Our final blog post for our National Foster Care Month blog series on teen males is a profile of foster care alumni and Foster Focus Magazine publisher Christopher Chmielewski. Christopher was adopted at an early age and grew up in the “coal region” of Pennsylvania. He entered foster care as a teen and eventually “aged-out” of the system. Once Christopher aged out of foster care, he was expelled from school just a few weeks short of his high school graduation. This did not deter Christopher from continuing his education. He received his equivalency diploma and registered for college the day after achieving this goal. Christopher could have remained in foster care until age 21 but elected to leave because he had begun to feel like a burden on the foster parents who welcomed him into their family.
Christopher’s initial foster care experience was unique. He was able to try out 3 or 4 foster homes before deciding upon the older couple he would spend his teen years with. Once the decision was made, he was made aware of the house rules and expectations right away but also felt welcomed right away. Christopher admits that he “toed the line”. He was trying to get over on them and avoid an emotional attachment but over time he developed a parental bond with his foster parents, Richard and Maxine. They had a strong impact in his life and he did not want to disappoint them. Christopher is grateful that his foster parents were truthful and direct with him about his future and the likelihood that he would not be returning to his family. There were three kids in the home and Christopher was the oldest. He accepted the responsibility of being a positive example to the younger children by helping in the household and encouraging independence.
Generally speaking, youth in foster care aren’t given a platform tho share their voices. Their lives are in someone else’s hands. According to Christopher, foster care is 90% emotion and once you remove emotion from the equation you can see the benefits in the system set up to take care of children in need. For youth in care, he says that your reaction to care is often the deciding factor in the outcome of your foster care experience. During our interview, he described a particularly tough court appearance when a judge completely berated him. The judge had not read his case file and he felt only thought of him as a case number. Christopher was totally shocked by this behavior and even cried. “This type of behavior from a judge can ruin a young person’s self-confidence”, he told me.
Christopher believes that people aren’t asking the right questions and as a result youth, foster parents, biological parents, layers, and social workers don’t really know all they need to know about how foster care works. Kids are not given a pamphlet when they enter care and workers need to know what to do in various situations to positively impact lives. He believes that the majority of foster parents are good people who want to make a difference in a child’s life. He also knows that what kids in care need most are loving parents. Because of these beliefs, Christopher is saddened when he hears of situations with foster parents who, in the name of child abuse prevention, are not allowed to parent. Christopher has found that some foster parents only “monitor” and do not “parent” or really guide the children in their care. He is aware of instances where youth have been removed from homes by fearful workers because the child has labeled the foster parents “mean” when the only option is to follow certain household rules. Let me be clear that Christopher is not talking about physical discipline or excessive boundaries or authoritarian parenting. He is advocating that foster parents provide not only food and shelter but structure, care and connection and that foster care workers make decisions in the best interest of the child and not from a place of fear of losing their jobs. He envisions a system where small issues don’t take away from the main objective and all parties involved concentrate on the things that are truly important.
The ages of 14-19 are critical in the lives of youth in foster care. He advises youth to begin to develop their exit plans early. For many young people, including Christopher, they know they’re going to age out but are often surprised when it really happens. He didn’t know what he was in store for and doesn’t want any teen to be surprised by their circumstances. He wants them to be aware of the resources available to them and the possibilities of what can happen next.
When I asked how e can best support teen males in foster care, Christopher said that we need to allow young people to find their own way but people in authority need to ask kids what they want and need. He warns that it is easy for teens to be short-sighted but “right no doesn’t matter” he said. In order for a young person to be successful things need to fall into place and we must encourage them to recognize their worth and take advantage of available resources.
Christopher wants young people to understand that they are not alone – there is a group for them and a team of people working on their behalf. He also pointed out that successful foster care teens and alumni are all around us. “You are a force”, he said of youth in care. “Utilize the power you have to achieve what you want. Don’t get sad and don’t be destructive based on emotions of today. Get angry and prove all naysayers wrong”, he continued. His final piece of advice is that people will remember what you do and no what you say so be a benefit.
Christopher could not find the resources and information he was seeking during his transition period. He wanted to get his hands on as much information as possible before aging out but they didn’t exist. As he got older he wanted to understand the system that shaped his life. He began to research and realized that he knew the foster care system and what was missing from it. After college, he began to lay the ground work for Foster Focus Magazine. Foster Focus Magazine debuted in May 2011. It is the nations only monthly foster care magazine and is available in print or digital copies from the company website. Foster Focus Magazine Magazine is essential and unique because it covers all of the foster care industry not just one area and features some of the most influential figures in the foster care industry. Christopher practices what he preaches and has taken the emotion out of his time spent in the foster care system. He is an old fashioned news reporter – giving us the good, bad, real good, and real bad of care. The stories in Foster Focus Magazine are an unbiased account of our current foster care system. Christopher is working on a prison version of Foster Focus Magazine. This version will not have pictures and will support incarcerated parents whose kids are in foster care as well as those incarcerated individuals who were in foster care as a youth.
Today Christopher is a married father of three. He is raising the bar and challenging himself as he enters second year of entrepreneurship with Foster Focus Magazine. Christopher wants to get as much foster care news and information out to the public as possible in an effort to help create a better foster care system.
Nicki Sanders, MSW, Chief Visionary Officer
The Teen Toolbox provides youth portfolio development and civic engagement and academic enrichment opportunities to help teens set goals for life after high school and create a road map to reach those goals through its PACKAGED FOR SUCCESS™ Programs.