Children and youth who have been wards of the child welfare system very easily lose connections to important people in their lives—foster families, group home workers and other kids who grew up in care with them. Could sites such as Facebook and MySpace be the answer to maintaining connections?
I recently discovered a group on Facebook made up of former students and residents of a child caring agency in town. The agency works with some of the most vulnerable kids in our community and is often a “last resort” placement option for child welfare social workers desperate to keep these kids safe.
I was blown away by the fact that as adults, this growing Facebook group (numbering 20 the last time I checked) came together to share stories about their time at the agency. Many were looking to connect with staff and other kids they once knew. They commented on the good and the bad memories.
It is very difficult for group homes, foster families and the like to stay in touch with the children and youth who pass through their doors. It’s an unfortunately reality that many children in the child welfare system go through multiple placements. Usually, once they become adults, they move around a great deal before settling down. Connections are lost very easily.
That’s why this Facebook group blew me away. What a great way for youth from care to stay in touch. It’s wonderful that alumni from this agency formed this group themselves but perhaps there’s a way for child caring agencies to use these social networking sites as well. I see a number of potential opportunities such as the following:
• Providing a way for alumni to maintain the important connections they’ve made throughout their lives regardless of where they are living.
• Giving child welfare agencies a vehicle to gather feedback from former clients.
• Offering a way for agencies to invite alumni to homecoming or reunion events.
There are, of course, many other ways child caring agencies could use social networking. What about a Facebook or MySpace support page for foster parents of a particular agency? Foster parents could access information on available training or other resources in their geographical area and chat with other foster parents who may be experiencing similar challenges. These vehicles could also be used in recruitment campaigns for staff, foster families and volunteers.
Is there a downside? Well, I’ve given that some thought too. Confidentiality is an issue to consider. The alumni group I found on Facebook sometimes throws out names of fellow former clients they want to connect with and invites others to post pictures from their time in care together. This is where it gets a bit sticky. What if someone in that picture did not want to be identified as a former youth in care? If youth currently in care created a site, the confidentiality question becomes even more important.
In Manitoba, the Child and Family Services Act is very clear that in virtually no circumstances should a child in care be publicly identified as such. Even if the child him/herself agrees to disclose this information, say in a media feature, they are not allowed to do so. The media respects this restriction usually without question. In cyberspace, there are few restrictions and who is saying what about whom is more difficult to monitor.
As with many other communications vehicles, social networking sites have strengths and challenges. For the most part, I don’t think child welfare agencies have given any of these issues much thought. But it’s a brand new digital world out there and sooner or later they need to.