For a long time, schools were seen as safe havens for children - a daily respite for kids whose homes were violent or volatile, a place where families struggling could secure breakfast and lunch for their children, and the source, so often, of trusted adults who believe in and encourage students. In some ways, that’s still true. Those facets of school still exist. But in a larger sense, it’s not. Schools are not and do not seem safe anymore.
Tuesday’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas ended with 19 children and 2 teachers dead. It was the 27th school shooting in the United States in 2022, and the 212th mass shooting, according to NPR. It came 10 days after a mass shooting in a Buffalo grocery store that killed 10.
School shootings, like all mass shootings, have become a part of American life - tragedies that lead to sorrow and calls for action but almost never real change. That needs to stop. It is long past time for meaningful action.
Contact your representatives in the House and Senate. Pressure them to do . . . anything. And learn more about gun violence from organizations such as the Sandy Hook Promise foundation.
Throughout May, you might notice or already have noticed, companies highlighting Mental Health Awareness month through promotions like discounted mindfulness apps or social media breaks. L.L. Bean, for example, has wiped clean its Instagram feed and will not be posting again until June, encouraging its followers to go offline for mental health wellness. Cynically or maybe truthfully, these campaigns are marketing ploys if not direct sales techniques. But even though they’re being used to promote businesses, the messages have merit, as well.
As a society, if we talk about mental health, we tend to do so in terms of crisis. However, just like with physical health, mental health is best when preventative measures and healthy maintenance are a part of our every day. Regular exercise, mindfulness, decreased screen time and other similar actions have all shown to help with individual mental health. That’s not to say that a 30 minute walk will stave off depression or that an app can substitute for treatment. These things can, however, help us to be more in tune with our mental wellbeing and less likely to ignore internal warning signs.
As May winds down, take the time to think about your own mental health wellness. What do you do to care for yourself? If it’s physical activity, is it more likely to be consistent in the summer? If yes, what’s your winter plan? Are you more likely to take time for your well being when you aren’t stressed? How can you change that? And, is your mental health self care also self care for your physical health? Practices that sacrifice one aspect of health in favor of the other aren’t actually self care.
May might be a month of gestures from businesses in the U.S., but for you, it can be an opportunity for improved, ongoing mental wellbeing.
Sometimes, when people outside of the system picture a young person in foster care, they see a child completely alone - with nothing and no one to offer support. And in some cases, that may be true. Children of all ages enter foster care with no other relatives to turn to and unable to go back to their parents/guardians.
However, there are many youth who, when removed from their homes, are able to move in with a grandparent, aunt, uncle, sibling, etc. They are still in foster care but a form of foster care called kinship care. Kinship care is in fact the preferred placement for children when safe and able. According to Aysha E. Schomburg, Associate Commissioner of the Children’s Bureau, “As foster care is a support to families, children should stay with family when possible. In many cultures, the "village" approach has been a longstanding value, and extended family is important to the development of children who feel surrounded by love and the continuation of cultural traditions.”
That’s not to say that kinship care negates the trauma experienced by young people in foster care. Nor is it always the right option. But when it is, kinship care can help children and adolescents process and address the experience of foster care and, ideally, offer them ongoing love, support, acceptance, safety and family.
As Mother’s Day approaches this weekend, many of us will plan small celebrations - brunches, dinners or even just flower deliveries. It will seem like a simple day of commemoration, a way to thank the mothers in our lives for all that they have done (and will do) for us. But for so many others, this day is not simple. It is a reminder of complex emotions, challenging pasts, presents, and futures, and a feeling of being other.
This can be particularly true for young people who are or have been in foster care. While no young person has the same story or relationships, it is likely that Mother’s Day is complicated for those who have been in placement.
Over the past several years, acknowledgment of this complexity - for youth in foster care and others - has grown, as schools have celebrations for special grownups rather than a particular parent, and care is taken to remind all of us (on social media and beyond) that our family is not everyone’s family. However, these societal gains don’t automatically make Mother’s Day easier for all.
This year, we encourage you to take the time to connect with your friends and family - those who you know will have complicated feelings on Sunday and even those who might not. Ask them not what they’re doing for Mother’s Day but simply how they are. Remind them that love and connection comes from many directions, and that you are there for them on Mother’s Day and all the days that come next.
In Pennsylvania, adults fall into two categories: Mandated Reporters and Permissive Reporters. Mandated Reporters are the professionals and volunteers, such as teachers, social workers and nurses, who are required by law to report suspected child abuse and neglect. All those who are not mandated are considered permissive reporters - encouraged but not required to make a report.
This categorization exists in most states. However, there are an increasing number like New Jersey who have designated all adults, regardless of profession, volunteer role, etc. mandated reporters. In those states, any adult with reasonable cause to believe that a child is being abused or neglected must report it to the state for investigation.
The idea behind mandated reporter states is that we are all responsible for the well-being of young people in our communities. By creating groups of individuals who can ignore suspected abuse, we have given them permission to ignore suspected abuse. Children are safer and more able to find help when the adults in their lives regardless of profession are committed to doing what’s right.
Though we continue to live in a state with both mandated and permissive reporters, perhaps now is the time for all of us to begin thinking of ourselves as mandated reporters.
