In fall 2015, there were 427,910 youths in foster care, according to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, marking the third consecutive year that this number has increased nationwide. Of those youths, 61 percent were removed from a home because of neglect and 32 percent were removed because of a parent’s drug use.
Given those statistics, it’s not surprising that many of the youths in foster care have trauma histories, but the process of being removed from a caregiver is traumatic for a child in and of itself, says Evette Horton, a clinical faculty member at UNC Horizons, a substance abuse treatment program for pregnant women, mothers and their children at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. “Any kind of separation from your primary caregiver is considered trauma, no matter what the age of the child,” says Horton, a licensed professional counselor supervisor (LPCS), registered play therapy supervisor and American Counseling Association member.
For youths in foster care, attachment and trust issues, stubbornness, defiance and a host of other behavioral problems are often a result of the trauma they experienced in — and associated with the removal from — their biological homes. “The best foster families don’t take the child’s behaviors personally or as any kind of statement about them or their parenting. The kids are just coming in with what they know,” Horton says. “The best foster parents I’ve ever worked with understand that what the child does, it’s not about them [the foster parents]. The best foster families understand that [the child] is coming in with skills that they’ve developed to survive.”
Stephanie Eberts, an assistant professor of professional practice at Louisiana State University, agrees that addressing trauma should always be on the minds of counselors who work with children and families in the foster care system. “The behaviors that [these children] are showing, a lot of them make [the child] very unlikable. If we as adults can see past that, we can help the children. If we can’t, then we sometimes perpetuate the cycle they’ve been caught up in,” says Eberts, an ACA member with a background in school counseling. “It’s really important for us as counselors to help these children heal from that break they’ve had from their caregivers, the trauma they’ve experienced and the break in attachment.”
To that end, Horton says that counselors’ skills and expertise with children and families — as mediators, relationship builders and client advocates — can be integral to improving the lives of children in foster care, while also supporting their foster families and biological families, as appropriate.
“Counselors shouldn’t underestimate their power to advocate,” Horton says. “Judges, lawyers and guardian ad litems aren’t trained to understand what the child needs, socially and emotionally, and we are. You shouldn’t underestimate the power of your words and your voice to impact a vulnerable child. A child who has been put in this unbelievably complex situation needs someone to speak on behalf of his or her mental health needs.”
Ground rules for practitioners
Horton oversees the mental health treatment of children, ages birth to 11 years, whose mothers receive substance abuse treatment at UNC Horizons. Through her work, she has the opportunity to see both sides of the foster care coin. In some cases, a mother is able to make the progress needed to be reunited with her children who have been in foster care while she was in treatment. But Horton also sees mothers who are unable to maintain their recovery. In cases in which a child is being put at risk by the mother’s substance abuse, Horton must file a report with child protective services (CPS). Throughout her career, she has assisted biological families, foster families and children with the transitions into and out of foster care, and also worked with the court system and CPS.
For counselors unfamiliar with the complexity of the foster care system, Horton stresses that practitioners must be very careful to identify who, exactly, is their client. This in turn will dictate with whom a practitioner can share information, to whom they have consent to talk and who needs to make decisions and sign paperwork on behalf of a minor client. For children in the foster care system, the legal guardian is often CPS. This can become even more complicated for practitioners when a child is returned to the biological parent’s home on a temporary or trial basis. In such instances, CPS still retains custody of the child, Horton explains.
“These are very, very complicated cases, and you need to support yourself,” Horton says. “Make sure you are careful, regardless of how well-trained you are. These cases are tough — really tough. Do not hesitate to work with your supervisor [and] peers and get support.”
Eberts suggests that counselors working with families and children in the foster care system educate themselves by reading the client’s case file thoroughly and collaborating with caseworkers and the biological family (if possible) to find out more about the child’s background. If details are missing from the case file, particularly about the circumstances of the child’s removal from the biological parent, counselors should attempt to speak to a caseworker or other official who was on-site as the removal happened, Eberts says.
However, Eberts notes, practitioners should also be aware that case files often contain details that can spur vicarious trauma. “Reading some of the children’s files can be really heartbreaking. That self-care piece that we talk about so much with counselors is really, really important [in these cases],” she says.
