Helping foster kids deal with placement disruption 

By Dr. John DeGarmo

The placement of a child into your home is a life-changing experience for that foster child. Placement disruption is the term used when a child is removed from a home and placed into the custody of a child welfare agency, and thus into a foster home. For many, it is a frightening time, as the fear of the unknown can quickly overwhelm a child. Others are filled with anger, as they emotionally reject the idea of being separated from their family members. Feelings of guilt may also arise, as the child may believe that he or she had something to do with the separation from the birth and/or foster family. Some children experience self-doubt, as they feel that they simply did not deserve to stay with their family. For all, it is a traumatic experience that will forever alter the lives of foster children.

Many times, children placed into foster care suffer from mental health issues. A placement disruption may be so severe that it feels as if the child’s entire world is falling apart. Everything he knows to be true is now turned upside down. The family he lived with, grew up with, laughed with and cried with is no longer there to take care of him. The bed he woke up in each morning is now different. The school he went to, the teachers he learned from, other foster children and the friends he formed relationship with, have also been taken from him. As they struggle to adjust to new homes and families, children in foster care often struggle to survive these traumatic events.

Anxiety Disorders
Issues from anxiety can manifest themselves in a number of ways. Perhaps the one that foster children face the most is separation anxiety. Indeed, the more a child is moved from home to home, the bigger the concern becomes. Children who undergo multiple displacements often create walls to separate themselves in an attempt to not let others into their lives. In attempting to do so, many foster children end up lying to their foster families, as they try to keep their new family at a distance. This gives the child a sense of personal control.

Another anxiety disorder common among foster children is obsessive-compulsive disorder, where a child repeats unwanted thoughts, actions and/or behavior out of a feeling of need. Panic disorders are caused by anxiety as well. A child may experience intense bouts of fear for reasons that may not be apparent. These attacks may be sudden and unexpected, as well as repetitive. Panic disorders also may coincide with strong physical symptoms, such as shortness of breath, dizziness, throbbing heartbeats or chest pains. Another anxiety disorder that foster children may face includes social phobias, the fear of being embarrassed or facing the criticism of others.

Depression Disorders
The loss of a family may result in a foster child spiraling into depression. These feelings of depression may intrude in all areas of a foster child’s life from his ability to act and function at home to his school environment and the interaction with peers. Children who suffer from a depressive disorder may show strong, continuous signs of sadness. They may also have great difficulty focusing on schoolwork or life around them, and may instead concentrate on death or feelings of suicide. Loss of appetite or severe changes in eating habits may also be a result of a depressive disorder. Feelings of guilt over the placement may become overwhelming. Children who suffer from depressive disorders may lack energy in day-to-day tasks, or may have difficulty sleeping.

Anger
Dealing with separation and loss is difficult for anybody. As an adult, you have had experience with this and know who and where to reach out to when in need of help. Foster children, though, generally do not know how to handle these emotions. Yet, these feelings must be released in some fashion. One way of expressing feelings of isolation is to lash out in anger and frustration at those around them. Though foster children do not necessarily blame you, the foster parent or the caseworker, you may be the only one they can release them to. Anger may also result in destruction of property or items within your foster home.

Mental Health
Placement disruptions increase the chance that a child will need future mental health services. The longer a foster child stays within the same foster home, the greater chance of emotional bonding. A sense of stability is formed, which is beneficial for academic performance, social skills and behavior in the community and home. There are high levels of mental health problems among children in foster care. Most foster children face the reality that their mental health problems are not being addressed as needed. Psychological and emotional issues that challenge foster children may even worsen while in foster care. In many cases, foster children do not receive adequate services for mental health and developmental issues. Lack of government funding and resources, as well overworked, understaffed child welfare caseworkers means adequate services will not likely be readily available in the near future.

School Performance and Misbehavior
Foster children often have a difficult time exhibiting proper school behavior during the school day. For many, school is a constant reminder that they are foster children without a true home. This can be a difficult reality for them, and can be manifested in several ways, such as displaying aggressive or disruptive behavior, defiance and low self-esteem. Some foster children simply withdraw and become antisocial, in an attempt to escape the environment into which they have been thrust. For many foster children, violent behavior becomes the norm, as they not only act out in a negative and disruptive fashion in the school, but in their foster home as well. This can prompt another move to another foster home and another school.

