Foster Children, Trauma, and the Public School System
Children in the foster care system are victims of the crime of child abuse. They are traumatized by the abuse they endured and a traumatized again when they are removed for their own safety from their parent's custody and placed into foster care. In foster care they are traumatized over and over when they are frequently moved from one foster home to another, from a shelter to a foster home, and eventually for many from a foster home to a group home. The key word is trauma, and those of us who care for them, provide treatment or an education must interact in a manner that is trauma informed. Approach a traumatized child in an authoritarian, condescending, or judgmental manner and you will not get the reaction you would get from the average student. With a traumatized child, the fight or flight instinct is engaged 24-7, so approach them in a way that is not trauma informed and you will get either a fight or flight response. Usually, the first response is a fight response, which confuses many professionals who think this is a sign of defiance and overall bad attitude when it's really a response to a perceived threat coming from a child who is always on high alert. The second response is the flight response, which comes later when the child has calmed the perceived threat has been removed. Oftentimes, the foster child will shrink from facing that situation again and do whatever he or she can to avoid facing that trauma again. Oftentimes a foster child reaching his or her teens is severely credit deficient because he or she has moved around from foster home to foster home to shelters to group homes. With so many interruptions in their education, even basic skills might be lacking and credits earned often do not follow them to their new schools. According to a report by the Stuart Foundation, "...youth in foster care are less likely than other students to complete high school, enroll in a community college, or persist in a community college once enrolled." While many factors are involved in these sad outcomes, could it be that our educational system is failing foster children? Although they are admittedly the most disadvantaged population in our public schools, too often public schools are not receptive to their needs nor do they offer alternatives to traditional approaches to class room difficulties or disciplinary problems. Yes, there are individualized education plans for children who have disabilities, but what about those children who do not qualify for an IEP or should have one but as yet do not? Is it unreasonable to expect that schools treat them like the special needs students they are---regardless of disability status?
Child Abuse: How Could this Happen? Substance Abuse
Child abuse is a horrible crime that harms children and many times will affect that child for many years even the rest of her life. The vast majority of cases of child abuse reveal the perpetrator of the abuse is a parent, guardian, relative or family friend or acquaintance---the very ones who should love, care for and protect the child the most. We are left to wonder, especially those of us who have children of our own, how could this happen? Understanding why is the first step in preventing child abuse whenever possible.
Substance abuse by a parent, parents or guardian is one of the leading causes of child abuse. When a person is addicted to drugs or alcohol, nothing matters to them but getting their drug of choice. This includes caring for their children as difficult as that may be to believe. For a person whose life revolves around getting and using drugs or alcohol, the needs of his or her child become less important than the need for substances.
As drugs or alcohol take over, the addict has little time or inclination to take care of a child's needs. Making sure they are clean and well fed, seeing that medical needs are taken care of, and ensuring that the child gets to school are no longer priorities. A child in this situation is enduring criminal neglect. For children younger than five, neglect can have a significant impact on brain development, so it is not to be taken lightly. Neglect is the most common form of child abuse.
The substance abuser operates with impaired judgment much of the time. This may result in children in his or her care being put into unsafe situations. For example, an addict may believe that leaving her two children, aged 3 and 4, alone for a few days is okay. Children of addicts are too frequently molested by people their parent brings into their home. As their disease progresses, addicts become more and more likely to associate with unsavory characters. Addicts fail to exercise good judgment in their associations with people and their children often pay the the price.
Substance abusers are generally unstable, prone to mood swings, rage, depression, paranoia, and delusions, depending upon their drug of choice. As you might imagine, children being raised by an unstable parent are at risk for abuse, including emotional, physical, and psychological abuse.
Early intervention is so important to prevent abuse when a parent is abusing drugs or alcohol. Mandated reporters, like teachers, doctors, and nurses, are most likely to recognize and report the abuse, but if you see that a child is being neglected by a drug abusing parent, you should make a report to the Child Protective Services hotline in your area. Reports can be made anonymously.
Once a report has been received, caseworkers can begin to assist the family unit. In severe cases the children may be removed and placed with suitable relative or placed in foster care. Counseling and treatment services will be offered to the parent and children. The parent may also be required to pass drug screenings to ensure on going sobriety, and they may be required to attend 12 Step meeting. Since addiction is a difficult disease, relapse is a likely part of recovery. Getting help for the family as soon as possible may save not only the children but also the parent. Monitoring of the family will help keep everyone out of danger.
Child Abuse: How Could this Happen? Mental Health Issues
The second leading cause of child abuse is mental illness on the part of the parent or caregiver.
When a parent is mentally ill, she may have difficulty taking care of herself and have difficulty with normal, everyday tasks like personal grooming, paying bills, managing a household, and keeping a job. One or more children may make life unmanageable for the mentally ill parent. The needs of the children may go unmet as the mentally ill parent struggles to keep up with the demands of a family and the debilitating effects of her illness. Medications may help the mentally ill parent with her symptoms, but many times these parents will not seek treatment and will instead self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. When a mentally ill parent is under a doctor's care, she will not take her prescribed medication regularly and may even stop taking it.
Children of the mentally ill parent are often victims of neglect. Their parent simply cannot manage to care for them because of her illness. The children may appear dirty, hungry, and dressed in clothing that is not clean, in good repair or appropriate for the season. These children also might not go to school regularly because their parent does not have the wherewithal to get them there. Children may be lacking in supervision and may be seen outside of their home at odd hours or when they are too young to be out alone.
Mentally ill parents may not be able to protect their children because if their illness or because they are self medicating with drugs or alcohol. The parent's judgment may be impaired and the children could be put in unsafe situations where they could be molested, witness domestic violence, or be physically and/or emotionally abused.
If you know a parent who is mentally ill, it is so important for her to have a good support system around her to assist her with the demands of coping with her illness. A strong group of family and friends who can help her cope with the daily living tasks, make sure she is getting treatment and following treatment protocols, and keep an eye on the children to make sure they are being properly cared for and protected. If you are concerned about the well-being of the children and are unable to work out a solution with the parent and/or her support system, you should make a report to Child Protective Services. You can make a report anonymously. Remember it takes a village to protect a child.
Most of you have probably heard the term "mandated reporter," but what does it mean and how does it help in the fight against child abuse?
While it is said it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to protect a child. Mandated reporters recognize and report the majority of child abuse that occurs in our community. Without mandated reporters, most child abuse would go unnoticed and children and families would not get them help they need.
A mandated reporter is anyone who works with children---doctors, nurses, teachers, school personnel, and children's residential treatment workers. As mandated reporters they are required to report suspected child abuse that they may encounter in the course of their work. For example, if a child is taken to her pediatrician and he discovers evidence that she is being physically or sexually abused, the doctor must make a report to child protective services. Or if a teacher notices that a 2nd grader comes to school consistently dirty, wearing the same clothes every day, and complaining that her mother leaves her alone at night, the teacher must make a report to CPS. Reporters are kept confidential. The person reported will never know who made the report.
Kudos to the mandated reporters in our community. Their vigilance makes a real difference in the lives of children every day.