“Children are great imitators. So give them something great to imitate.” -Unknown. Humans are amazing beings. We learn languages, social interactions and behaviors within a matter of years as young children, and those learned behaviors continue to form the way we grow and learn for the rest of our lives. But when dangerous and destructive influences are present in the lives of children from the very beginning of their existence, these are the habits and lessons that are forming them into the people they will become. For many children who enter foster care, their “normal” is far beyond what most people would consider as such. When domestic violence in the home is normal, when substance abuse and addiction are normal, when constant neglect and hunger for children are normal — those are the situations and life patterns they learn.
What if children grow up never knowing anything other than abuse or neglect? If children are never exposed to safe, stable adults who model healthy behavior for them, they are much more likely to grow up reflecting the abuse and neglect that they were raised in because that is all they have ever known. That is why having a caring, stable adult presence in the lives of all children — and especially children in foster care — is so vital. What children in foster care desperately need are people who will show up when they say they will. They need people who can model appropriate conduct and teach them what life without addiction or violence looks like. They need people who will love and cherish them through the good times but most especially the bad times, when they need love and commitment the most. In their moments of acting out and getting into trouble, children need adults to show up and show love more than ever, because those are the times when they will feel the most abandoned and isolated.
It is important for children to see the potential in their lives and understand they are not a failure or doomed to fail because of where they started in life or what statistics tell them they will do. It is imperative for them to understand that the normalized circumstances they have learned in their short lives are in fact far from normal, and that it is not acceptable for them to be subjected to things such as violence, abuse, or neglect.
As a stable adult in the life of a child, whether that be a Court Appointed Special Advocate, a foster parent, a teacher, a coach, or anyone else, it is important to remember that nine times out of ten, children love their parents more than anyone else in the world, despite what they may have been through. It is not anyone’s job to alienate or villainize those parents. It is our job to instead model good behaviors and healthy, appropriate relationships so that children begin to see a new normal, and a more accurate reflection of what human interactions and lives should look like. Remember, children are learning from you even when you don’t realize it — not only in how you treat and interact with them, but also in how you treat and interact with the people around you.
Every day, CASA of Yellowstone County works to ensure that children in foster care have — at a minimum — one safe, caring, committed adult to stand with them through their time in the child welfare system. If children have people who will love and support them unconditionally, then perhaps they will be able to overcome the obstacles that their parents could not. It is our hope that someday when children grow up and encounter abuse, neglect, violence or addiction in their lives, instead of saying “yes, this is normal,” they will say, “no, this is not.”
Emily Gaudreau is the Administrative Assistant for CASA of Yellowstone County.