Helping professionals working with a child who is victim of neglect and abuse typically expect that foster care placement will signify the end of the prolonged experience of trauma. For foster children themselves, however, foster care placement itself may represent a new experience of trauma. . Beyond the promise of a new beginning, the journey through foster care is not always what it seems. For many children, foster care placement is scary. It entails hard work, periods of ambiguity, and sometimes brings about unwelcome lessons.
Unquestionably, foster home placement is a journey that no child should have to endure alone. It takes a concerted effort on the part of many to help a foster child realize the hope that we have for him or her. School counselors can play a critical role in orchestrating a circle of support around foster children. Most parents consider their children a joyous part of life, but some children are less fortunate—including those who are abused and neglected within the foster/group-home care system. They are taken from abuse and neglect and sometimes delivered into more abuse and neglect.
They are “anybody’s child. ” As of 1997, approximately 500,000 children and youth were in foster care (Noble, 1997). Foster children are typically removed from their homes and placed in a care setting because their biological parents are unable to adequately care for them. The most common offenses that precipitate the child’s removal from the home are physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect (Noble, 1997). The hospitalization of the primary care giving parent, as the result of mental illness, for example, may also be a precursor to foster placement.
On rare occasions, a child’s own behavioral problems and/or disabilities may result in foster care placement (Noble). The Challenges Children in foster care often experience serious psychological, social, and physiological difficulties resulting from their traumatic and turbulent histories of abuse and neglect (Ayasse, 1995; Hochstadt, Jaudes, Zimo, & Schachter, 1987). Hochstadt(1987) used a contextual conceptualization to frame the discussion of the emotional and/or behavioral challenges presented by foster children.
In his view, many of the behaviors displayed by foster children are reactions to traumatic events rather than manifestations of child psychopathology. He identified the following three categories of challenges facing foster children: 1. Problems related to pre-placement conditions 2. Problems related to normal adaptation to foster care placement 3. Problems resulting from inappropriate management on the part of the foster care system This categorization alludes to the complexity of issues involved in foster care placement, and it offers a useful framework for understanding the multiple needs of foster children.
Pre-placement Trauma Foster children may display a wide range of behavioral problems depending upon the type of abuse or neglect experienced prior to foster care placement. Physically abused children are often described as more aggressive, noncompliant, and impulsive than their nonabused peers. (Parker & Herrera, 1996). In addition, low self-esteem and difficulties with peer relations are reported among physically abused children (Parker & Herrera, 1996). One explanation for these
behaviors is that children who have experienced physical abuse may have become accustomed to receiving harsh or erratic punishment and carry mistaken beliefs regarding “normal” parent-child relationships. As a result, they may have learned to use negative behaviors as a means for initiating contact, getting attention, or asserting power over the adults in their lives. Once learned, these patterns can be carried into their relationships with others. Neglected children may demonstrate a different array of behaviors.
A common phenomenon among neglected children is failure to thrive, which is characterized by poor general health, minimal weight gain, depression, and apathy (Prino & Peyrot, 1994). Passivity and withdrawal are additional descriptors frequently applied to neglected children (Prino & Peyrot, 1994). Finally; neglected children often have difficulties in the areas of academic achievement and cognitive performance, typically resulting from inadequate stimulation at an early age (Kendall-Tackett & Eckenrode, 1996).
Placement Trauma In response to separation from their natural parents and placement in foster care, foster children are likely to experience a wide array of feelings including loss, abandonment, isolation, fear, conflict, rejection, humiliation, helplessness, anxiety, and depression (Zimmerman, 1988). Zimmerman (1988) suggested that children entering care feel helpless and that the feeling of helplessness may continue throughout their placement, leading to depression and the proclivity of substance abuse and delinquency.
Finally, experience tells us that Garrett’s (1970) suggestion is not outdated that the foster-care-placement trauma gives rise to the potential for a damaged sense of self-worth and self-image. The author also suggested that some foster children develop a poor self-concept due to feeling worthless and “discarded” (p. 17) by their biological parents. These experiences, mixed emotions, and mistaken beliefs often lead to depression and feelings of hopelessness (Zimmerman, 1988). A history of abuse combined with a dramatic change in environment can result in a defeated child who does not feel worthy of love and respect.
A combination of pre-placement trauma and placement trauma issues may contribute to behavioral, social, and academic achievement difficulties at school. Foster children have higher delinquency rates, are more apt to be truant, and are frequently more disruptive in the classroom than their peers (Noble). Foster children may also display symptoms of school avoidance (Noble) and are at high risk for academic failure (Ayasse, 1995). Additionally, research suggests that foster children may also have difficulties making and keeping friends (Brodkin & Coleman, 1996).
Noble (1997) reported that foster children sometimes feel ostracized and are teased by peers in school because they appear different. Differences may be in the areas of ethnicity and socioeconomic status, which are sometimes superficially manifested in a lack of trendy material goods or the absence of a cache of appropriate earlier experiences (e. g. , summer camp, swimming lessons, etc. ). The experience of being different may be particularly relevant for African-American children placed in care. These differences can make foster children visible targets for teasing, and they often lead to feelings of alienation (Noble).
Feelings of defensiveness and alienation can also be triggered when peers ask foster children about their biological parents and the reasons for foster care placement (Noble). Without adequate preparation or training, even the best intentions at home or in school may be thwarted by these challenges, leading to continued failure experiences at school and foster placement break down. Compounding these issues is the fact that foster children change placements on the average of three times during their time in care (Noble).
