Devastating life events such as chronic family dysfunction, abuse and neglect, multiple placements, poor decisions by the court or mistreatment by court-appointed caregivers take a toll on the immature mind.
To cope, we may withdraw into a prickly shell to protect our minds from the confusion and our hearts from the pain. Trust issues make it difficult to share feelings for fear of being hurt again. Aggression, crime and delinquency symbolize inner-turmoil. Drugs and alcohol offer temporary relief from unending psychological pain.
This unhealthy existence before and during foster care sometimes leads to specialized child welfare placements, such as juvenile reformatories, mental health facilities or substance abuse programs.
But failure to mend a foster child’s mental health issues, not just control the symptoms – or even worse, failure to notice or treat them – will likely handicap her long after emancipation.
As alumna Dr. Rosalind Folman states so incisively on pages 154-155 in Growing Up in the Care of Strangers:
“Most children enter foster care already traumatized. They view the world as an unstable and uncaring place where adults cannot be trusted and tend to regard themselves in negative terms, including bad, worthless, undeserving and unlovable. They also often lack the emotional resources that are necessary to develop healthy relationships, such as the ability to trust, to care and to empathize.
Despite these overwhelming barriers which hamper children’s ability to adapt to a family setting, foster care focuses its energy on attaining permanency, as if that alone would solve their problems, and invests relatively little in helping children to overcome their trauma and facilitating their development…
If foster care professionals do not make every effort to change the way that children view the world and build up their inner strengths, these children probably will not be able to benefit from their placement experience, whether it be temporary or permanent, or transition successfully to adulthood. ”
Melanie Barney corroborates Dr. Folman’s observations on pages 108-109:
Growing up in the care of strangers affects a child’s mind, and the circumstances that led to removal from the family usually involves trauma.
Similarly, the insecurity that results from multiple placements and living with foster parents not suited to raising foser children blunts their emotional growth.
Burdened by years of unresolved issues and questions, we often leave the foster care system with psychological problems that limit our ability to mature emotionally…I suspect that is one reason why so many of us end up enmeshed in other government systems as adults, rather than successfully transitioning to independence.”
Youth placed in out-of-home care deserve – no, require – regularly scheduled mental health sessions with a qualified therapist throughout their placement and access to psychological services for a few years after emancipation.
Coping with issues related to the death of parents, severe family dysfunction, abandonment or abusive and neglectful foster parents are but several examples of psychological problems that can negatively affect a child’s emotions and behaviors during placement and long afterward. The earlier these issues are identified, the less time they have to confuse the mind and the sooner proper treatment can remedy them.
Just as physical wounds left to fester blemish the human body, psychological wounds that go untreated – or are mistreated – leave an indelible mark on a foster child’s impressionable mind.
Dr. Waln Brown is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation, and Dr. John Seita is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University. Their latest e-book, A Foster Care Manifesto, is a call to action for the 12 million foster care alumni in America.
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