ABC4 asked what it takes to become a foster parent to refugee children and teens: Here’s what we learned

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Courtesy: Catholic Community Services

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) — The idea of opening your home to a complete stranger and one who might not speak the same language as you can be intimidating.

Erica Astle, Refugee Foster Care Program Manager at Catholic Community Services of Utah, said her job is the the hardest but also the best thing to ever happen to her.

“… I think that’s probably a healthy expectation that this is really challenging. It’s really challenging to welcome someone new into your home. It’s very challenging when that new person doesn’t speak the same language as you and is trying to learn English,” she said. “It’s very challenging when they have a different religious background and different cultural practices and different ideas of what it means to show respect and to have a family relationship.”

Catholic Community Services of Utah is providing training for those interested in becoming foster parents for refugee teens and children.

The youth served through this program entered the United States without their parents or guardians. They may include refugees, asylees, Cuban/Haitian entrants, special immigrant juveniles, and victims of human trafficking.

ABC4 asked Astle some questions that families interested in fostering might want to know before making the decision.

What skills do I need to become a foster parent for refugee teens and children?

According to Astle, empathy is a huge skill to have, especially since many of the teens and children in the program are struggling with mental health issues and trauma.

“… that’s something that we try to nourish in the training is to help people nourish empathy and to think about things from a different perspective and to really try to put themselves into the youth’s shoes. I think that is the biggest factor in being able to work with youth who have experienced trauma, is the ability to empathize with them,” she said. “During the training, we learn about the why behind the behavior and it totally makes sense.”

Still, Astle did not sugarcoat the experience. She said there is often a huge difference between understanding the reasoning behind behavior and living with the behavior in your home. She said it’s important to have the skills to be able to respond instead of react and to not take behavior personally.

“What does this youth need during this moment? How can I connect with this youth? How can I teach during this moment so our relationship can improve?”

Courtesy: Catholic Community Services Refugee Foster Care Program

These are all questions she said a foster parent needs to ask in difficult moments. Astle shared an exercise that helped her in cultivating empathy:

“If you think about these youth and everything they’ve gone through before they came here, even if none of the war or the violence happened, moving to a new country by yourself and living with strangers is terrifying,” she said. “Even if you don’t have a traumatic history, to be going through culture shock and homesickness and some PTSD symptoms and you can’t express how you’re feeling- and that’s one of the most difficult things to express.”

Is there an ideal family situation for those providing a foster home?

Astle said that she has seen so much variation in successes that there really isn’t a mould that foster parents need to fit.

She said she has seen success with empty nesters who have experience raising teenager, but also has seen incredible success with foster parents who have never parented before and are beginning their families through fostering.

In addition, some refugee youth have loved the opportunity to act as big brothers or sisters in families with young children or having other teens in the home to have peer relationships. On the other hand, some refugee youth do better without other children in the home.

Courtesy: Catholic Community Services Refugee Foster Care Program

“Youth have different needs, Astle said. That’s why “it’s great to have a wide range of family situations because we’ve seen successes with lots of different types of families.”

How do you match up refugee youth with their foster families?

According to Astle, Catholic Community Services generally receives very limited information about the youth. For example, they may receive a summary of the teen or child’s childhood experiences or trauma they faced from the United Nations. But they don’t receive information about personality, likes, or dislikes.

Astle said she will read the available records and try not to make assumptions or judgments, but discuss what these experiences might bring.

“I always say its a bizarre job to be in- that as a human being, you’re choosing people’s families,” she said. “I do not take that lightly. It’s a very heavy responsibility and it’s a challenge.”

That’s why there is such a push for recruiting foster parents right now, she said.

“We would love to be in a situation where we have lots of different options for our youth, and we can really weigh out the pros and cons to help meet their needs.”

Currently, Astle said it is common that there will be only one option for taking a teen or child into their home.

What should people know before making the decision to be foster parents?

Due to the fact that the children and teens in the program are refugees and immigrants, it is not always a possibility that they will be reunited with their families, according to Astle.

As such, foster parents must be willing to provide and want a long-term family relationship, even as the children and teens enter adulthood.

Courtesy: Catholic Community Services Refugee Foster Care Program

“The number one statistic of success for young people is a supportive adult in their lives, so something that foster parents need to know before committing to this is that’s what we’re asking them, she said. “To be a committed, supportive adult in their life long-term.”

What will you learn in training, and how long does it last?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, trainings are currently given virtually, and they may continue to be given virtually for convenience to potential foster parents.

Astle said trainings are taught by refugee foster care staff.

Potential foster parents will learn skills like cultural competency, conflict resolution, communication, active listening skills, praise, building trust, understanding attachment and how that affects relationships, and crisis management training.

Astle said parents often feel that they can apply these skills in their relationships with their own children and spouses.

She said the trainings take place twice a week and last for about a month. In addition to attending training, potential foster parents will be required to pass a home safety inspection and take part in an interview to learn their parenting approaches and get to know the family.

Astle said once licensed, foster families may receive a call and be asked to take in a child as soon as the next day. However, parents always have the choice to not accept a placement if they don’t feel ready.

Ideally, families could first provide respite or take in a child for a weekend or short time period if their current foster families needs to take a break.

“It’s a good way to get their toes wet and learn what it’s like,” Astle said. “We would love for that to be the first step to help families prepare for more permanent placement.”

However, that is currently not possible due to the limited number of foster families available, she said.

What countries do many of the teens and children come from?

The majority come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and the Rohingya population from Burma. In the future, Astle said she expects that there will be more children and teens coming from Central American countries. Youth from countries like Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, and Sudan are also accepted into the program.

What is the average age of the teens and children in the program?

According to Astle, the average age is 17, as youth have to enter the program before turning 18. They stay in the program until age 21.

She said the youngest child in the program currently is 11 years old, but this is unusual.

“Foster parents often envision or prefer having younger children in their home, and we are looking for people who are willing to take teenagers,” she said.

What is something you would like people to know about the youth in the program?

The youth are not in custody of the state, but in custody of agency, she said. They are being resettled as unaccompanied refugee minors. The youth may have been separated from caregivers, have deceased parents, or are not in contact with their parents but are trying to reconnect with them. In most cases, the youth entered the United States on their own.

Do I need to know the youths’ first language?

“Many of our youth come with very little to no English at all…,” Astle said. It’s very difficult to match youth with those who speak the same language, though it would be amazing.”

However, she said parents who don’t speak the same language often get creative in learning how to communicate as youth learn English. They may use charades, show pictures on a phone, or communicate through thumbs up, smiling, or waving.

“It’s amazing to see how much you can communicate, even with huge language barriers, and it’s amazing how smart the kids are and how fast they learn,” she said.

Click here for more information on the Refugee Foster Care Program.

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