Youth in foster care are at risk for experiencing behavioral health problems, low educational attainment, homelessness, and other negative outcomes (Gypen et al., 2017). Youth with foster care experienced have described feeling overwhelmed, confused, voiceless, judged, ashamed, angry, and sad (Children’s Bureau, 2019); however, little is known about how youth and other stakeholders view possibilities for the foster care system to be supportive. Creative methods offer opportunities to empower youth and stakeholders and co-construct ideas for system change. This study utilized relational poems with youth in foster care and other stakeholders. As we observed prevalent use of symbolism within poetic responses, we asked: What messages does symbolism have for reimagining supports for youth in foster care?
Relational poems (Witkin, 2007) were collected through seven arts-based focus groups with 41 participants, including youth with foster care experience (n=13), parents (n=2), child welfare professionals (n=28). Purposive sampling was used within a statewide project involving public and private agencies across a Midwestern state. Participants co-constructed poems with the expressed purpose of developing practice and policy recommendations to improve the experiences of youth in foster care. Poems were coded for symbolism in Dedoose. Rigor and trustworthiness were enhanced by using multiple reads, team co-coding, team consensus of themes, detailed audit trail of coding and analyses, and peer debriefing among researchers.
Thematic analysis of symbolism in participants’ poems identified seven themes. (1) Nature/ natural phenomena, which spoke to aspirations and hope (e.g., wind, storm, rain, shine, stars, sky/skies, universe, force field). Excerpt: “Be the calm in the storm”. (2) Human body and senses which were directed at holistic understandings (e.g., toes, heart, scars, bruises, eyes, listening, seeing). Excerpt: “Listen with your heart. Listen with your toes.” (3) Actions and physical objects referred to helping relationships and captured key concepts, including self-determination, respect, empathy, compassion/care, hope, and humanity/humanness. Excerpt: “They are the experts of their lives. We are simply guests.” (5) Paperwork, cases, bureaucracy symbolized dehumanizing elements of the system. Excerpt: “Boxes of binders and papers meant to help, but only making me feel like a lab rat.” (6) Connectedness, family, tribe and common humanity symbolized family/relationship-oriented goals of the system. Excerpt: “Help them find their tribe. Build the tribe up.” (7) Metaphors for strong emotions and significant concepts, both positive and negative. Excerpts: “Trauma ripples out and touches everything” and “But rage against the injustices. Shout it from the rooftops.”
Conclusions and Implications: This study contributes to the foster care literature by centering youth and stakeholder voices, using creative expressions and co-constructed knowledge for system change in child welfare. Poems suggest areas of challenge as well as ideas for growth and inspiration. Future research should continue to incorporate the views of youth with foster care experiences alongside parents and professionals. Creative and arts-based methods offer opportunities to expand our understanding and center youth expertise. Examining multiple perspectives simultaneously is an important step toward honoring youth and parents and ensuring their needs, dreams, and resiliencies are considered.