Counselors as translators
One of the most important ways that counselors can support foster parents and improve the lives of children in foster care is to “translate” the children’s behaviors for those around them. This includes explaining what a child’s behavior means and what motivates it, and then equipping both the child and the parents (both foster and biological parents, where appropriate) with tools to redirect the behavior and better cope with tough emotions.
Eberts shares a painful example she experienced while working as a school counselor. A young student told her foster parents that she didn’t want them to adopt her. Stung by the girl’s pronouncement and taking her words at face value, the couple returned her to the foster care system for placement with another family.
“These kids have experienced a lot of loss and abandonment,” Eberts says. “[This child] was just testing her potential adoptive family — testing whether or not they were going to abandon her. The behaviors [these children display] are often protective.”
Children in the foster care system often present behaviors associated with trauma, Horton says, including:
- Attachment issues
- Behavioral issues
- Separation anxiety, including trouble being alone
- Developmental delays, including being behind in speech, language and school subjects
- Trouble sticking to routines (as Horton points out, children in foster care often come from homes in which structure and rules were limited or nonexistent)
Despite their good intentions, foster families may not always understand a child’s behaviors, and adults may interpret a child’s symptoms of anxiety as defiance. For example, the foster parents of a child who refuses to eat vegetables or who puts up a nightly struggle over going to bed may feel the child is being stubborn or testing their authority. In reality, Horton explains, the child may never have been fed vegetables or slept alone before. Misunderstandings can be further compounded when a child comes from a different culture or socioeconomic background than his or her foster family, she adds.
Sarah Jones, an ACA member and doctoral student in counseling and student personnel services at the University of Georgia, agrees. Jones and her wife are foster parents. Over the past five years, they have had 20 different children, all under the age of 7, stay in their home. Jones says the vast majority of children she has seen in the foster care system in Georgia have come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. It is common for these children to present insecurities about food, shelter and other basics, she says.
Foster parents and counselors alike “can give [these children] a glimpse of what the world can be. It can be a place where there is enough food, where there is enough love,” says Jones, who presented on narrative techniques with college students in foster care at ACA’s 2016 Conference & Expo in Montréal.
At the same time, Jones stresses that counselors should avoid assigning blame to the biological parents, the child or a system in which caseworkers are vastly overworked and underpaid. Jones thinks of it this way: The moment when a child is removed from his or her home is the low point for the biological parent or parents, but things will not necessarily stay that way.
“It’s like we’re taking a snapshot of someone in their worst-case scenario and making generalizations for their entire lives. … Sometimes we equate that to [these parents] not loving their kids, but sometimes love is not enough,” Jones says.
Counselors should also be aware that CPS usually tries to exhaust every possibility of having children placed with a biological family member before they are placed in foster care, Jones says. In some cases, children in foster care have parents and relatives who have died, are incarcerated or involved in other situations that make them unable to care for their children. “To be in the foster system, it’s not a problem that can be fixed in six months [or a short period of time],” she says. “It means that the biological parents don’t have a network that could take the child.”
B.J. Broaden Barksdale, an ACA member and LPCS in Katy, Texas, has worked with children and families in Texas’ foster care system for 18 years. Initially she did home monitoring and assessment of foster families and then transitioned into working as a therapist with children and families in the system.
The behavioral issues with which children in the foster care system often struggle can be accompanied by tantrums, outbursts and emotional flare-ups, Barksdale says. She likes to use trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy and the Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) to provide these children and their families with tools for better functioning.
TBRI’s four-level response method helps caregivers to redirect the child’s behavior while maintaining a connection and using the least severe response possible, Barksdale says. Counselors can use this method in their own work with foster children and in coaching parents and caregivers on how to use the method at home.
Level one: Playful engagement. To start, a caregiver or other adult should remain playful and light with the child. For example, if the child comes home from school, slams the door and drops his or her backpack on the floor, a caregiver could respond with, “Whoa! What’s this?” or some other lighthearted remark, Barksdale suggests. Then the child could be given a do-over. Or, if a child makes a demand of an adult, such as “Give me that!” the reply could be, “Are you asking or telling?” If the child doesn’t have the right words to ask appropriately, a counselor or parent can phrase the question and have the child repeat it. Regardless, Barksdale says, the key is to maintain a kind, playful tone and to redirect the child to keep the situation from escalating.
