Happy National Foster Care Month
Several important subjects are tackled in the month of May. Two of them I will be addressing here. May marks National Foster Care Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. Those that work within the foster system are well aware of the issues and concerns around mental health in this subset. Between the abandonment that the majority of these kids feel, to the oversaturation of kids in the system and lack of foster families, all parties are susceptible lack of resources, energy, resilience, and understanding about how to handle the emotional situations that are bound to happen.
Personal Perspective on Foster Care
My husband and I have been working with foster families for five years. Since we do not have kids of our own, we have found a way to work with a group of kids that are severely in need of love, understanding, patience, and support. We work with those who have their own biological kids and yet have opened their home to others in need. We have found that these foster parents lack the support and sometimes understanding of how to give themselves self-care or how to support the emotional needs of the kids in their home. The first family we started working with had a set of siblings who brought forth a lot of complications, concerns, and opened their eyes to how little they really were prepared for this change in their lives. This brought into focus various ways how we can help families traverse this experience.
Examples of Mental Health Concerns within the Foster Family
Lack of Basic Emotional Intelligence
Emotional Intelligence comes in many forms and levels of understanding. Just type in that term and thousands of articles will come up on it and how you can improve your “emotional intelligence.” Most people have some level of understanding emotions and how to differentiate how between various emotions and can recognize those emotions in others. However, most children coming into the foster care system do not understand mad, sad, glad, and the variations that come from these basic feelings. They can’t describe how they feel, and the most can’t express their feelings without throwing a tantrum as that was the only way they could get attention at home.
Foster parents often are uncertain the best way to deal with the lack of emotional understanding of the foster kids. Another dynamic happens when the foster children leave the foster home to be reunited with their biological family. Foster families aren’t often shown how to express their feelings around this with their own kids or their foster children. Teaching families that grief is natural and it is ok to feel various emotions is vital and sorely lacking in my opinion. I think that the movie, InsideOut, was a blessing as we use those characters all the time when we are teaching parents and kids how to express different emotions and talk to each other about what they are feeling in a way that the whole family can understand.
Consequences around Lack of Information
We worked with a family who was fostering 3 kids between the ages of 7-11. The oldest witnessed horrible things his younger siblings went through with trusted family members. Due to this, this child’s emotional age was stunted at 5 years old. The 11-year-old also came from another family that had placed this child on psychotropic drugs to help control their mood swings and poor sleeping habits. This medication variant added another layer that the foster family was unprepared for and was unsure the best action-whether the child should stay in the home or not. The sibling group had an unspoken history and acted as a team against the foster family. These siblings struggled to share anything in therapy and since foster parents do not generally have the rights to hear about what happens in therapy, there was a wall between these kids and the foster family.
The foster family ended up making the hard decision to have the 11-year-old leave their home, but they kept the other two. Due to the lack of knowledge of what happened and the limited access to Medicare therapists, the whole family suffered. The remaining foster kids grieved losing their sibling, and the foster parents were unsure if they made the right decision or to remove the child.
The Effects of Extreme Emotional Turmoil
Another case we have seen revolves around a 12-year-old child went to a home with other kids in it. This child had been in the foster system for 10 years and had a history of being moved around the system, along with going through the adoption process. This child was on ten different medications and labeled as ODD, RAD, and ADHD. Although the system readily accepted these medications and diagnoses, the foster system restricted access to therapy, support at school, and tools to help this child process their past. This began a 1.5-year cycle of the child threatening suicide, attempting suicide, and threatening the other kids in the home.
Once theft and continual lying was added to the mix, the foster parents had to make the difficult decision to remove this child from the home. The bio-children in the home were devastated, angry, confused, and totally unprepared on how to handle this turmoil. The foster parents struggled with guilt, grief, and burn out between the drawn-out hospital stays, the having to drop everything, and the effort to have this not affect the other children in the home. The relief they felt when the child wasn’t in the home made them feel guilty, the emotions of seeing what he put himself through strained their relationship about how to handle it, and the destruction and stealing of property put them in a difficult situation of deciding what was best for the child and the family. Again, lack of training by the foster system or support to the whole family system around resilience, becoming trauma-informed, and how to give yourself a break as parents was all very hard to witness.
The Need for Training in Foster Families
Although the foster system has access to legal, financial, medical, educational, and mental health services, generally foster parents aren’t told how to access these. In the age of focusing on emotional resilience and work/life balance, these foster families aren’t taught how to do this within the confines of having foster kids. We need to find ways to support our foster families better and give them better access to mental healthcare for the whole family. We need to find ways to give them access to training on emotional resilience and how to do self-care.
You don’t get to go home and escape the stressors when you are a foster family. You don’t get to take time off when you need it to restore your energy. It is a 24/7 job and unless you have others who tell you to pace yourself or offer you resources, you will burnout as a foster parent. We see this in all the horrible stories of the poor conditions of foster homes or the additional trauma and lack of supportive care the foster children receive in some foster homes. We need to teach those who are foster families (yes the bio-children and foster children too) about resiliency and how to thrive through whatever life throws at you. Here is a great resource around resilience strategies. Also, if you are a MINES client, you have access to a great online resilience program.
