When I speak to audiences, I often end my keynote with an exercise:
I ask you to begin to notice the strangers seated around you. The first one that you can make eye contact with, imagine yourself going to live with them tonight. You can take a bag of things that you already own. In fact, you can keep your job, your volunteer activities, and your car and drivers license. You can move on with your day, like you do each and every other day of your life. The only difference is that every evening, you must return to this person’s home and stay there. From the stage, I can often see people begin to look uncomfortable, sometimes just imagining living with another person at the same table as them.
“How long until you feel comfortable?” I ask. The crowd begins to let out sighs, and usually no one is quick to answer. I have to usually ask a second time. I pause. Someone yells out some time. “1 month” and then answer come more quickly. “1 year” “5 years.” There is always someone who feels the same as me, “Never.”
This small exercise always seems to drive the point home. Everyday in this nation we ask countless children to do this. CHILDREN! Most adults’ cringe at the idea, they shift in their seats just thinking about it; yet everyday we ask children to do the unthinkable.
After I make the point and leave the stage, I am approached by attendees who share how they “never thought of it from the children’s point of view”. It just never occurred to them how that might feel. This always stuns me, or at least it used to.
We are concerned with the physical safety of children, as we should be. But, we often do not think about the long-term impacts of children’s emotional safety when they have to be moved from home-to-home-to-home. However, we know that the emotional impacts of trauma can last across a lifetime.
Often, when a child has to be removed agencies are looking for the first available bed for the child, and the first home to say “yes.” The child ‘s other needs (outside of housing) are not often considered.
Why are we not involving children more in where they are placed (i.e. asking them what they think about potential options)? What can we do better to give children a voice in the process? What can we do better to guard not only their physical safety, but also their emotional safety and stability?
Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute an organization focused on translating evidence based research on trauma into skills that can be used immediately by individuals and organizations. You can learn more about her and her work at www.garbagebagsuitcase.com or www.goodharborinst.com