As a result of this behavior, foster children often face greater risks of suspension from school, affecting their academic standing. They may repeat a grade level, or are simply placed in classes that are not appropriate to their age. Those children who suffer from depression have a much higher rate of behavior disorders, including violent behavior.

Aging Out: Leaving Foster Care
Being placed in a foster home is bad enough for a foster child. Sadly, for many foster children, leaving the system is even more traumatic. As a foster child reaches the age of 18, in most states, the child “ages out” of the foster system, and begins the transition into “the real world.” Foster youth who age out of care often leave without the necessary skills, experiences or knowledge to best adjust to society. Without a family to turn to, many foster children find themselves in difficult situations. These young adults, who are involuntarily separated from their foster families through the intervention of the government, face higher rates of homelessness, as most have no options for future housing. Unemployment is higher among former foster children, and many struggle financially. This may be due to the fact that roughly 50 percent of those foster youth who age out do not complete high school. They are more than twice as likely to not have a high school diploma as others their own age. Less than 30 percent of former foster children ever make it to college, let alone graduate with a degree.

Helping your Foster Child through Positive Relationships
The first few hours and days with a foster child are often the most difficult days you will experience as a foster parent. Your biggest weapon to combat the challenges you and your foster child face is consistency. If you are consistent in your love, support and help, you will begin to tear through those walls your foster child has erected, and begin the much needed healing process. The setting of rules and expectations are of the upmost importance in the first few days. Just as important for your foster child, as it is for all children, is the foundation of a positive and nurturing relationship. Without this, your job as a foster parent will be even more difficult.

Trust can be built by showing your foster child that you are concerned for his or her well being, physically, emotionally and mentally. Showing compassion for your foster child is an important part of building a healthy relationship, as he or she needs to know and feel that you care for him or her. After all, close relationships between children and adults are a central part of avoiding further risky behavior. But for some foster children, it takes a long time to establish trust.

Many of the environments your foster child left before coming to live with you are distressing or heartbreaking. As a foster parent, you will be able to build a stronger relationship with your foster child by trying to understand his or her feelings. By doing so, you also learn why he or she acts a certain way. Empathy also helps in breaking down the walls between you and the child, as your compassion and love for the child grows.

Find your foster child doing something well, and notice him or her for it. Tell him or her that you appreciate what he or she has done. This can be as simple as cleaning up a room, taking the garbage out, playing quietly, completing homework or hanging up a bath towel. No matter how small the action, it is essential to your foster child’s well being that he or she feels recognized and that his or her actions are significant.

Simply by putting all else aside, sitting down and listening, you will help your foster child develop a better sense of self worth, as you validate your child’s thoughts, feelings and emotions. As your foster child has had many experiences outside your own home, it is important to remember not to judge your foster child or be critical as you listen. Simply let him or her talk. If your foster child brings up something that the caseworker needs to know, then it is your responsibility to inform the caseworker.

Spending time with your foster child and focusing on him or her is important for the mental health of the child. Including your foster child in family activities is essential for the well being of your household. These might include going to the movies, park and faith-based activities as a family. If your foster child is interested in joining a local sports team, like a recreational or school baseball team, then encourage the child to try out, and attend the games he or she plays in. Learn what hobbies your foster child enjoys, and join in with them. Invite your foster child to help you make dinner, and eat together as a family.

Your foster child will no doubt come to you with a myriad of problems. Whether emotional, psychological or physical, the problems will be too difficult for him or her to overcome alone. He or she will need your love, support, kindness, patience and compassion. With the proper training and knowledge, never doubt that you will make a difference in the life of your foster child.

Reprinted by permission of Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2013, Dr. John DeGarmo, The Foster Parenting Manual: A Practical Guide to Creating a Loving, Safe and Stable Home, ISBN: 978-1-84905-956-5, http://www.jkp.com/catalogue/book/9781849059565

Dr. John DeGarmo has been a foster parent for 11 years, and he and his wife have had more than 40 children come through their home. He is a speaker and trainer on many topics about the foster care system, and travels around the nation delivering passionate, dynamic, energetic and informative presentations. Dr. DeGarmo is the author of Fostering Love: One Foster Parent’s Story and the new book The Foster Parenting Manual: A Practical Guide to Creating a Loving, Safe and Stable Home. He also writes for a number of publications and newsletters, both here in the United States and overseas. Dr. DeGarmo can be contacted at drjohndegarmo@gmail.com, through his Facebook page, Dr. John DeGarmo or at his website, www.drejohndegarmo.com.