By Amy Wilner & Loong Kwok
For the past 20 years, A Home Within has been the only national organization focused exclusively on the emotional well-being of foster youth. Originally founded in 1994 by a small group of psychotherapists who recognized that foster children need at least one stable adult from whom they can receive consistent ongoing care, A Home Within began in San Francisco as the Children’s Psychotherapy Project. The organization grew as other communities—first in the Bay Area and then around the country—heard about our work and wanted their own local chapter. We now have 49 Clinical Chapters in 21 states, including 17 chapters in California, which has the most foster youth of any state. Our Santa Clara chapter has been in existence since 2009!
By definition, those who enter the foster care system have suffered neglect or abuse in the context of family relationships that should have been nurturing and safe. The frequent displacement of multiple foster homes (most foster youth go through at least three placements during their time in the system), stays in chaotic group homes, and overall uncertainty exacerbate earlier trauma. These vulnerable young people might appear in school as disruptive because they’re struggling with emotional dysregulation and an inability to soothe themselves. They might not ask for help from teachers because they don’t know how to trust, and they might hurt themselves because they don’t know how to manage a pain they can’t name. More than half of foster youth are diagnosed with a mental illness, yet only 15% receive services. Most are minorities, and most fall at or below the poverty line.
Every one of our nearly 400 clinicians volunteer one hour of professional time each week to provide relationship-based psychotherapy to one current or former foster youth at a time. By offering these services at no cost, our clinicians are free to practice without budgetary constraints limiting the duration of treatment, and by having our clinicians meet with only one foster youth at a time, we mitigate against the burnout that typically affects staff in the public agencies providing most of the mental health services available to the foster care community. In this way, we’re able to pursue the mission of our Clinical Chapters: One child, one therapist, for as long as it takes.
A Home Within is built on the principal that relationships provide the best context in which to heal trauma that has occurred in the context of relationships that are supposed to be nurturing and safe. Our average length of therapy is more than three years. The Foster Care Research Group at the University of San Francisco has performed outcome studies on our clients for more than 10 years, and results consistently show that those receiving our services show a statistically significant reduction in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and dissociation, all of which can have grave effects on both mental and physical well-being when left untreated, or undertreated.
Because A Home Within doesn’t have therapists in every community where foster youth reside and can provide psychotherapy to only a small fraction of the foster youth in need, we also have an Education and Training program to support non-clinician adults who are working to help foster youth—such as foster parents, social workers, lawyers, judges, teachers, school staff, activists, and lawmakers—with trauma-informed trainings on a range of topics (for example, the effects of trauma on normal development in infants, young children, school-age children, and adolescents; gender; boundaries).
A Home Within also offers Conversation Cards, a great tool that helps facilitate important conversations on difficult topics. The cards use images, questions, and prompts to help users think about their feelings on a range of subjects such as beginnings, endings, identity, and the meaning of home and family. They can be used by therapists, parents, teachers, and others; by two people or a larger group; in a consultation room, classroom, or park. Available for the past few years in packets or “decks” of 16 cards, they are newly available as a mobile app, making them even more convenient.
For more information about A Home Within and our programs, please visit our website at www.ahomewithin.org. We also host an online collage of voices from within the foster care community at www.fosteringrelationships.org.à