Level two: Structured engagement. If a child does not respond to an adult’s initial playful response, the next step is to offer choices. If a child is refusing to go to bed, give the child a voice and ask what would help him or her get to bed on time. For example, “How about turning off the TV 30 minutes earlier? How can we compromise?” This empowers the child to choose, avoids a power struggle and teaches the child compromise and conflict resolution, Barksdale says.
Repetition and consistency are key, she says. “The repetition is retraining their brain. … Giving them choices helps them learn to make choices,” Barksdale says. “And once they do it, praise the heck out of them. Try to always find something to praise, even if it’s as small as coming home without slamming the door. It’s all in how you say it — ‘We don’t hurt the dog’ instead of ‘Haven’t I told you not to do that?’”
Barksdale emphasizes that the adult should also consider the bigger picture of the child’s day. Has the child been overstimulated or particularly busy? Does the child need some quiet time, a drink or a snack, or something else?
Level three: Calming engagement. If a situation escalates to this level, the child should be given time to pause, cool off and think things through. Barksdale encourages foster parents to designate a space in the home for this very purpose. It should be a safe, comforting space where a child can spend time alone, relax and be quiet while an adult is nearby, she says.
Level four: Protective engagement. When a situation escalates to the possibility of violence, a caregiver can use accepted restraints to calm the child (but only if trained to do so through the foster care system or another agency). The adult must stay calm and reassuring and should remain with the child until he or she is calm enough to talk through the situation.
“These kids are combative about authority, hypervigilant and don’t trust anyone,” Barksdale says. “You have to teach them what they have never learned. You have to be compassionate and get them to trust you. If you don’t build that trust, that felt safety, you can’t move forward.”
In addition to providing consistency, it is essential to address behavioral issues immediately as they unfold, Barksdale says. Through TBRI, she uses the acronym IDEAL to teach this to parents:
I: Respond immediately.
D: Directly to the child, through eye contact and undivided attention, with a calm voice. Barksdale says she often gets down on the floor with younger children to better connect and because it makes her appear as less of an authority figure.
E: In an efficient and measured manner, with the least amount of firmness required.
A: Action-based, by redirecting the child and providing a do-over or giving the child choices. This could include role-play, in which the adult acts out two responses that the child could choose, one of which is inappropriate.
L: Level the response to the behavior, not the child. Criticize the behavior as being unacceptable, but not the child, Barksdale explains.
“You want to give them voice and build trust,” she says. “If they understand that you’re trying to be in harmony with them, they engage. Remember that these kids may have had no relationships, no attachment, since birth. … If there’s relationship-based trauma [in the child’s past], that can only be healed through forming healthy relationships.”
Eberts agrees, noting that counselors should consider the backgrounds of the children they are working with and the reasons they were removed from their biological homes. Counselors can then use that information to identify the child’s major needs.
For example, Eberts worked with a foster family that included an 8-year-old boy who was placed in foster care when he was 2. His biological parents had issues related to drug use and were running a methamphetamine lab in the home when he was taken from them. The boy was prone to outbursts that sometimes became violent.
“For the first two years of his life, he was not getting the kind of attention and care that he needed,” Eberts says. “We used that information to help his foster parents understand that when he needs something, he won’t ask for it in a way the foster parent might expect. … He did not have the attachment needed to connect with other people.”
Eberts worked with the child on building connections with people and trusting that his needs would be met. She used play interventions to help the child learn to express himself, identify emotions and process his frustration. Eberts also equipped the foster parents with tools to de-escalate his tantrums, including recognizing the cues the child gave leading up to his outbursts, and calm, consistent methods for responding when outbursts took place.
“He was very challenging, but things did get better,” Eberts recalls. “It was hard work and took a long time. [The foster mother] had to work on herself quite a bit to understand when he was starting to escalate and how to de-escalate him [by] using a calm voice and helping him to self-identify emotion … in a way that wasn’t combative or defensive. He wasn’t student of the year by the end of the year, and he still struggled with attachment, but the skills that the foster mother had learned helped a great deal. He was on the road to having a much better life experience.”
“He was violent because he was sad and he didn’t know what to do with it,” Eberts says. “These are kids who have so many emotions, they don’t know what to do with them. They don’t know how to express them.”
