I entered the office of Brian Carlisle, the Dean of Students at LaGrange College, where I was welcomed by low lighting from a single lamp in the corner of the room. Before I arrived at his office, I had expected to simply learn about his knowledge of the foster care system, but I gained much more. I left with an understanding of how one person can impact the lives of many.
Dean Carlisle received his bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of Alabama in 1996 and received his master’s degree in higher education administration in 1998. He took a few years off and worked until he decided that he wanted to go to law school. Carlisle attended Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, California. He went to law school at night and worked full-time during the day. Those four years were difficult for Carlisle; however, he persevered and graduated from law school in 2009. Dean Carlisle stated that he never intended to practice law, but instead he wanted to gain lawyering skills that he could use in various occupations.
After learning a little about each other, we discussed the heart of why I entered his office: the foster care system. Before meeting with him, I knew that Dean Carlisle is a foster parent; however, I knew nothing about the children he fosters and why.
Dean Carlisle fosters teenagers and is extremely passionate about it. He began fostering teenagers eight years ago. In those eight years, he has not only fostered teenagers, but he has also adopted one, is in the process of adopting another, and plans to adopt more in the future.
Teenage foster children are often overlooked because many people feel it would be hard to build a relationship with a teenager. “It’s going to take a long time to develop trust and respect and all of that sort of stuff, and sometimes that’s hard for parents,” Dean Carlisle says. “They want the baby so they can help cultivate that relationship, but they also think that they can control outcomes, and you can’t.”
Even though foster and adoptive parents usually try to avoid teenagers, Carlisle volunteers to speak at meetings for prospective foster parents, encouraging them to allow teenagers into their homes. Dean Carlisle explained that in each meeting, he informs attendees of the benefits that come from fostering and even adopting teenagers. According to federal law, as long as a child is in foster care or is a ward of the state at the age of thirteen, that child does not have to provide parental income on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. The child’s financial aid would be based solely on the child’s income, which is often nothing, so the child would receive the maximum amount of free money offered by the state and government. Foster children are even given additional access to scholarships. In other words, the adoptive parents of a teenager will most likely not have to pay anything for the child to go to a state college.
Because of his own work schedule and experience, Carlisle encourages foster parents to know their limits. Being aware of personal limitations, such as how much time you can spend with the child and supporting family, allows a person to choose the best path.
While many foster parents lean away from fostering teenagers, Dean Carlisle leans toward it for many reasons. Dean Carlisle is single and works a full-time job; therefore, he cannot leave work early enough in the afternoon to watch younger children. He is also drawn to teenagers because he interacts with them every day at work, which provides him with an understanding of how teenagers often behave, feel, and think. Having said that, Dean Carlisle did not choose to foster teenagers simply because of his time restraints or his experience with teenagers. Instead, he chose to foster teenagers for more significant reasons.
When Carlisle began working in education, he heard the devastating stories of numerous children. Many of those children struggled tremendously to get accepted into college. Carlisle felt that he could help students before the transition into college became another dreadful battle; however, his reasoning for fostering teenagers does not stop there.
“The thing that really hurt my spirit, more than I think anything else, was when I discovered that if you reach the age of twelve in foster care your likelihood of adoption is five percent, and that was crushing,” Carlisle noted. “To think that this child, whose probably been tossed in and out of a dozen or more foster homes and schools, at eighteen, is going to be on the street.” The statistics that surround teenage foster children impacted Dean Carlisle and heightened his want to foster teenagers.
Dean Carlisle works hard to provide teenage foster children with a welcoming home and possibly a forever home; however, some teenagers express that they are not interested in being adopted. Even if a teenager does not want to be adopted, being in Carlisle’s home for a period of time allows him to display the meaning of family to the child. “You can plant seeds for what [family] should be like so that as they decide that they want to build their own families, they will do something differently than their own parents did,” he said.
While fostering teenagers can be rewarding, there are also challenges. Dean Carlisle mentioned Reactive Attachment Disorder, which is where someone has experienced so much trauma and loss in their life that they no longer bond with others. This significantly relates to foster children since they often begin moving from one home to another at an early age. Being moved from home to home causes children to develop an emotional wall that is hard for others to break down. This wall is especially tough with teenagers since majority of them have been in foster care for many years.
Foster children, especially teenagers, often express emotions in ways that are different than people would expect, Dean Carlisle explained. While some foster children will hug others, many foster children do not like to hug or have never been taught how to hug. Interacting with a child who expresses emotions in a way that is not considered ordinary can be hard on foster parents who are trying to cultivate a loving relationship with the child. Dean Carlisle explained that children who have not received a lot of affection during their lifetime may not hug you, but they may play with toys beside you; this would be their way of showing affection since that is the only way they know how to.
Dean Carlisle expressed that there is a nationwide problem with the foster system. There are not enough certified foster homes. In Troup County, approximately two hundred and fifty children are in foster care, and there are only six certified foster homes. In Los Angeles County, California, approximately twenty thousand children are in foster care, and there are about a thousand certified foster homes. The insufficient number of certified foster homes affects all foster children; however, it significantly affects teenage foster children since it is generally harder to place them with a foster family.
After learning about Dean Carlisle’s life with foster children, I had one lingering question for him. “How has fostering and adopting teenagers influenced your life?” His answer was simple. Through fostering and adopting, Dean Carlisle has learned how to reflect on himself and change to be a better person. He stated that he has become more patient, compassionate, and has been pushed to think about life experiences in ways that he will never actually experience. Mainly, fostering and adopting brings him joy, especially when his foster children succeed because they are his children, even if he is not bonded to them by blood.
As I spent my final moments in Dean Carlisle’s office, I thought about the wonderful services that he provides to children and the community. Dean Carlisle is a person who loves to help others. His story of living to serve reinforced my feelings of wanting to do the same. I look forward to using everything that Dean Carlisle taught me about the foster care system and life, as I begin my journey towards working with foster children as a career.