Teens Need Unconditional Commitment

How can we help teens

in foster care?

Pat O'Brien says,

"Stick with them

through thick and thin."

Many teens in foster care have been disappointed by adults throughout their lives. Their birth parents were unable to provide for them adequately. Their foster parents couldn't give them the permanent family they needed. Caseworkers may have moved them from home to home, causing painful changes each time. In the end, these teens may feel they've been let down by every adult they've encountered.

How can we help these young people? Pat O'Brien has an answer: "Teens in foster care need at least one adult who makes an unconditional commitment to them. They need that commitment before anything constructive can follow."

O'Brien is the founder of You Gotta Believe, a New York child welfare agency that specializes in placing teens with adoptive families. "At our agency, we recognize that all teenagers need a parent. We define a parent as ‘at least one adult who makes a unilateral decision to unconditionally commit to a child for a lifetime.' For teens who need a permanent home, anything less is an artificial relationship."

His agency has achieved great success at placing older youth with adoptive families. Other child welfare professionals often ask him, "What kinds of people open up their homes permanently to a teen?" He replies, "Any and all kinds of people who, after a good preparation experience, are willing to unconditionally commit themselves to a child no matter what behavior that child might ultimately exhibit."

He explained, "My working definition of ‘unconditional commitment' is that there is nothing a teenager can do to stop being someone's child. It means we treat this child's behavior the same as we would a biological child's."

"If a biological child commits a crime, he might go to jail, but he doesn't lose his parents because he made a mistake. If a biological child becomes mentally ill, she might have to be hospitalized on a long-term basis, but she doesn't lose her parents. If a biological child becomes heavily involved in drugs, he might have to be placed in residential treatment or a therapeutic community, but he doesn't forfeit his parents because he has the disease of addiction. And most of all, if a biological child has a nasty attitude - the hallmark of adolescence - he or she doesn't stop being that parent's child."

Unconditional commitment is not often experienced by teens in foster care, said O'Brien. "Unfortunately, when foster youth exhibit typical negative teenage behaviors, it can get them thrown out of foster homes and even some adoptive homes." To prevent these disruptions, he said, families should be taught coping strategies that emphasize patience, understanding, kindness and empathy. In conjunction with an unconditional commitment to the child, these strategies provide a "sure-fire antidote" to the troubles that may arise.

O'Brien added that adoptive families should put themselves in the teen's shoes. Teens usually come to the family after having gone through a string of placements with different foster families. When they move into their adoptive home, they are already anxious, expecting the new situation to be impermanent, too.

"As a result, their behaviors invariably test the commitment of their new parents," said O'Brien. "Can you imagine what it would have felt like during your adolescence if your parents gave you back every time you messed up? Teens have been kicked out of homes for having a nasty attitude when they thought they were expressing an opinion. Kids have been kicked out for talking back when they thought they were sharing their perspective. Teens have been thrown out for not being appreciative when they didn't know how to show appreciation to the satisfaction of their new parents. And kids have been ousted for being disrespectful when they thought they were being themselves."

To prevent these situations from occurring, O'Brien said that prospective adoptive families should be carefully prepared before the adoption and strongly supported afterwards. "At our agency, we teach our families the importance of unconditional commitment by only approving prospective families who agree to practice this form of unconditional love. In return, we support our families through their post-placement hard times by listening and immediately responding to their phone calls."

In Illinois, the Department of Children and Family Services remains committed to providing post-adoption support. Adoptive families who wish to access these services can call the Department toll-free at 866-538-8892.

O'Brien said there are many advantages to adopting an older child: "Adopting a teen offers a lifetime of mutual benefits for a relatively short stint in the child's growing years. If you want a rewarding parenting experience, there's nothing better than taking in a 15- or 16-year-old. In as short as five or six years, you could actually have a child who likes you and will say nice things about you. By 21, unlike many biological children, the adopted child intellectually understands that you were not the cause of any of their problems; rather, you were an integral part of their solution and healing."

He concluded with some thoughts on the depth of connection that can occur between the family and the adopted child. "If a child's adolescence is handled properly, the child will have a family for life. And in turn, the parents will have the young person in their family forever. At our agency, we teach parents to treat every child as if he or she will bring them their last glass of water. I know of at least three instances where the child that our agency placed, as a young adult, brought the parent their last glass of water. This final symbolic act was not done by biological children of the dying parent, but rather by the adopted child."

For more information on adopting older youth, call the Adoption Information Center of Illinois at 800-572-2390. For more on Pat O'Brien and his thoughts on adoption, visit www.yougottabelieve.org or contact him at You Gotta Believe, 1728 Mermaid Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11224. Phone: 800-601-1779. E-mail: ygbpat@msn.com.

To learn more about adopting teens and pre-teens from foster care, watch the online version of "The Adopting Teens & ‘Tweens" TV show by visiting the BRIC Community Media website Thursdays at 11am or 7pm (Central Time) and clicking on the BCAT 2 launch link.

You can also listen to the online version of "The Adopting Teens & ‘Tweens Radio Forum" every Sunday at 7pm (Central Time) by visiting the WGBB website. On the third Sunday of every month, you can listen to the You Gotta Believe radio support group for all foster and adoptive parents of teenagers. You can call into this radio support group when the phone number is announced during the live broadcast.

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