Recently, a faculty member providing oversight to a mental health program in higher education told me that many of her students had mental health ‘issues’ themselves. It’s a phenomenon known by many in the helping professions–people gravitate towards careers in order to resolve their own emotional challenges. Not always, but often.
This can be a healthy path for many people. Not only do they help themselves to heal, but they possess an insight and perspective that may be lacking in what may be called ‘healthy healers’. This topic has been on my mind recently as I have been working with health programs in higher education. Many of the students have their own set of challenges, some of which may be related to their career choice. It may be a marginal relationship, such as a person with a family member struggling with a epilepsy going into medical technology. Or it can be more obvious, as is the case with a student whose mother has schizophrenia going into mental health. Regardless, the personal experience, either in themselves or in a family member, provides a unique perspective that can greatly benefit the persons with whom they work. Not always, but often.
I’ve noted that child welfare seems to be actively encouraging young people to pursue careers in a system that often leaves many scars, both emotional and physical. An article published last fall draws attention to this trend, with a headline reading “Former foster youth sworn in as caseworkers“. Their value within the child welfare system as voices for the vulnerable is increasingly gaining the attention of administrators, policy makers, and stakeholders.
It’s this observation that leads me to believe that the trend towards encouraging former foster youth to go into child welfare is one of the greatest advancements in the field in the last decade. I have no data to support this, just observation and intuition. I’ve worked with former foster youth who have gone into child welfare. My experience has been that their unique perspective helps them to be excellent problem solvers when it comes to difficult situations. I’ve also found that former foster youth are able to pick up on the subtle biases, unconscious discrimination, and insensitive language that may get perpetuated in child welfare systems. Those working in child welfare have no doubt heard it: referring to a child or family as a ‘case’, talking about ‘sibling strips’, or focusing on parental short-comings as if that is their entire identity (drug addict, prostitute, etc.). These are children and youth, not cases. They are brothers and sisters, not sibling strips. And their parents may have problems, but that does not mean that these problems are the entirety of the identity or a measure of their worth. First and foremost, they are parents who, for whatever reason, have experienced challenges that affect their ability to adequately nurture and protect their children. It’s the sensitivity to these kinds of issues that can make former foster youth more compassionate, more understanding, and better able to address the needs of vulnerable children and families. Not always, but often.
I don’t know that all former foster youth would make good caseworkers or be effective filling other roles within child welfare systems. As in any situation, there may be those that are good at what they do, even exceptional, and those that are not as effective. They certainly can provide a personal perspective and in some cases, greater empathy for the children and families who become involved with child welfare systems. Personally, I hope the trend towards active engagement of former foster youth in child welfare systems continues.