor is it your role to influence a child’s religious or spiritual beliefs by conforming them to your own. When we talk about advocating for children from different religious backgrounds, we are speaking to the point that CASAs can help children find grounding and community in familiar tradition, as well as anticipate conflict that may arise on a case due to religious differences or differences of opinion.
Consider how a child’s religion and spiritual practices will influence their resiliency and their day-to-day life in foster care. Community is an important aspect of resiliency. This includes many types of community – sports teams, classmates, a cultural community or a faith community. Any kind of consistent community can serve as a foundation to anchor children and give them a sense of belonging and identity. Children in foster care are especially in need of a sense of belonging and community to stay connected. Additionally, a community can help build that circle of caring adults and can be a good place to look for placement options if the child has no available family members to go to. If there are placement options available that are similar to the culture and beliefs that a child is familiar with, it could help with the transition for that child and give them a sense of normalcy and consistency. If a child from one religious background is placed into a home that has no understanding of the beliefs, practices and traditions of that religion, odds are the adjustment of both the foster parents and the child will be difficult. Think outside the box and find safe adults who can help build that resiliency with children in foster care. Even if those adults are not the foster placement for those children, they can still be a valuable resource and provide insight and support for a case.
When placing a child into a home of similar background is not an option, it is important to place a child into a home that is culturally competent and accommodating to a child and their family. This will aid in maintaining the integrity of the placement and help smooth that child’s transition to foster care. The likelihood of success for a foster placement may be dramatically impacted by the foster family’s willingness to allow a child to practice their religious traditions, if that is something the child desires. CASAs don’t always have a say in where the child will be placed, especially because there is often a lack of foster home options. But, anticipating conflict that may arise from religious differences and facilitating communication and collaboration could decrease the amount of times a child will be moved while in foster care. Some questions to think about when a child on your case is of a religious background might be: How will the biological family react to a placement? Is the placement willing to allow the child to practice their religion or spiritual beliefs? Can they facilitate the practices and traditions of the child’s religion? Are they willing to transport them to their place of worship and keep religious dietary standards? Although foster families are under no obligation to practice any religion for the sake of the child they are fostering, it can make a positive difference for the child if their practices are encouraged and supported. How religious beliefs might interact with the daily life of the child, the recovery of the parents and the long-term resilience of a child are essential factors to consider. Small steps toward helping a child feel comfortable and at home make a significant impact on their time in the foster care system.
As with all aspects of advocacy and caring for children in foster care, there are many things to consider on the topic of religion and spirituality. The age of the child, their willingness and interest to participate in their family’s religion, the trauma the child has experienced, the potential negative aspects a community or background may have on a child, the parent’s recovery plan, and more, are all factors that play a role in this topic. Weighing the details on a case and gaining an understanding of the big picture as a CASA is crucial in advocating for the needs of a child and building their resiliency and long-term wellbeing in – and out of – the foster care system.
Emily Gaudreau is the Administrative Assistant for CASA of Yellowstone County.