Tips for helping
Counselors can keep these insights in mind when working with children and families in the foster care system.
Regression is common. For children who have experienced trauma and instability, progress will often be accompanied by spurts of regression. For example, a child who is potty trained may suddenly start having accidents when moved to a new foster home, Horton says. Counselors should coach foster parents not to get discouraged if a child regresses.
“Help the family understand that this will pass. It’s part of the road,” Horton says. “We have to remind people that this is actually common. It’s all very new and confusing to [the child]. All of us regress when we’re under stress, and kids do too.”
Regression can also be expected when children in foster care phase into a new developmental stage, such as the onset of adolescence, Eberts says. “The trauma that they’ve experienced in life has to be reprocessed at every developmental milestone,” she explains. “When they hit adolescence, they’ll have to reprocess it from an adolescent perspective, then as a young adult. So if an 8-year-old makes progress, they can and will regress when they hit 12. They’re processing things from a different developmental perspective.”
Meet children where they are. Many children in the foster care system will lag behind their biological age developmentally, from emotional maturity to speech skills. Counselors should tailor their therapeutic approaches to a young client’s level of development, not the age on his or her file, Eberts says.
“A child who is 10 may still be a great candidate for play therapy because, developmentally, he is really around 7 years old,” she says. “The intervention has to be aligned with the child’s developmental age.”
Keeping that in mind, the expressive arts and tactile interventions such as sand trays and art, dance and movement therapies — in other words, methods other than talk therapy — can be particularly useful with children in the foster care system, Eberts says.
“Keep in mind that you have to meet the child where they are developmentally. That is the most important thing,” Barksdale says. “Expectations for a child who has experienced trauma need to be realistic.”
The importance of structure and routines. If children are coming from a background ruled by instability, it is helpful for counselors to work with foster families on establishing routines and clear expectations. “Make sure there are as few surprises as can be,” Jones says.
For example, it can provide a sense of security for the family to have a movie night every Saturday or to eat dinner together at the same time each evening. Nighttime can be particularly troubling for foster children, so establishing an evening routine and sticking to it — such as brushing teeth and then reading a book together — can be helpful, Jones adds.
Horton suggests that counselors work with foster families to create and post a list of age-appropriate house rules and a daily routine or calendar. If the foster child is too young to read, these lists can be illustrated with pictures. This becomes even more effective if the counselor has access to both the foster and biological families so that the lists can be posted in both homes, Horton says. When possible, the same can be done with a compilation of photos of the child’s biological and foster families, she says.
Prepare for transitions. Transitions both large and small, whether they encompass switching schools or simply transitioning from playtime to bedtime, can be hard for children in the foster care system. Counselors can suggest that foster parents provide plenty of gentle, advance notices that a transition is coming, such as 30 minutes, 15 minutes and five minutes before a child needs to finish playtime to go grocery shopping with the family, Barksdale says.
Established routines can also help in this area, she adds. “Bedtime should be at the same time every night if at all possible. If done repeatedly, the child knows what’s coming next. It helps with comfort, consistency and felt safeness,” Barksdale says. “The one-on-one attention helps with relationship-building, and once trust is built, it’s easier to redirect the child.”
Goal setting and journaling. In the counselor’s office, engaging in dialogue journaling and goal-setting exercises can be helpful for youths in the foster care system, Jones says.
In a dialogue journal, the client and counselor write messages back and forth (younger clients may draw instead of write). The journal can help spark conversation and get the client thinking in between sessions. “A lot of times they don’t know how to talk about their past,” Jones says. “[Through the journal], they can talk about something that happened in their life. Maybe it’s, ‘I wasn’t able to have dessert because I didn’t finish my broccoli.’ Then you can transition into a conversation about how that is different from their past home.”
Goal setting can also be a useful way to connect the past, present and future with young clients, notes Jones. For example, a counselor might work on building a young client’s social skills by encouraging the client to set a goal of talking to one new person at school in the coming week. The counselor would talk through the steps the child could take to achieve the goal and ask the child how he or she made friends in the past at previous schools. “You’re showing the child that they already have those skills,” Jones says. “They just need to use them in a new place.”
