101 Careers in CounselingIn this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!

Counselors working with children in foster care are counseling children removed from their homes due to some type of abuse or neglect. Such counselors must prepare themselves for demanding and often stressful work. It is important to realize the “Catch-22” situation that the child protection caseworkers face when removing children from their homes. On the one hand, caseworkers may be criticized for leaving children under the care of abusive or neglectful parents; on the other hand, caseworkers are vulnerable to criticism for removing children from their homes as they are “breaking up families.” Numerous infamous cases have sprung up in the national media over the years regarding children removed from their parents’ home, or in some cases, children who were not removed from their homes. The counselor becomes involved when the child has been removed from their home. The counselor may work for a state agency called Child Protection Services, Department of Children and Families, or something similar. In most cases, the counselor is likely to be assigned a child or young adolescent who may be angry at being taken from his or her family, siblings, home environment, friends, and local school. It would be natural for a child placed in foster care to initially show mistrust when counseling begins. After all, the child has been violated by an adult or adults and will naturally be hesitant before trusting the counselor. A critical task for counselors working with foster care children is the ability to establish trust. Establishing a trusting therapeutic relationship is likely to be far more important than theoretical approaches or the use of specific techniques. In fact, some research indicates that technique and approach may be far less important than a counselor’s ability to create trust.

Issues to Understand:

There are several issues counselors should be aware of when counseling foster care children. Some of them are as follows:

  • Children may “act out” their anger behaviorally
  • Foster care children and adolescents may be less likely to trust a counselor due to past abuse and neglect
  • Sadness and depression are common due to the child “losing their family”
  • Understand that, because of a shortage in foster care placements, the child may be living in an environment that is neither nurturing nor healthy
  • You will need to be able to set limits with a noncompliant child and at the same time create therapeutic attachment. These two different demands may be challenging to achieve
  • It is natural, even expected, that beginning counselors might have a difficult time setting aside their own personal feelings about child abuse and neglect. But, to be therapeutic, counselors must focus more on healthy therapeutic attachment and less on sympathy

Best Aspects of the Job:

  • The ability to provide a sense of safety to abused or neglected children
  • A sense that you are providing the child with long-term skills to enable him or her to deal with future difficulties
  • Giving foster care children an opportunity to understand that some adults can be trusted
  • Helping to reduce a child’s anxiety and depression

Challenging Aspects of the Job:

  • Working with abused and neglected children can be emotionally painful and physically draining
  • Many of the children in foster care will return to the abusive and neglectful home environments from where they were removed
  • At times, counselors working with foster care children will have to fight against their own self-doubts. (e.g., “Am I really making a difference?”)
  • If you are a counselor with a history of abuse in your own family, you may over-identify with the child in a manner that is psychologically challenging for you
  • Regarding the previous statement, it is imperative that you maintain good self-care

Occupational Outlook and Salary:

Mental health counselors are most often general occupation types who work with children in foster care. The median salary for mental health counselors is:

  • Government settings (such as Department of Children and Families): $40,000
  • Outpatient settings: $37,590
  • Residential treatment: $29,950

Remember, some private agencies pay more than others, and counselors with more years of experience and counseling supervisors will earn more in residential treatment settings. Occupational outlook: Mental health counselors: 24% growth rate over next 7 to 10 years.