Compassion Fatigue/Secondary Trauma/Vicarious Trauma/Burnout
When a child is suicidal or has severe attachment issues, it can be draining to deal with the continual manipulation or the dynamics these mental health conditions can bring into a home and it is easy for families to experience compassion fatigue. When a child finally breaks down and expresses they don’t know how to read and that is why they ditch school or when they share their story of seeing their family die in a fire, foster families need to learn how to recognize secondary or vicarious trauma as they take these stories to heart and want to help these kids out. When the school system says the child doesn’t qualify for assistance or the medical system says the child has maxed out their allotted therapy sessions and hospital stays for the year, burnout can be high. By recognizing these terms and having others close to you keep an eye out for the symptoms, foster families can prepare themselves for the inevitable.
The biggest thing we see lacking is self-care amongst foster parents. Respite Care is an important option for all foster families to take advantage of. Some don’t want to use the respite system as it disrupts the schedule of the foster children and family in general. Some don’t use it as then they still have their bio-children who want their undivided attention while the other children are out of the house. Some use it but don’t know what to do with their time once the children are temporarily out of the home. The web has some great resources on ways to do self-care and there are plenty of articles on it. Two of the easiest things to do is to practice mindfulness and taking time to do things for yourself/loving yourself.
What can you do?
As an Outsider
If you know someone who is a foster parent, thank them. Offer to babysit the whole crew for an evening so they can go have a night out. Offer to make them dinner one night. See if they are connected to a foster support group, and if they aren’t, offer them a list of some, and even offer to go with them. We all need to talk to someone who understands what you are going through. Or help do laundry- extra kids means extra laundry and less time for family time.
And the same goes for the foster kids. Some of these kids have been through literal hell. Some have been abused in ways they don’t even recognize. Some struggle with why they are being removed and whether or not they are loved. The best thing you can do is find ways to connect and support these kids. It isn’t their fault their parents are unable to have them. Regardless of their behaviors or struggles, there is something you can do for them- show them unconditional kindness and love. If they are involved in sports, go see their games. If they are selling chocolate for school, buy some. Find ways to give foster kids a special experience or memory. One thing we do is take them to an ethnic grocery store and let them try various fruits and foods that they have never been exposed to. If all of us can share a bit of ourselves with these kids, then these kids have a better chance of thriving wherever they end up. This website is a great resource and there are plenty of other blogs and stories how you can help those who are in the foster care system. As an outsider, be that person foster kids can come to, feel loved, and help them find good outlets for their anger, frustration, and hurt.
As a Foster Care Provider
If you have time and can become a respite provider, do. If you become a foster parent, take time for self-care, take time to do training and prepare yourself, and consider all the things that can come along with a child before you make the commitment. If you are interested in being a CASA or a GAL, do the research and use your skills. Become a Big Brother or Big Sister or with another support type groups to help kids through the trauma and struggles of growing up without a bio-family or changing home situations. In whatever function you are in, find a support group, get connected with others, and give yourself a break when you falter or struggle. Be prepared to struggle and have a good support team that you see regularly to help you recognize when you start to show signs of secondary trauma or compassion fatigue as it will happen.
Personally, even though we do make sure that we take care of ourselves and our needs so that we don’t suffer from burnout/compassion fatigue, we have found at times to have certain memories burned into our brains and have experienced secondary trauma. We have seen a child draw a dead tree because trees don’t deserve to live and a house with a danger room. We have seen babies stagnate developmentally due to what their mother did while they were pregnant. We have been with families as they received the news of what happened in the biological home and watch it tear them apart. Through it all, we have had to come up with strategies to move past these tragic events and not let those traumatic memories affect our daily lives or interactions with kids.
Not all foster care agencies falter when it comes time to prepare foster families and not all foster kids suffer severe mental health conditions. Not all stories are tragic or heartbreaking. We have seen parents truly change their lifestyle or other relatives step up and bring the family back together. Some of these stories are wonderful and heart-warming. However, not all re-unifications result in a positive outcome. Regardless of what you do or how you choose to interact with the foster care system, resiliency, training, and self-care are important.
If you are financially able to support agencies or support groups, please do. There are some great agencies out there are trying to supply the resources needed for foster children and foster families. If you are able to provide free trainings or webinars, find a group to do that for.
MINES would be happy to talk to you more about how you can support your employees who may be foster parents and how EAP services can assist them through the journey they have decided to take. If you are interested in learning more about MINES EAP and PPO program, feel free to contact us at 1-800-873-7138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To Your Wellbeing,
The MINES Team
References and Suggested Reading
Joanne Riebschleger, Angelique Day & Amy Damashek (2015) Foster Care Youth Share Stories of Trauma Before, During, and After Placement: Youth Voices for Building Trauma-Informed Systems of Care, Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 24:4, 339-360, DOI: 10.1080/10926771.2015.1009603
Barbell, K., Wright, L. (2001). Family Foster Care in the Next Century. New York: Routledge. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/e/9781351320474
Erum Nadeem, PhD, Jill Waterman, PhD, Jared Foster, PhD, Emilie Paczkowski, PhD, Thomas R. Belin, PhD, and Jeanne Miranda, PhD. (2016) Long-Term Effects of Pre-Placement Risk Factors on Children’s Psychological Symptoms and Parenting Stress Among Families Adopting Children From Foster Care . Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders 25:2, 67 – 81, https://doi.org/10.1177/1063426615621050
Moira A. Szilagyi, David S. Rosen, David Rubin, Sarah Zlotnik. Health Care Issues for Children and Adolescents in Foster Care and Kinship Care. The Council on Foster Care, Adoption, And Kinship Care, The Committee On Adolescence And The Council On Early Childhood Pediatrics, Oct 2015, 136 (4) e1142-e1166; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2015-2656 https://goo.gl/inDxcD