To report suspected child abuse in Pennsylvania, contact ChildLine.
Sexual abuse/exploitation is one of the many reasons why a child may enter foster care. However, sexual abuse/exploitation does not always stop when foster care begins. In some cases, it starts. A 2001 study out of John Hopkins University found that young people in foster care are 4 times more likely to be sexually abused than their peers not in care; youth in group homes are 28 times more likely. Twenty-eight. Additionally, in 2013, more than half of the victims of sex trafficking recovered by the FBI were youth in foster care.
Foster care is meant to be a place of safety after abuse and/or neglect. In many cases, as evidenced by the statistics above, it is not. While there are professionals and, ideally, other caring adults who work diligently to protect and ensure the wellbeing of youth in foster care, it is not always enough, particularly when it comes to sexual abuse.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Learn more about sexual assault and abuse and how you can be a part of protecting young people at risk.
On Saturday, April 9, RJLF Fellows, Mentors and staff braved the lingering rain and an unbelievable number of muddy puddles for breakfast at Lions Pride Park in Warrington. We were joined by Meghan Hughes of Meghan Reneed Photography, who generously offered to take portraits of our Fellows. She had done so previously in December 2020. Meghan captured photos of our Fellows and their families, Fellows and their mentors, old and new Fellows meeting, and a senior portrait for one of our graduating Fellows. We are so grateful for her time and talents, and cannot wait to see the pictures!
Outside of the photoshoots, Fellows and Mentors connected, catching up while their kids tackled the impressive and incredibly fun playground. Despite the weather, many lingered in the park long after the event’s end-time, welcoming the sun when it finally appeared.
It has been far too long since we have been able to come together for fun, and we look forward to many more events in the near future.
More than 75% of children who are victims of maltreatment have been neglected. But what exactly does that mean? Neglect may seem less tangible than abuse - less physically apparent than a broken arm or string of bruises and more challenging to describe than an assault (in terms of example/encounter not emotional toll). However, neglect is more prevalent than physical or sexual abuse and must be understood to be stopped or prevented.
Broadly defined, neglect is the failure of a parent/guardian to provide for the basic needs of a child. This includes food, shelter, medical care, clothing and supervision. Many states also cite the failure to provide education for a child as a form of neglect. Such a lack can be difficult to spot in a child with whom you don’t live - much as other forms of abuse are. However, there are signs, indicators that can alert an adult (or peer) to a young person’s needs.
Changes in behavior, health or developmental concerns such as anemia, lack of medical care or poor language skills, and poor hygiene can all be signs of neglect. If you suspect neglect, it’s important to listen to the child, talk with other caring adults and make a report as necessary. In Pennsylvania, reports are made via ChildLine.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. Neglect is a form of abuse. Use this month to learn more about neglect and other types of abuse, so that you, too, can be a part of helping a child. It only takes one caring adult.
The news, social media and conversations on couches lit up Sunday night after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars. He did so after Rock told a distasteful joke about Smith’s wife - a fact that some have used for justification while others have argued the opposite. Still, it is not the actual slap or what led to it that has caught the attention of many. It is what happened afterward, which is to say nothing. Celebrities gasped, Rock recovered and not much later, Smith was greeted with a standing ovation as he was awarded the Oscar for Best Actor.
What should have happened? It’s hard to say. Smith could have been made to leave or he could have chosen to do so himself, for example. Regardless, the fact that nothing happened highlighted how we, as a society, view casual violence. It’s normal.
However, normalizing casual violence is dangerous. It implies an acceptance of violence and invalidates the victim, who may sometimes be a comedian on stage being slapped by a peer but is more often a romantic partner or a child. Normalizing casual violence increases the likelihood of casual violence and puts many without power in more danger.
Now is Will Smith slapping Chris Rock the most violent outburst seen in Hollywood or normalized by the world? No. It’s not even close. But it is an example - one that in a society of short attention spans, sits at the forefront presently. While it does, we should remember that our view of violence doesn’t exist in isolation. It has ripples. And so when violence does occur, we should respond appropriately with action.
Teenage girls in foster care are more than twice as likely to become pregnant as their peers not in care. In fact, 71% of young women who have been in foster care will be pregnant by age 21, and those who become pregnant before age 19 are increasingly likely to experience a second pregnancy - again before age 19.
These are startling statistics, even more so when you consider the educational and thus career outcomes for teen mothers. Only 2% of teen mothers graduate from college. Prior to that, only 40% graduate from high school. Youth in foster care have similarly grim outcomes, with 3% of young people who have been in care earning a bachelor’s degree. Imagine what that percentage looks like when discussing specifically teen mothers in foster care.
Preventing teen pregnancy for young women in foster care is multifaceted. It requires - among other things - access to quality and consistent sex education as well as quality and consistent health care, and the youth in foster care must feel as if they have a support system they can turn to without judgment. But prevention isn’t the only area that requires better services and resources.
The teenagers who become pregnant deserve access to the healthcare they want and require. Those who become mothers should be afforded the opportunities to complete their education and find careers that enable them to support their family.
At the R.J. Leonard Foundation, we are proud to be one such resource for young people in foster care, many of whom are young mothers. If you would like to be a part of helping these ever-impressive young people defy the statistics, contact us here.