Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Impact of Foster Care on Child Development

*Nationwide, over one quarter of foster children enter care when they are under age 5. This has enormous ramifications. Children who enter foster care during their first 3-4 years of life are doing so during the most active time of brain growth and development.

Emotional and cognitive disruptions in the early lives of children have the potential to impair brain development.

Brain Development
1.) Anatomic brain structures
that govern personality traits, learning processes and coping with stress and emotions are being established, strengthened and made permanent. If unused, these brain structures atrophy.

2.) Nerve connections and neurotransmitter networks that are forming during these critical years are influenced negatively by lack of stimulation, child abuse and violence within the family.

Emotional Development
1.) The ability to attach emotionally. Paramount in the lives of children is the need for continuity with primary caregivers and a sense of permanence.

To develop into a psychologically healthy human being, a child needs to have a stable relationship with at least one adult who is nurturing and protective and who fosters trust and security.

This process is called attachment. It forms the basis for life-long relationships. Attachment is an active process: it can be secure or insecure. Attachment to a primary caregiver is necessary in order for a child to develop emotional security and a social conscience.

2.) Developing a sense of self. Foster children are spending their formative years in a state of instability and insecurity.

Adults cope with impermanence by building on a previously-built sense of self-reliance and by anticipating and planning for a time of greater constancy. Children, on the other hand, have limited life experience on which to establish their sense of self.

An adult experiencing a time of chaos can think back to a time of stability in the past in order to anticipate and plan for stability in the future. For a child, everything is now. Power is in the hands of adults.

During the first several years of a child’s life, patterns of interaction are formed, both psychologically and in the brain structure, making it more difficult (but not impossible) to improve a child’s physical, cognitive and emotional abilities.

*According to the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption and Dependent Care.

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I just wanted to respond to your comment on my blog about survivor guilt. I COMPLETELY understand what you mean. I came through the system relatively intact and with few complaints compared to many of the other foster children I knew/know. Now, I feel like a person who has escaped a burning house and realizes that there are still people inside who need help getting out. I have to keep going back in to help who I can. The feeling that I could have gotten stuck in the house compells me to keep going, keep talking, keep writing. Best of luck to you in your endeavors to improve the system. -Jackie
I think it's great to see former foster kids advocating for kids. Child Advocates here in Houston, Texas will not allow anyone to work for them, volunteer for them, or even help in any other way with advocacy efforts if that person is an adult survivor of child abuse and/or foster care. I think it's rather hypocritical, actually. Who better to advocate for these kids than someone who once was one of them?

I am here and there reading a book called, A Child's Journey Through Placement. the first chapter is on attachment and I found myself wondering- what about kids who spend 8-12 hours a day in a daycare center with a high turnover rate? They aren't "in foster care", but they might still have some attachment issues. I used to work in a daycare where there was almost a hundred percent turnover rate each year. I stayed for almost three years, and there were about three complete turnovers (except for one old woman who worked with infants). Even the directors turned over like hotcakes.
Danielle, that's very interesting about Child Advocates disallowing former foster children. I'd like to contact them and ask: why?

It sounds very strange that they would do that. Do they not want insight? Or do they worry that former victims will identify too closely with the children?

It's interesting to read the age limits of different groups. I called Janet Knipes of California Youth Connection and set up an interview in December 2005.

One of the questions I had for Janet was: "Why is your age limit for foster alumni involvement 14-24?"

My concern was that, frankly, when I was 14 years old and in my early 20's, I was still getting my life together. I entered college, enjoyed dorm life.

I'm 33 now, and I think I'm at the ideal point in my life to speak for foster children.

I'm married with two stepchildren, emotionally stabile and I have accummulated years of experience giving workshops and presentations.

But -- I'm over 24 (gasp). So, therefore I'm obsolete. If I lived in California, I'd be considered too old for California Youth Connection.

Janet Knipes informed me that in 1988, the youth themselves had come to that decision. They were patterning CYC after a Canadian model called “Canadian Youth-in-Care,” and that was the age distinction that the Canadian group had made. Plus, the age of 24 seemed ancient to most of the youth.

As an organization, foster alumni got older, faced that cut-off age and felt unsure about it. Three years ago, many of CYC’s policies were reviewed by a facilitator. They hosted a series of focus groups.

One of the decisions that was made was that youth would have different roles based on experience. Older youth would mentor younger ones. The roles themselves didn’t stick, but the philosophy behind them did.

The other decision was to keep the ages at 14-24. Janet actually disagrees with this decision, but she felt that it was important to let the youth make the decision. Their reason behind doing so was they felt that there was a cultural bias against younger youth. Older youth brought with them a sense of permanency, so the older youth were requested more often for speaking engagements. The younger kids thought that they were being crowded out.
So CYC kept the age limit at 14-24, and I still disagree with it.

Having youth involved is great. I have no problem with mature younger people speaking out and making a difference.

However, since the mentoring role didn't really pan out, and older foster alumni aren't involved... they could really be missing out on some wisdom there.

There is wisdom that comes with each age:

-Teenage years are generally a time of questioning and coming to personal decisions. There can be a lot of cynicism and critical appraisals of adults.

-The 20's continues this quest, but often with a lot of idealism. Yep, those crazy adults have blown it, but maybe I (yes I) could change the world...

-The 30's tend to usher in an era of realism. You tend to pick your battles more: "This I can change. This, I cannot."

I think that if you cut off access to older people, a group loses part of its balance.

I've seen the same thing take place at churches. A group called New Life met at a local movie theater; it was their "church" because they didn't have enough money to build a church.

New Life was comprimised only of college students and 20-something singles. Few, if any, married people.

Okay. Stop. Take a couple steps back here. What is one of the many concerns that college students and 20-somethings have on their minds?

"How can I build a lasting relationship?"

And there were no models of happy-marriage on hand? Come on.
Lisa- it is as you said- they are afraid of former foster kids, and/or victims of abuse identifying too closely with the kids and I guess somehow being there more for themselves. I don't agree, but what can you do? I think people with advanced degrees in social work (And I want to be one of them one day, so I shoudln't speak too loosely) often spend too much time learning about people in a book. They see people more as statistics from their "intro to statistics" class than people who are individuals and might be drastically different than what the stats about them might say.
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