A smile can hide a lot...

Here’s something you might not know, there is sort of this unofficial rating system for foster children. Often you get a call about a child and one of the few ways you can figure out a little more about their background is to say, “What is their rate?” Or, you might hear foster parents trying to help find a placement for a child, or help with respite will say, “What is their rate?” Now that isn’t because people are heartless and are in this for the money (because let’s be honest, there is NO WAY you can do this and make money!). The lowest daily stipend for a child is called the “satellite rate” and means that they have not had any major issues, behaviors, or events while in foster care. The highest daily stipend means that there are ALOT of challenges that may involve mental health concerns, running away, setting things on fire, sexually acting out, medical challenges, destroy property, or who knows what else. You might be reading this and be horrified right now. I feel that way as well. When you think of what all of those challenging behaviors represent in a child’s life it is crushing. And then to think that one of the few ways we can find homes for these more challenging kids is to pay more, it is even more heartbreaking.

But here is the other side….what about the smiling foster child? You know, the one who looks so sweet, has no challenges, has the lowest daily rate, is compliant, does fairly well in school, and quietly exists under the radar as the poster-child for foster care. We all assume that the smile means that all is well and there are no “issues.” A smile doesn’t represent the lack of trauma and hidden pain. It just demonstrates a beautiful resiliency despite the pain. We have to stop assuming that all children in foster care do not need immediate, in-depth intervention for the trauma that occurred before foster care, and for that further trauma occurring while they are in foster care as well. As care givers, foster parents, and social workers we are so worn out and desperate to care for the “highest rate” kids, we are quick to believe that the smiling “satellite rate” child is doing just fine.

We’ve been involved with children who have been in foster care for 3, 4, or 5 years, and they were the smiling satellite-rate foster child. We’ve found that when they are finally asked at year 5 about what abuse occurred, they will disclose things that people never knew. When they are offered help for trauma, deep wounds are revealed. When they are given the opportunity for anger, they are thankful to get to express it rather than repress those emotions out of survival to ensure they aren’t moved to yet another home. What if we started out immediately giving the smiling foster child the help they need? What if we used the 1,2, 3, 4, and 5 years in foster care to give them hope for healing in their life? What if we gave them the tools so that a smile doesn’t represent a beautiful resiliency in spite of dealing with trauma on their own, but it represents joy at overcoming trauma with the support of a caring family and community? What if their time in foster care wasn’t about being compliant so they can survive, but experiencing the joys of a childhood in a safe and loving environment? This is what we will do at Joy Meadows.

My heart aches for all of these children who bury their pain and smile, and for those who lash out at the world because they don’t know what else to do. As adults, we have to be the ones to help them carry these raw emotions and give them the ability to have a voice. We have to show them they matter as individuals, and they are cherished, and loved no matter what — not because they are perfect, but because God loves them desperately and so do we.

Isaiah 46:4 (NLT), “I will be your God throughout your lifetime — until your hair is white with age. I made you and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you.”

-Sarah Oberndorfer