Here are seven ways you can create a welcoming space in your library for foster teens.
1. A PLACE TO FOSTER DREAMS
For a foster teen, especially one turning eighteen and aging out of the foster care system, a library is not just a place filled with books.
It is a safe place for them to go, that rare place that allows them to forget--if only for a few hours--about their less-than-ideal living conditions.
It is a safe haven in which they can dream about how things could be different in their lives.
The stories found on the shelves provide role models and examples of what could be. Yet, a library is more than a place to read or hide for teens in the foster care system; it is also a place where they can just sit--maybe think, write poetry, do homework, or draw--without anyone chasing them off or judging them.
Consider brainstorming with foster teens about what they would like to see in the library, what they need. You might find that having the same little corner or table or couch for them to go to on good days, bad days, or days they simply want to meet a friend could make the difference between them visiting once or coming to the library every afternoon.
2. TIME PLUS EFFORT BUILDS TRUST
Teens in foster care often struggle with trusting people. Developing trust takes time and requires consistency and patience. Their life experiences can leave foster teens skeptical of adults--you're not imagining things when you feel like they are keeping you at arm's length or unexpectedly ignoring you or failing to greet you though you know they heard you say hello. These are ways of protecting themselves until you prove you can be trusted. They may draw close and then push you away.
They are testing you. Don't fail the test.
Building trust requires you to authentically care about them. That makes it important that you welcome foster teens just as you would the other young adults who come into your library.
Teens in foster care may be leery of people, but they desperately look for that one adult who sees them and who can connect with them. To be that adult, you must do more than greet them or share library hours. You will need to invest time, as well as effort, to climb the walls they have built for self-protection--and to discover what you may have in common.
A warm greeting is a good first step, but if you truly want to establish trust and build a healthy relationship with the youth in foster care who come to your library, you must find other ways to connect. That may be as easy as sharing funny stories or likes and dislikes or an observation about the day's news--but one sure fire way is to make checking on them while they are in your library part of your routine. This group of young adults may give the impression that they want to be left alone, but we all need to be seen and heard, especially young adults who often have no one else to tell about their day or care if they are doing okay.
3. NOT LIKE OTHER TEENS
Young adults in foster care want to be treated like everyone else, but at the same time, it may help to know that many such teens view themselves as being different from other teens. Internally, they feel as though they don't belong, especially when it comes to being around teens with families they go home to every night.
All teens are trying to find out who they are--and those being fostered are no different in that respect. Unlike other teens, however, those who grow up in foster care struggle with accepting that they are in a foster care situation in the first place.
Ironically, many times you may not even know a teen is in foster care, but the teen who is assumes that everyone knows and that everyone sees them as "the foster kid," and that this designation is what matters. If you want to help young adults in foster care fit in and feel welcome, you must find ways to help them realize that, in many ways, they are just like their peers. They need to know that in your eyes, they are "regular kids."
If and when a teen in the foster care system shares with you that they feel different from their classmates or other teens, do not tell them they are wrong. In this situation, empathy goes a long way--try listening first and then sharing a personal story about a time you felt like you did not fit in. This will not change how the teen feels but may allow them to recognize that everybody feels that way from time to time. Be sure to hold such confidences close, too, as that is also a way to build trust.
Remember that, generally speaking, people tend to assume that a youth in foster care is either a juvenile delinquent or has been removed from their home because of their own bad behavior. These assumptions are far from the truth. Children are most often removed from the home because of bad choices made by their parents. It is not fair to anyone to assume that foster teens are criminals.
4. THE POWER OF SNACKS
Your library may not have a snack room or cafe like some large metro public libraries do, but having a few snacks on hand is a great way for you to connect with a youth in a foster situation. Statistics show that the majority of these young people are removed from their homes due to neglect; many have never known the joy of an after-school snack.
Having snacks available is another way to offer comfort to these teens--a little food security, a little something to look forward to after school or on the weekends when school breakfasts and lunches aren't available. Sharing a snack, after all, is not unlike breaking bread with someone: It provides a casual way to spend time together while giving you both an opportunity to get to know each other better.
5. USE THOSE RESEARCH SKILLS
Ideally, foster care provides young people with an alternative--a safe living condition away from a troubled home--but many young adults will be shuffled from foster home to foster home and never find a permanent place to live. To make matters worse, some of the homes where they are assigned will be abusive, while some foster parents are simply unprepared to handle the issues and needs of teens in these circumstances. Unfortunately, foster youth often do not know the difference between a healthy, normal home and an abusive one.
That's where a librarian's research skills can come in handy. By helping teens in foster care develop research skills, you open a world of resources to them. Help them learn their rights, how to become proactive as it pertains to their schooling and health, and how to fight for a better life.
All too often, foster teens are bitter and hurt and see themselves as victims of yet another institution that has let them down, be it the school or the state. At some point, teens will age out of the system and be left to fend for themselves. With limited resources and no family support, many teens will face the grim reality of an uncertain future--with no idea where to go to find answers to their many questions. You could be the difference--giving them the research skills to cope with what life will surely throw at them.
6. THE MISSING SAFETY NET
Every year, several million teens turn eighteen and jump head first into adulthood. They will all face crises--or unexpected financial needs. The difference for foster teens is that they likely won't have anyone to call at such times. Most teens can call their parents or grandparents when they need advice or a small loan. Most teens from foster care don't have the luxury of calling a family member when times get tough.
When teens age out of the foster care system, they are shoved overnight into the world with no preparation or safety net. You, as a librarian, can help these teens be better prepared by providing workshops, hosting speakers, and holding job fairs in the library. Again, it never hurts to ask the teens themselves what they are curious or worried about as you are planning such programs.
7. BE A TEAM PLAYER
It takes a team of people to help foster teens be successful. Many times, teachers and foster parents feel all alone when to trying to help a foster teen. You are one more person who could be on the team.
Once you've established a relationship with the teens in foster care who visit your library, ask about the other people in their lives whom they like and trust. Engage those other adults. Keep them informed--whether it be a call to a teen's foster parents about how much you enjoy seeing their teen in the library or a quick chat with their favorite teacher when you see a teen upset or agitated.
You can be a champion for foster teens. Let them know the library is a safe place for them by giving the library's phone number and e-mail address for them to use in case of emergency. Though the teens may never use it, they will know that you care. And they will feel a little more secure and a little less alone.
I do not say any of this will be easy, but except for a small budget for snacks, none of the above suggestions carries a monetary price tag.
That means they are doable for big library or small, for rich library or poor, for city library or rural. You have the power to make your library more than a building for the teens in foster care in your community.
You have the power to make it the place that helps foster teens discover their dreams, find careers, or meet a librarian mentor or friend. I look forward to hearing about what you do.
The Boy Who Carried Bricks. Roadrunner, 2015. 196p. $18.95. 978-1 937054-34-2. VOYA June 2015. 4Q 3P M J Aging Out--A True Story. Roadrunner, 2016. 208p. 18.93. 978-1-937054-28-1.
VOYA February 2018. 3Q 3PM JS
Formerly a child in foster care and currently a police officer, Alton Carter is also the author of the award-winning books, The Boy Who Carried Bricks and Aging Out--A True Story, the sequel, which won the 2017 In the Margins Award for Nonfiction. He makes his home in Oklahoma.
Caption: ALTON CACTER SPEAKS TO CENTRAL JUNIOR HIGH STUDENT MOORE OK
Caption: OAKLAND CALIFORNIA JUVINILE CENTER
Caption: OKLAHOMA TEENS VISIT PLACES FROM ALTON'S BOOKS.