The Joys and Challenges of Counseling Children in the Foster Care System
One of the many exciting aspects of pursuing a degree in psychology or counseling is that your career can twist and turn unexpectedly down exciting new paths that you were previously unaware of.
Meagan Freund, an LPC with an emphasis in marriage and family therapy (MFT) in Kansas City, Mo., has seen her career follow a similar unpredictable path until finally settling in a field she had never considered: counseling foster children.
After spending the last two years exclusively providing therapy to these children, she wanted to share her knowledge and experience with Alliant’s current and prospective students who might be interested in following a similar career path.
What drew you toward counseling foster kids?
I began my career as a counselor at a private practice, which required me to market myself to find prospective clients – something I wasn’t extremely comfortable with nor great at. I knew my supervisor counseled foster children, so I decided to ask her more about it. She told me about how all she needed to do to get clients was to stay in contact with the case workers at the Missouri Children’s Division, and they would refer her clients.
Then, the more I thought about my own private practice and the types of clients I counseled – individual females, couples, kids and foster care kids – I realized I seemed to really connect most with the foster kids. So, when it came to needing to get more clients, but at the same time wanting to find purpose in my practice, I realized I had begun gravitating toward that type of client anyway.
I decided to make the jump to counseling foster children, and I immediately felt like I was giving back to the community, as I was helping children who often found themselves in very difficult situations.
What would you describe as some of the benefits of counseling foster children?
Giving Foster Children Tools for Success
In most traditional families, parents teach their children directly or by example the healthy ways to deal with certain negative situations. However, for foster kids, their biological parents often neglect this aspect of their jobs as parents, or sadly neglect their kids altogether. To be the person that helps a child learn these coping mechanisms, and to see the child use these skills in action, is one of the true highlights of my job.
Seeing Kids Do Well
As counselors we don’t often get to see our clients after therapy, but I’ve tried to make an effort to keep in touch with the children I’ve counseled. Just recently I talked to a kiddo who’s going to graduate high school early, she has scholarships for college, wants to go to school to be a doctor, and she’s in the process of being adopted by her foster family. So seeing her prosper and do well, especially after being through so much, gives me a lot of joy.
Being an Important Part of Their Lives
Being that consistent person in a foster child’s life is rewarding but can also be taxing. Sometimes when I feel a child is doing well and I should be able to move on, it feels a little uncomfortable because I’ve been one of the consistent people in his or her life, which makes it harder to separate. But at the same time, when it is time to say goodbye, I trust in the skills I’ve taught these children, I trust in the foster family’s love and support, and I trust in the children themselves that they will utilize what they learned during our time together. So, similar to the emotions a foster parent might feel when a foster child moves on, I too feel some of those same emotions. Being one of those lights in a child’s life is a precious feeling and certainly keeps me driven to help as many children as possible.
What would you describe as some of the challenges of counseling foster children?
Lack of Tools
One challenge is they don’t always have the tools to deal with or cope with stressful situations. Not only does this lack of tools and coping mechanisms affect their daily lives, but it can also make therapy itself difficult. It’s up to us as counselors to provide them these tools and to communicate on their level through various methods like play therapy, art therapy, etc.
Previously Learned Unhealthy Behaviors
A lot of kids I see can be manipulative and can easily shut down. Thus, conflict is common: me trying to teach them and them trying to resist. It’s our job as counselors to stay strong, diligent and patient with these children, because some children are much more difficult to transition from practicing unhealthy behaviors to healthy behaviors.
Constantly in Limbo
The foster care system often has these children bouncing back and forth between a foster homes, their parents homes, relatives’ homes, back to foster homes, etc., so there is often little structure or consistency in their lives, which can present obstacles in therapy. They are just trying to survive the best they know how. And because they are in foster care living with people they don’t know, they don’t know the basic rules like how the family operates. These all contribute to the uncertainty a child feels on a daily basis, which can present a lot of challenges during therapy.
As I watch biological parents receive multiple chances to correct their issues and their children being stuck in the foster care system with no current plan for permanency, it can be very emotional, especially as a parent myself. I get really upset at times because I see good kids struggling emotionally and behaviorally. I know what they need to be successful, and that’s not what they are getting, as I see the system let these kids down time and time again. What they need, and what any kid needs, is consistency and stability, and these are both missing from many of my young clients’ lives. However, once again, it’s these reasons why I do love my job because the role myself and all other foster care counselors play in these kids’ lives is essential to maintain some normalcy in their lives.
So how does someone get involved in counseling foster children?
If you’re wanting to work in foster care, I’d probably suggest pursuing a masters in marriage and family therapy (MFT) since you will be heavily involved in the relationship side of therapy. I focus on coping skills, relationship skills, and behavior patterns, so marriage and family therapy works really well for that. However, in the same instance, a lot of kids I see struggle with mental disorders, so those assessment skills found in a psychology degree can also be beneficial.
Once you earn your degree, you then just need to be in contact your state’s Children Division and some case workers to help refer you clients. You also need to be contracted with Medicare and any other children’s health coverage programs your state.
Is counseling foster children something you would recommend to prospective counselors?
I have a passion for counseling foster children because it gives my practice purpose and I feel like I’m making a real difference.
I also like that I can be in control of my schedule. A lot of times foster kids are in school during the day, so much of my work comes at night, which is good for some and not for others. I also like being my own boss and doing my own billing.
And I like working with the Children’s Division because I feel like I provide a checks and balances with them. Sometimes I feel they may lean toward the parents’ side, and therefore because I am the child’s therapist I can advocate more for the child.
What types of prospective counselors do you think would do well in this field?
I think there are several traits one must possess to successfully provide therapy to foster children. First, I think you have to be genuine, having that ability to humble yourself and to get on their level. You really must put everything you know or think you know to the side.
You also have to have a strong side too; you can’t be a pushover. Some kids need someone to be strong with them, and to be consistent and secure, because some parents treat them like their buddies, and that’s not what they need in therapy.
Lastly, you have to have a passion to advocate for these children. It’s not just counseling – you are working as part of a team with the Children’s Division, guardian ad litem, foster parents, school counselors, teachers, the court system and more to help these children find stability in their lives.
The main thing I learned over these past few years is the significant need for counselors in this field. Thus, from a career perspective it’s a great way for a new counselor to quickly grow their practice, and from a personal perspective it’s a great way to find meaning in your work – the type of meaning that has a real impact on the children who need it most.
Alliant offers degree programs in areas such as the masters in marriage and family therapy (MFT) which provide you a knowledge base and skillset to counsel foster children. For more information about this career path, contact an Alliant admissions counselor today at 866.825.5426.