Optimal mental wellness for foster children

Angelo McClain, Ph.D., LICSWSince 1949, Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed during the month of May. This year’s theme “Mind Your Health,” seeks to expand awareness about the importance of mental health to overall health and wellness.

By emphasizing the connection between the mind and body, the campaign encourages people to take positive actions and measures to protect their overall well-being.

Since 1988, National Foster Care Month has also been celebrated in May, focusing on giving foster parents the recognition they deserve for opening their hearts and their homes to foster children.

Foster Care Month is an opportunity for people nationwide to get involved as foster parents, mentors, volunteers, and in other ways. The effort emphasizes that everyone in the community can help foster children.

Is it a coincidence that both of these public awareness efforts seek to create better community responses for promoting mental wellness, restoring hope, eradicating stigma, and changing people’s minds? Is it coincidence that these two important efforts occur simultaneously?

When considering the importance of mental health to the overall health and wellness of foster children, it should be understood that foster children deserve and should get an abundance of support to help them experience happiness, wellness and good mental health.

Community members demand that foster care offer safety, nurturance and hope for a better future; ensuring such support is the business of the entire community. Communities can play a role in helping foster children achieve optimal mental wellness. Working with systems, providers, and foster families, communities can forge relationships centered on offering opportunities to shape more responsive interventions for foster children.

How can communities share responsibility, collaborate on critical decisions, establish key partnerships, give of their time and talent, and develop a shared vision for leadership and innovation?

In response to questions like these, a unique intergenerational planned community, The Tree House Foundation, was established at Easthampton Meadow, Mass., in 2001 to offer a community centered on supporting families that experience foster care and adoption.

Tree House provides a model of care for children in the foster care system and for seniors who wish to be “extended family members,” taking proactive steps to promote good mental health and healthy development. Within this re-envisioned foster care community, every family is offered the best chance at healthy mental well-being through services and supports at all levels.

Children needing mental health intervention receive it in a timely manner within the Tree House community, through an approach that supports their well-being and growth. The Tree House model radically redefines foster care to focus on supporting families to make their lives better on their own terms. This results in families being more empowered and enabled to make decisions about what they need to reach their potential.

In 2010, Judy Cockerton, the founder of Tree House, received the Angel in Adoption award — sponsored by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute — for her outstanding advocacy on behalf of foster children. The award recognizes excellence in both the vision that created this community, and its implementation.

When giving the award, then-Sen. John Kerry remarked, “Judy is a community hero who has made a remarkable difference for children in our foster care system. Her work for kids is an inspiration, and we all thank her for her commitment to foster children everywhere.”

Over the past 10 years, many improvements have been made in America’s foster care system. The Children’s Bureau reports a 22 percent decrease in the number of children in foster care between 2002 and 2010, and a 15 percent decrease in the number of child abuse victims between 2005 and 2009.

Despite these improvements, some areas, like the mental wellness of foster children, remain in need of reform. Up to a quarter of foster children experience some type of emotional or conduct problem — avoidable problems that could have been prevented with access to quality comprehensive services.

On any given day, nearly 30 percent of the 400,000 children in foster care are taking at least one psychotropic medication to manage social, emotional and mental health problems.

The re-envisioning foster care movement, which grew out of the Tree House model, pivots on the belief that making upfront investments to promote mental well-being, and protecting against mental illness through a well-coordinated holistic approach, is absolutely essential to addressing reforms such as reducing the amount of psychotropic medications prescribed to foster children.

The re-envisioning movement values and leverages innovations that bring critical sectors together, balancing expertise across the child welfare, mental health, finance, change leadership, government, and business worlds. Creating a new common space where traditional institutional models transform into effective, sustainable innovations is achievable.

During May, supporters of Mental Health Awareness Month will show their support by wearing green (ribbons and wrist bands), a color that symbolizes self-respect, well-being, balance, growth and harmony. Green is an emotionally positive color, reflecting the ability to love and nurture ourselves and others unconditionally.

Supporters of Foster Care Month will show their support by wearing blue, which symbolizes reliability and responsibility, inner security and confidence, trustworthy loyalty, friendship, and strength during tough times.

This year, I hope many folks will be wearing green and blue in recognition that optimal mental wellness for our foster children is within our reach.