Sunday, August 21, 2011
Trauma Informed Foster Care
Foster parents are a precious resource in our child welfare system. They offer traumatized children what they need most: a loving family. The best thing that could happen to a child who has been wounded is to live with a family that loves him, accepts him, and sticks with him. Foster parents come into their role from all walks of life and for every possible reason. Every family constellation is represented. Some foster parents are relatives of the child, or have known him in some previous capacity. Many have experienced their own traumas and see providing foster care as their way to give back.
Being a foster parent to a trauma surviving child is quite different from being a staff in a treatment facility. You are in your own home, and there is no immediate backup. You may have other members of your immediate family present, such as your biological children. You are trying to integrate the child into your actual life, your extended family, your neighborhood, your favorite activities.
Child care staff in treatment programs are taught a method of interacting with children that is significantly counter intuitive, and is usually completely unlike the way they were raised. But they have a team, other workers, treatment professionals and policies to help them maintain these strange practices. Foster parents do not have any of these readily available. Instead, they have a chorus of extended family members and friends telling them they should be stricter and not let the child get away with so much. It is much harder to change one’s style of parenting in one’s own home where one has successfully raised one’s own children.
The most important gift that a foster family can give a child is permanency. The children are damaged by disrupting and moving over and over again. The education and support we give foster parents should be primarily aimed at giving them the stamina to stick with the child. Keeping these children is very difficult as they put the family through such extreme behaviors, all based on their own assumptions about relationships. Yet the foster parent has the most power to heal this child, but helping the child to experience pleasure and associate it with other people; and by building the child’s brain through rhythmic, repetitive, rewarding activities.
One of the most powerful determinants of how a family responds to behaviors is how they define them. For example, Natalie is a twelve year old girl who has severe difficulties at bedtimes. She was placed with the Bruce family, and they defined her bed time behaviors as defiance. They had told her to turn out her light and go to sleep, and she kept getting up. The Bruce’s case manager asked them to sit in her room, read her a story, and talk with her, and to give her a night light. Mrs. Bruce thought this was just being too indulgent; she would never let one of her own kids get away with this. Did Natalie have no respect for her? Besides, Mrs. Bruce said, she could tell that Natalie was enjoying her presence in her room. This was just rewarding bad behavior. The placement disrupted.
Then Natalie was placed with a single mother, Mrs. Harris. She immediately connected Natalie’s bed time behavior with her having been abused and left alone. She started using music to help Natalie fall asleep, and gave her a night light. They developed a bed time ritual that they both enjoyed which included reading a book and then singing a good night song to each other. These interventions did not make everything perfect and there were still many other behaviors to deal with. Buy Natalie gradually began going to sleep more easily.
When we train foster parents in understanding trauma, how it affects children, how it relates to their current behaviors and how they can heal, we offer them a new framework for understanding their child’s behavior. We help them not to take the behaviors so personally. We must stress that these behaviors are adaptive and reflect what has happened to the child. The child is doing the best he can, and will do better when he is happier, feels seen heard and connected, and when he feels safer. All our training efforts should be directed towards this end.
We are currently creating a training program for trauma informed foster care, and would love to hear from anyone who has any experience with this. Just click on the word “Comment”,