Time does not wait while the foster care system goes slowly about its business of removing and replacing children. The child is growing and developing in response to his or her experiences. Early experiences are more lasting, and will shape later ones.
The stated goal of the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997 was to find a permanent home for each child within 12 months. Yet 15 years later in 2012, over half of all foster children still exceeded that time. The average length of stay in foster care nationally at last count was 22.7 months.
As time passes, caseworkers may excuse themselves by assuming that the child is doing fine, parked for the moment in a safe place. Such an attitude misunderstands the mindset of the displaced child. No matter how secure and caring, the foster home is not a safe place. Foster care is temporary.
Even adults find it very difficult to adapt to a moving base. For a child with minimal experience of life’s ups and downs, it is nearly impossible to adjust to a situation which by definition is transitory. Because a baby is pre-verbal, some adults assume that he or she is not sensitive and perceptive. Just the opposite is true. They may be more perceptive and aware of their surroundings, but lack the maturity and the language to evaluate things rationally. Even the youngest baby can sense its mother’s mood and respond.
Brain scans of pre-school children provide compelling evidence of the importance of early life experiences. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes:
During the first three to four years of life, the anatomic brain structures that govern personality traits, learning processes, and coping with stress and emotions are established, strengthened, and made permanent…..The nerve connections and neurotransmitter networks that are forming during these critical years are influenced by negative environmental conditions….It is known that emotional and cognitive disruptions in the early lives of children have the potential to impair brain development.
Some psychologists and social workers have naively believed that multiple placements have taught children how to attach or bond easily. This is tragically not true. Learning good manners and how to get along pleasantly and superficially is surely a skill, but it is very different from bonding. Good manners, in this case, can be superficial, a veneer to get along, a survival skill that some foster children have mastered out of sad necessity.
Bonding is elemental. It’s what happens to normal people over time when they share meals and bedtime stories, chores and recreation, watch TV and play video games together, go shopping and to baseball games. Bonding is part of the process of living together.
Bonding takes time and being together day after day. Once hurt by losing that relationship, children are understandably hesitant to re-bond. When these relationships continue to be disrupted, it will take a long time, if ever, for the child to recover. They may never form a bond again.