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Jessica Christie: Advocating for Foster Children through Research 

In four years of work for the Boys and Girls Club of America, Jessica Christie became intensely aware of the complexities and challenges faced by special-needs youth in foster care.  In the US foster care system, the term “special needs” carries legal and medical meaning, and classifies some children as in need of additional services for reasons of behavior, history, or disability.  One risk of the term is that it can compound the stigma that attaches to children seeking foster or adoptive homes, encouraging potential foster or adoptive parents to regard these children as too difficult to care for. Yet Christie’s experiences allowed her to meet some amazing parents who defy these tendencies.

By developing an independent research project with Linda Watts, Christie became both a Mary Gates Research Scholar and a UW Bothell Founder’s Fellow for Undergraduate Research. These highly competitive programs support motivated undergraduates in pursuing original research.  In the process, Christie customized her own course of study through IAS’s Individualized Studies major focused on social justice education.  The major allowed Christie to craft her own research and degree paths as she learned to advocate for these youth and the families who care for them.

One family in particular catalyzed Christie’s inquiry: a single mother who adopted three special-needs siblings. The oldest children are twins (one boy, one girl); the youngest is a third-grade girl.  The kids struggle with multiple medical, psychological, and developmental needs, including Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), with varying degrees of severity. As Christie says, “despite the rollercoaster of diagnosis and treatment, the adoptive mother finds constant joy, laughter, and love in helping the children to grow and develop.”

 “Very few people know the joys and successes that these mothers have experienced,” Christie notes, because these stories go untold and unheard.  The resulting knowledge gap, means that potential foster parents bypass special-needs children “in the false belief that are unable to care for the demands of a special-need child.”

Christie’s research project addresses this gap by producing resources for families who are considering fostering or adopting special-needs children, for families who are fostering or adopting, and for the children in foster care environments.  Utilizing oral history as her method, Christie shares stories of resilience and success.  Her goal is to challenge stereotypes, raise awareness, and build wider acceptance of special needs children and their foster and adoptive families.  When it is completed, her study will be a web resource for families of foster, special-needs, and/or adopted children. Christie plans to include support groups, recommendations and tips, and different short stories she has collected to help give people a face to relate to.

For youth in the foster-care system, Christie is planning to write an illustrated children’s book that will help explain what foster care is and give children a narrative and images in which they can place themselves.  “This product of the research comes from my struggle to find information about the history of child care and the nature of explaining foster care to children,” she notes.  “Many kids don’t know about foster care, and this can feed anxieties, should they enter the foster care system, or when meeting a new friend who isn’t sure how to explain their situation (in foster care).”  The book will also have a discussion guide so parents or teachers can help their children understand what it means to be a foster child.

Linda Watts, Christie's faculty mentor, has encouraged her research and influenced its design:  “We started out thinking our main purpose would be to document the experiences of a particular special needs parent.  As the work unfolded, it became clear that her testimony could help inform and inspire additional resources to foster youth and their families.”  Speaking simultaneously as a scholar, a former foster parent, and a parent educator, Watts applauds Christie’s choices in sharing her research in the highly accessible forms of a website and a children’s book. Both choices address significant social needs and gaps.

Christie graduates this winter; research and advocacy occupy her post-graduation plans.  She intends to enroll in a teaching certification program for K-8. Looking further into the future, Christie thinks she might want to pursue a Master’s in Education and perhaps a Ph.D., with a focus on how this set of issues affects underrepresented people in the international context. One of her future goals extend to building lesson plans for children in UN refugee camps.