The power of pictures. Horton often creates picture albums for her young clients who are transitioning between foster care and home placements. She contacts adults the child is acquainted with to ask for photographs of biological relatives, foster family members and other important people in the child’s life. She looks at the book with the child at every counseling session because it serves both as a conversation starter and a way to remember loved ones, she says.
“Sometimes we have to help create the story that helps the child make sense of what happened,” Horton says.
Coping tools and self-regulation. Many children in the foster care system can be flooded with anxiety and strong emotions, including anger, Horton says, which can make self-regulation exercises, from mindfulness to breathing exercises, particularly helpful. Horton often brings bubbles to counseling sessions. She shows the children how to make big bubbles — which also teaches them how to take slow, deep breaths, she says. In the case of another young client, self-regulation included getting outside. His foster family had a trampoline, and they would all go outside and jump together. This made a difference because rather than just shooing him out the door, they stayed with him to work through his anger as they jumped, Horton says.
Barksdale uses a tool in session that serves as a jumping-off point to talk about self-regulation with clients. It is a wheel with an arrow that clients can move to different colors to indicate how they are feeling. “If you’re feeling blue and tired, what can you do? Get a snack or drink some water. If you’re in the red and really hyped up, what can you do? Count backward and breathe,” Barksdale says. “If you’re feeling anxious and tense, what does your body feel like? Learn to identify that.”
Be honest and talk it through. Be honest with the child while also giving him or her the space to process what is happening, Jones says. “For a few weeks, it feels [to the child] like you’re on vacation and you’re at someone else’s house. As they start to feel more comfortable, the feelings start to come. With that ease also comes an onslaught of feelings about what they’re giving up and missing,” Jones says. “It’s important to recognize how difficult it is, but at the same time saying, ‘You are not alone.’”
“Tell them, ‘There are a lot of people who love you, and they’re doing the best they can right now,’” she says. “We [Jones and her wife] really believe in talking about what’s happening.” Jones says it is important for counselors and foster parents to “talk about how your family is dynamic, and this is what’s happening right now.”
When it’s time to let go
As a foster mother, Jones is all too familiar with working to form bonds and relationships with children in her care despite knowing that they may soon transition back to their biological families. This break can be quite painful for foster families, she says.
“It’s important for counselors to give families a space to grieve,” Jones says. “There was a period of time when our family had two significant losses back to back. A child we had from birth transitioned to her mother after 16 months. Then, less than three months later, a child transitioned from our home into her father’s home and, less than one week later, died from natural causes. The grief associated with these experiences impacted every member of our family — even our dog was acting depressed. My counselor gave me a space to experience very big and painful emotions, then eventually helped me make meaning from my experiences.
“Reminding foster parents that the amount of pain they are experiencing is likely equal to the amount of love given to a child in need is also a powerful reminder. It hurts because it mattered, and if it mattered to us, it likely made an impact on a youth’s life. And that’s why we work as foster parents — and as counselors.”
Foster care: By the numbers
- For 2015, the median age of the youths in foster care was 7.8 years old. The median amount of time in care was 12.6 months and the mean was 20.4 months; 53,549 children were adopted with public child welfare agency involvement.
- Between 2014 and 2015, 71 percent of states reported an increase in the number of children entering foster care. The five states with the largest increases were Florida, Indiana, Georgia, Arizona and Minnesota.
Number of children in foster care in the U.S. on Sept. 30
Reasons for removal from a home and placement in foster care (2015)
Neglect: 61 percent
Drug abuse of a parent: 32 percent
Caretaker’s inability to cope: 14 percent
Physical abuse: 13 percent
Child behavior problem: 11 percent
Inadequate housing: 10 percent
Parent incarceration: 8 percent
Alcohol abuse of a parent: 6 percent
Abandonment: 5 percent
Sexual abuse: 4 percent
Drug abuse of the child: 2 percent
Child disability: 2 percent
Reasons for discharge from the foster system (2015)
Reunification with parent or primary caretaker: 51 percent
Adoption: 22 percent
Emancipation (aged out): 9 percent
Guardianship: 9 percent
Living with other relative(s): 6 percent
Transfer to another agency: 2 percent
Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children & Families, acf.hhs.gov
To contact the counselors interviewed for this article, email:
- B.J. Broaden Barksdale: email@example.com
- Stephanie Eberts: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Evette Horton: email@example.com
- Sarah Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org
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