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Youth Support Group Builds Trust and Support for Black Foster Children in Columbia

By Adrienne Cornwall

Columbia, Mo. (July 6, 2016) — When graduate student Reuben Faloughi’s program in counseling psychology brought him to the MU’s Assessment and Consultation Clinic, which later merged with the Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders, he noticed quickly that some children he worked with were falling through the cracks.

“I began to see how a lot of the kids in foster care, they had a lot of unmet needs,” Faloughi said. In particular, young black teens seemed to be lacking guidance at a time when their identity as adults is just beginning to form. “It’s an age where people are trying to figure out who they are.”

Along with Dr. Connie Brooks, a psychologist at the Thompson Center, Faloughi began to develop a support group project for 13- to 14-year-old African-American boys in foster or adoptive care in Columbia. And he called it The Dream Team, a name that hints both at what he hoped the group would be to each other and at the skills they would take away from their experience over the 10 weekly sessions from January to March.

“We’re like teammates, we look out for each other,” Faloughi said. “Hopefully when they leave the group, they will have identified their dreams and aspirations, and they will also have identified skills to reach those dreams and how to put people around them who are going to help them reach their dreams.”

On the last evening the group met, Faloughi expanded the team roster with a visit from two friends, MU alumni Chris Crosby and Darren Morton, who said they were surprised at how poignant the group’s questions were.

“It takes such a special child to be able to open up,” said Morton, a local youth football coach who has worked with youth for 14 years with a range of issues from mental health and behavioral challenges to struggles with addiction. “You can tell what they built in that room was real and effective.”

Along the way during their sessions, the participants offered a lot of give and take with Faloughi, who played dual roles as part facilitator and part educator in discussions about traditional adolescent issues – school, sports, self-esteem, girls – as well as black history and culture.

“For some of them, this is the first time someone has talked about race with them,” Faloughi said. “A lot of black kids think that the history of black people started as slaves in the United States. They have no idea about Africa and what black people were doing, or of the African scientists, or African intellectuals that were in Egypt.”

Discussions about race were not only centered on history but also what the children were experiencing in the current national climate.

“There is no one definition of what it means to be a black male, or a black person in general,” Faloughi said. “Once we created the environment where they felt comfortable sharing, I was blown away by how much insight they had.”

Crosby’s message in the last session was that having support would be key to their success and that effective communication is an important skill to develop throughout life, and he acknowledged that trust could be a barrier to communication for these young men.

“It can be hard trusting people,” Crosby said. “These kids are strong for what they’ve been through and the perseverance they’ve showed.”

Faloughi found as the group progressed that the children would open up about their instincts when they felt they had been treated unfairly, and not only that, but to label their feelings about those experiences, which is difficult for many children at this stage of development.

“People in the group have talked about wanting to pull their skin off,” Faloughi said. “Being able to emotionally articulate that, talking about feeling less than or feeling bad, being able to put labels on emotions, I was surprised.”

Faloughi hopes that other providers can take the Dream Team concept further by establishing similar groups in school and community settings.

“This is life-altering for these kids,” Faloughi said. “It’s very important to create spaces for these kids – all-black spaces but also multicultural spaces so that we can learn from each other. Both are equally important.”