This repeated upheaval and the severing of connections leads to feelings of powerlessness and a lack of predictability (Ayasse). It also has implications for academic performance, social skills acquisition, and general psychological health and attachment behaviors (Garrett, 1970). Unquestionably, transience requires making new friends as well as adjusting to new teachers, rules, and norms. Curricula and classroom teaching pace may also vary from one school to the next. All of these changes pose obstacles for a foster child to learn and thrive in the school environment (Ayasse).
Intervention Strategies Working collaboratives between families, school, and community services are a recommended intervention strategy for working with at-risk children (Hobbs & Collison, 1995). School counselors can play a key leadership role in these collaborative networks. A collaborative intervention plan involving a mental health counselor, school counselor, social worker, and the foster parent(s) is necessary when working with children in foster care because of the highly complex layers of trauma and resulting needs for care.
An important component of school counseling is providing individual counseling to students (Schmidt, 1999). The practice of individual counseling in schools is shaped by the exhaustive scope of duties assigned to the school counselor, philosophical questions regarding the distinction between counseling and therapy; and the depth of counseling that should be conducted in schools (Schmidt, 1999).
These realities, paired with the fact that many foster children require in-depth psychotherapy to address pre-placement trauma issues, suggest that individual work with foster children in schools should be considered supplementary to the work conducted by the child’s clinical mental health counselor. This recommendation corresponds to a call in the school counseling literature for collaboration between school and community counselors (Hobbs).
Given these realities, many of the responsive and crisis-oriented individual counseling interventions regularly provided by school counselors are appropriate for addressing some of the symptoms related to foster children’s pre-placement and placement trauma issues. Many school counselors embrace an eclectic counseling approach drawing from play-therapy techniques, Gestalt, Adlerian, and Reality Therapy approaches, behavioral, cognitive-behavioral, narrative, and brief or solution-focused intervention approaches (Schmidt).
All of the approaches mentioned are appropriate for work in the school setting. When working with foster children, school counselors should be aware that the development of a therapeutic relationship between the counselor and foster child may require a concentrated effort over a period of time. Individual counseling in schools with foster children may entail introducing the child to the school and checking in regularly with the child to see if he or she is adjusting well.
The work may focus on developing and maintaining appropriate friendships (e. g. , social-entry skills, problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills), managing anger, and coping with depression. Patience and extra effort may be needed when working with foster children in these areas, as many may not have seen these skills modeled appropriately in the past. Some foster children may require time-limited interventions such as supportive counseling during a particularly stressful time or emotional crisis or in response to school avoidance.
All of these interventions are well within the scope of the school counselor’s practice. Summary and Conclusions Foster children may display a wide array of behaviors as a result of trauma related to pre-placement experiences of abuse or neglect. Foster children also experience trauma when they are removed from their home of origin and placed in an unfamiliar foster home environment. Foster care placement can be quite disruptive, and this placement trauma may result in personal, social, and academic difficulties.
Understanding the complimentary nature of these related yet separate experiences of children in foster care can be helpful to the school counselor in planning appropriate and supportive intervention strategies for home and school. The care of foster children is spread among a variety of individuals acting in different roles; therefore, the school counselor will be most helpful by working closely with the foster child, foster parents, school personnel, the child’s mental health counselor, and the child’s social worker.
All members of this team are important in identifying and anticipating needs of foster children and by assuming prevention and intervention roles. The school counselor can play a critical role in facilitating the foster child’s growth and development through the various components of a comprehensive developmental guidance program (Schmidt). For example, the school counselor may provide individual supportive counseling to foster children challenged by placement trauma issues.
Individual counseling may also be aimed at helping a foster child acquire age-appropriate personal management or social skills, which may have been lacking as a result of preplacement experiences of abuse and neglect. Similarly, small-group counseling services may be provided in the school to complement individual counseling received in a mental health agency in relation to pre-placement trauma experiences. Small groups provide an excellent opportunity for foster children to learn appropriate social and behavior management skills and to meet other children who may be challenged by similar preplacement or placement issues.
Developmental guidance or large-group counseling interventions, which are the cornerstone of many elementary school counseling programs, also provide an excellent opportunity for facilitating the acquisition of social and self-regulation skills. Finally, providing information related to normal child development and issues of abuse and neglect as well as parent education and support are important areas for work with foster parents. Children in foster care often enter school with a complexity of needs related to personal, social, and academic development.
The high level of intensity of these needs sometimes causes foster parents as well as teachers, counselors, and school administrators to feel somewhat reactive and overwhelmed. It is helpful for professionals who work with foster children to remember that beyond the complex array of puzzling behaviors, most foster children feel traumatized, confused, and alone. Reaching out to foster children through support and opportunities for skill development is an important intervention that can be offered by the school counselor in a comprehensive developmental guidance program.
References Ayasse, R. H. (1995). Addressing the needs of foster children: The foster youth services program. Social Work in Education, 17, 207-216. Brodkin, A. , & Coleman, M. (1996). Helping a foster child heal. Instructor, 105, 34-35. Garrett, B. L. (1970). Developing the conviction in the foster child that he is worthwhile. In H. D. Stone (Ed. ), Foster care in question: A national reassessment by twenty-one experts (pp. 16-25). New York: Child Welfare League of America.