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Foster providers are responsible for our nation’s most vulnerable children, yet the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) collects only basic demographic information such as age, race, and marital status of foster parents. Just 56 percent of foster parents have a high school education and almost half of foster parents are unmarried. Foster families have more children than typical homes, with a high proportion of homes having five or more children. In other words, abused and neglected children live in foster homes with adults who have less education, less disposable income, and a higher child-to-adult ratio than most American families.
The foster care certificate my husband and I received states, “The maximum safe capacity for this home is four children.” I had five children at the time our first foster child arrived. That quickly grew to seven, then eight, and sometimes nine. For most of the next 20 years, we had eight children living in our home. It was a chaotic and enriching life. I learned about fetal alcohol syndrome and prenatal drug affects, signs of tobacco use and huffing aerosols, sexually reactive behavior and reactive attachment disorders. I documented behaviors and incidents, advocated for Individual Education Plans (IEPs), and drove kids to counseling and parent visits, Boy Scouts, soccer, dance, and horseback riding lessons.
We treated foster children as if they were our own, yet many of them never felt as if they were. In a non-foster family, you may not have rules prohibiting children from sitting on adults’ laps or cuddling up in the parents’ bed to watch Saturday morning cartoons. You probably don’t have a nursery monitor and motion sensor set up in your school-age child’s bedroom. You’re unlikely to have alarms on the bedroom doors. Yet those strategies were necessary to keep everyone safe given the needs of the children we welcomed into our home.
I knew our kids wanted to go home but I didn’t fully understand the stress they experienced at the separation from their biological parents and family home. I didn’t recognize the small losses a child could grieve: the tree they loved to climb, the field where they rode bikes, and the neighbors they knew they could count on. I understood they missed their stuffed animals and pets, but didn’t grasp the intangibles such as the smell of their home or the texture of their own blankets in bed. At our house, new foster children often came without clothes, so they were given sometimes new, sometimes hand-me-downs. They were the new kids in class, the ones not invited to sleepovers and birthday parties. These many small losses can bury a child who’s already waist-deep in depression and loss as they move from foster home to foster home, never feeling at home.
n 2012, almost 200,000 children were in non-relative or “stranger” foster care. A child’s first placement is often whichever home has an empty bed, which may not be the best placement for the child because it was chosen for availability rather than the child’s unique needs. So children bounce from home to home when their needs are too challenging for the current foster providers or when their behavior conflicts with the needs of other children.
Frequent moves adversely affect a child’s ability to trust adults and form healthy attachments. My first foster son said he’d been in foster homes that were Christian, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, and agnostic. Every set of parents he’d lived with had different ideas about what mattered. Situations that create such cognitive dissonance would be stressful for anyone, but for children who are expected to conform to adult value systems, it accentuates the distress of being separated from their known world. It’s one more way to feel you don’t belong.
Foster care is intended as a temporary safe haven for children who are abused and neglected, yet the wheels of such a bureaucracy turn slowly. On average, a foster child spends 23 months in care, often living in multiple foster homes. Nearly 20 percent of foster children experience 10 or more placements. And how long do they wait for their parents to get it together or for the courts to decide they are out of chances? In 2012, nearly 36,000 foster children had been waiting more than three years to return home or to be adopted, and 24,000 had been waiting more than five years.
Then there is the question of safety in foster homes. Data reported by the states to the federal government show that less than one percent of children are abused in foster care. Studies suggest the number is far greater. A 2010 Casey Family study of adult alumni in Washington and Oregon found that one in three former foster children reported being abused by an adult in the foster home. A lawsuit filed in April 2014 on behalf of a young Washington woman alleged that after being born to drug-affected, mentally ill parents and removed from an unsanitary home at the age of 4, she endured years of sexual abuse in two separate foster homes. Both foster fathers and one foster brother were convicted of sexual assault.
When a parent is unable to meet a child’s needs, the child can understand that this was one adult’s problem, and they can learn to trust other safe adults. However, when adult after adult is unable to meet a child’s needs, children internalize the failure as their own, and generalize a lack of trust to all adults. In worst case scenarios, they learn not to trust anyone.
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