Saturday, July 10, 2010

Vicarious Traumatization and Foster Care

"I’ve been a foster parent for sixteen years" said Michelle. "And this is the first time anyone has ever asked about how this job affects me."

The last session in my six module training for foster parents was entirely focused on them. How does this very difficult work affect them? We started with the definition of vicarious traumatization (VT) from Risking Connection© (Sidran Foundation). It is:

"VT refers to the negative changes in the helper as a result of empathically engaging with and feeling, or being, responsible for traumatized clients." We can see these affects physically, emotionally, in our thoughts, in our sense of safety, in our relationships, our spirituality, and our sense of hope.

We did the Silent Witness exercise from Risking Connection© training. In this exercise, participants write anonymously on a piece of paper three ways that their job affects them in negative ways. On the back of the page they write three ways the job has affected them in positive ways. The leaders collect the pages and read them anonymously to the group. First, we read the negative ways, then we discussed them.

The foster parents spoke of not being able to sleep because of worrying what their child will do. They described the isolation of being alienated from friends and family who do not understand why they do not just punish the child more severely. A parent described how hard it can be when she has been desperately worried about a runaway foster daughter and then the girl returns and acts mean to her and seems to think her behavior was fine. A father talked about being with his son when a planned visit with the bio mother was cancelled due to her not showing up. A mother spoke about how tired she always feels, and how she no longer wants to go out with her friends or even do her favorite scrapbooking because she just wants to sleep. One parent said that for him the hardest thing is not knowing what to do, how to respond, and beginning to doubt himself. Several parents described the effects on their biological children, who resented the attention taken by the foster child and who at times had themselves been physically hurt.

As we discussed this list, several parents commented on how depressing it was. Then Arlene said: "but it is so good to know I am not alone in feeling this way." Several people said they could have written everything on the list. The parents felt that only others in this field could understand what it is like.

We then turned to the list of positive benefits. Many parents felt that they had become better people because of doing this work. They were more patient, more understanding, and more creative. They felt they had become better parents to their bio children. In fact, many also felt that their bio children had become better people because of the foster children. Repeatedly people spoke of how much it meant that your life had a purpose, that you were doing something very important, that you were making a difference in a child’s life.

The positives do not take away the negatives. They are both real. It is through the intensity of the work that personal transformation happens.

Again and again the parents said how important it was that they could talk about the affect of the work on themselves, with people who understood.

We have to make sure that it is not sixteen more years before they get another opportunity to do so.

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