Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A child arriving in a foster family will have gone through at least one loss in their life

Like a lot of people, I have known loss and bereavement. I have first-hand experience of the myriad of emotions that come with that: anger, hurt, confusion, helplessness, denial, guilt. 
I have seen, often only by looking back, the impact this has had on my relationships, my work, my friendships and my ability to care for myself. 
At times it has felt as if I was in a bubble, unable to feel. At other times, every feeling hit me at once, leaving me exhausted. Those experiences, while painful, have helped me appreciate how a child might feel when they are taken into care.
A reporter for our local newspaper once asked us what makes a good foster carer. There are many skills and attributes, but to know loss and to use that understanding to help others, to show empathy and compassion, will set a good carer apart. A child arriving in a foster family will have gone through at least one loss in their life, often many more.
When our two boys arrived, their physical needs were immediately apparent. They were thin, tired, hungry, wearing clothes that were dirty or too big for them. They weren’t used to sleeping in beds, and their worldly possessions were in one small carrier bag. So we put all our effort into caring for them, and we gradually got to know them.
We were given the basic facts about their past, the losses they had gone through and the events that led to their removal from their family. But we had to weave in the narrative ourselves. How would that have felt? Why do they think that way? What things do they believe about themselves? Why are they now behaving like this? As we slowly grasped the trauma of their short lives, it started to make sense why they weren’t sleeping at night, or why they noticed minor noises and either seemed hyper-vigilant or completely distant. When our eldest child chanted and rocked himself, or our youngest started to hurt animals, we recalled their background story.
The narrative helped explain the behaviour, but it didn’t give us strategies. For this we had to turn to other professionals. We referred our children for play therapy and theraplay, and were trained to run the activities ourselves. Play therapy helps a child express feelings and make sense of them, through the medium of play, while theraplay, developed in the 1960s by the clinical psychologist Ann Jernberg, helps children form secure attachments. It focuses on four qualities found in parent-child relationships: structure, nurture, engagement and challenge, and helps a child see themselves as loveable and worthy. Many of the activities we were asked to do, such as feeding our 11-year-old, felt distinctly odd, until we saw the video coverage and noticed how much he enjoyed it.
Our youngest took part in the pilot of an innovative project that used music to help him feel safe at school, and at home. We incorporated singing into our daily routine, while his teachers were given specific resources to use in the classroom. We noticed a marked, rapid improvement in his behaviour. We had to parent differently to our peers who had their own birth children. Traditional behavioural management techniques, such as time out, did not work, because they would instil a heightened sense of rejection. 
Non-descript praise is also out, and instead we make very specific comments about things they do well. Routine is important; the boys still need to know what’s for dinner, sometimes days ahead, and to check that I’ve been food shopping. They need some control, and we need to help them trust us.
Foster caring is a challenging but very rewarding vocation. Looked after children have experienced high levels of trauma and need trained, supported and compassionate carers. Those involved in their lives can also be affected by this trauma, which can manifest itself as secondary traumatic stress disorder. Team work is crucial. Social workers can really help foster carers starting a new placement by helping them understand not only the facts of the case, but the narrative as well. Carers can help their children by using their past experiences of loss to show empathy, and by being willing to get involved in any therapeutic intervention, even if that means getting out of their comfort zone, because the benefits are so worth the effort.
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