Nurturing Young Lives

04/07/2008
By From the Lowll Sun

UMass Lowell program focuses on children in foster care

By Debbie Hovanasian, Sun Correspondent

LOWELL -- The statistics are shocking to many. In Massachusetts, 11,000 children are currently in the foster care system. The average age? Twelve years old.

Dr. Doreen Arcus, a developmental psychologist and associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who specializes in child development, is an advocate for the health and well-being of children in the system.

And to Arcus, that begins with not referring to them as foster children.

"We refer to them as 'children in foster care,'" she says. "They are not different kinds of children. They are individuals who are there through no fault of their own -- it's the family unit that failed them. They didn't sign up for this."

The tremendous plight and challenges of children in the system are nothing new to Arcus. She adopted her now 20-year-old son from the foster care system when he was 6 years old.

"As a parent who has adopted, I know firsthand what an important second chance that foster home provider was to my son," said Arcus.

In a perfect world, Arcus would see all children in the foster care system, most of whom were neglected or abused, "get that second chance, that opportunity for them to move toward a place where they can flourish. Their lives have been so troubled."

But the foster care system is not perfect, she admits. Still, she believes that greater awareness can make a difference and build on the success stories of the children who have been given that important second chance.

"Often we hear about the families that are not perfect, but there are thousands of children who are helped and given the path to a different life," she stressed.

In an effort to increase awareness, encourage more community involvement, and pique the interest of anyone who is drawn toward the foster care system, UMass Lowell will hold its Second Annual Foster Care Awareness Day on May 1, from 1 to 5 p.m. in O'Leary Library Room 222 on the South Campus at the university.

"Our goal is to raise people's awareness to the extent at which foster care is prevalent," Arcus said. "We'll also talk about ways people can help, and career opportunities that are available for working with these children."

Though May is Foster Care Awareness Month, only a handful of events like this one are offered in the country, and no other comparable events are planned in Massachusetts, according to Arcus.

The day will begin with informal conversations, information booths, snacks, "and then we'll all go inside for more formal presentations," explained Arcus.

"It's like one-stop shopping for foster care, where you'll hear from multiple perspectives. It's an innocuous way to learn more, to drop in anonymously."

The "Speak-Out" panel will consist of alumni of foster care "who don't always paint a rosy picture, but they'll let people known how formative foster care can be in someone's life."

There will also be panelists representing children in care, parents providing foster care, educators and child welfare workers.

The theme this year is "Education: Challenges for Children, Challenges for the System," focusing on special assistance needed and the challenges created by the instability in the lives of the children.

"We'll discuss ways to move forward and make it better," said Arcus, who adds that more attention is needed in areas where the stresses are greater.

As far as the many hours Arcus logs in for the welfare of children in foster care, she reflects on a friend who, as a social worker, works long hours with modest pay. "She told me that the bank is empty, but the heart is full."

Arcus views her work in much the same way. "I have the best job on the planet -- I get to do things I care deeply about, and I'm really lucky to have rewards all around me."

And she views the children in foster care in a special way as well. In an age when modern technology is employed for infertile couples to create what are referred to as "miracle babies," Arcus says she has another take on that.

"I'll tell you who the real miracle babies are -- they are the ones forced into the most adverse circumstances, but are still standing."

For more information, visit faculty.uml.edu/darcus/ and click on Foster Care Awareness Day 2008.