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How to Help a Child in Foster Care Experiencing Traumatic Separation

How to help a child in foster care experiencing traumatic separation

Separation from a parent or caregiver can be overwhelming for a child who has been court-ordered to be removed from their birth home due to safety reasons and placed in foster care. These children often develop post-traumatic responses that can include negative changes in mood or behavior, nightmares, difficulty thinking or paying attention, reenacting the separation in play or art, and avoiding reminders or things associated with what happened.

According to a factsheet published by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, some children in foster care perceive the removal from the home as the most traumatic aspect of the separation. Young children don’t understand the underlying cause of the separation such as abuse, neglect or violence. It is important for child welfare professionals and caregivers to help the child identify and address the true circumstances under which the separation occurred and the underlying cause of the separation.

Here’s how foster parents, caregivers and clinicians can help a child experiencing traumatic separation:

  • Talk to the child
    Ask the child what he or she believes happened to result in them being removed from the home. Explore what he or she believes will happen in the future. Caregivers should listen to the child’s questions and make sure they know the correct information.
  • Address related traumatic experiences
    When a judge makes the decision to remove a child from his/her birth home, it is likely that the child has experienced abuse, neglect or another form of endangerment. Clinicians and caregivers should address the traumatic experiences that led to the separation and offer guidance for the child to help them heal from these experiences.
  • Learn and identify trauma-related symptoms 
    Children who have experienced abuse, neglect or removal from the home can react to trauma in different ways. It’s important to help the child develop coping strategies and identify triggers that may lead to trauma responses.
  • Suggest ways for the child to maintain connections
    Children can maintain a connection with their birth family by having pictures, a stuffed animal, blanket or other objects from their home. This memorabilia can provide positive memories and a sense of self for the child.
  • Coordinate outside resources and referrals
    Identify a support system of other adults, teachers, neighbors and peers who the child can turn to when he or she needs comforting. Involve the child in activities where he or she can build and strengthen relationships with others who can provide support, patience and understanding.
  • Monitor the impact on you
    Children in foster care need love, understanding and guidance during a confusing time in their lives. Professionals and foster parents should remember to consider how caring for these children is affecting them, and take time to ensure their needs are also being met.

Click here to read the entire factsheet from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

KVC recognizes that children in foster care require support from highly-trained professionals and caregivers such as foster families to cope with and heal from traumatic experiences. In 2009, KVC partnered with New York University and Dr. Glenn Saxe, Director of the NYU Child Study Center, to adapt and implement his Trauma Systems Therapy (TST) throughout KVC’s continuum of care in child welfare. TST is an empirically supported model for treating traumatic stress in children and adolescents, and guides children and families to heal from trauma by building skills to manage difficult emotions, process trauma and move beyond those experiences. All KVC staff in Kansas, as well as foster families, were successfully trained in TST in order to understand and help children heal from trauma and improve their wellbeing long into adulthood. KVC has also trained national and international public agencies including Washington, D.C. and Singapore on implementing TST.

KVC’s leadership in integrating trauma-informed care into child welfare and related systems led to a new initiative funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to bring the combined knowledge and experience of NYU and KVC to public child welfare agencies and caregivers across the country. A new foster parent training curriculum was written by Kelly McCauley, LSCSW, Associate Director of the KVC Institute for Health Systems Innovation. KVC representatives have since traveled to several states to train agency staff how to, in turn, train relative families and foster families how to help children who have experienced trauma. The training emphasizes interactive, hands-on activities that will ensure caregivers learn and practice skills that are critical in family moments ranging from the mundane to crisis situations.

Learn more about KVC’s work to integrate trauma-informed care into child welfare and related systems: Healing From the Life-Long Effects of Childhood Trauma