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Understanding Childhood Trauma –

Children in Foster Care’s Desperate Cry
Nationwide, over one million children each year are in crisis. First, they undergo the intense trauma of being abused or neglected by those they depend on to care for them. Then, many of them are removed from their homes and enter foster care systems across the country that are vastly underequipped. There are not enough foster homes. There are not enough qualified caregivers and decision-makers. There are not enough treatments and services. These children cannot afford to fall through the cracks, and yet they do, time and again, facing repeated traumatic experiences throughout their entire childhood. They never feel safe. They never find stability. They never learn how to build necessary connections that allow them to thrive as human beings, and they are never taught how to regulate all of the emotions they face as they grow and mature.

Unfortunately, this problem is happening across the country, but problems for children in long-term foster care have been recently highlighted in Texas. Judges at the district and appellate levels in a class action suit for children in long-term foster care found that children in Texas leave foster care more "damaged" than when they entered and that "abuse, rape, instability, and psychotropic medication" are the "norm" for these children. Over the past several years, court monitors assigned to oversee the State’s progress in implementing court-mandated protections for children in foster care continue to find dangerous deficiencies that will likely only be remedied if decision-makers make critical changes.

This experience through the foster care system leaves thousands upon thousands of children to face a downward spiral of harm that has devastating negative consequences throughout the child’s life and greatly impacts society. In fact, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, over 85% of children who are victims of sex trafficking are from foster care. Instead of reaching their full potential, children in long-term foster care are much more likely to be high school dropouts (40-50%), homeless (50%), teen parents (over 50% of foster youth females are pregnant by 19), incarcerated (more than 80% of males are arrested by 23), misdiagnosed with mental illness (3-5x increase), than they are to become productive members of society. These outcomes do not only affect these vulnerable children. The Center for Disease Control ("CDC") estimates that the lifetime cost for one child who suffers child abuse or neglect is over $200,000. With over a million children confirmed as victims of abuse and neglect each year, this becomes a trillion-dollar problem for society. If we are going to solve any of the problems that plague our society, we must go upstream – we must start with foster care.

We Are Misunderstanding Abused Children and Further Ruining Their Lives
Over the past two decades, there has been an increased understanding of how we are actually creating these negative outcomes by misunderstanding children who have experienced trauma. Neurologists, psychiatrists and psychologists, social scientists, and countless other professionals have identified the devastating impact that trauma has on a person’s entire well-being, as evidenced by an increased understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in soldiers returning from war. For children who have been abused and neglected, the impact of being harmed by their own caregiver cannot be overstated – it has been a war in their own home -- and this trauma devastates a child’s overall development. It changes the child’s brain, biochemical makeup, body’s response and reactions to stress, and beliefs about the world. Ultimately, this affects how the child interacts with others and how the child behaves. A child who has been traumatized learns how to survive, not how to cope. Therefore, these children often act in ways that make it difficult for them to connect to the world around them.

To understand this better, consider this example. Picture a little girl who was raped by her stepfather in the morning in the bathroom while her mother was preparing breakfast in the kitchen. The smell of bacon fills the air and becomes stored in the child’s survival part of the brain. Now imagine that the child has been placed in a foster home, with all of the hopes of a new beginning. On that first morning together, the foster mother gets up early to make a special breakfast of biscuits, eggs, and bacon for the child who has just been placed in her home. When the child smells the bacon, even if she is still asleep, her brain will go into survival mode. In response, she may experience flight – storm out of the house and down the street, unable to calm herself; she may fight – begin thrashing out, hit someone, or throw the bacon across the room; or she may freeze – go somewhere and hide, wet her pants, cry and shake. If this is early on in the relationship, how the foster parent responds to this episode will be extremely important, both to her perception of the child and the child’s ability to trust the foster parent.

What often happens at this stage when a person does not understand trauma is that a child who is simply trying to survive is viewed as ungrateful or a "problem" and punished in a variety of ways. Maybe the child is yelled at while cleaning up a mess he/she made in anger or made to sit in his or her wet underpants. Maybe the child is forced to sit in a room alone the rest of the day or put his or her nose in the corner. Maybe there is a call to the caseworker to say the child who runs away cannot stay in the house because it is not safe. If the child’s trauma continues to go untreated, these episodes will continue, and the child will eventually be moved, creating yet another fractured relationship where the child is told (in unspoken ways) that he or she is not worthy – another traumatic experience to add to a childhood now marked with them.

Science has shown – and the CDC confirms – that 4 or more traumatic childhood experiences drastically increase a person’s risk for negative health, psychological, and overall life outcomes, many of the same negative outcomes that we see children in long-term foster care experience throughout adulthood. When those who interact with or make decisions on behalf of these children do not understand how trauma impacts a child, they use policies and practices that actually retraumatize and add to the child’s trauma while in the State’s care. Naturally, this further destroys the child’s ability to connect with others and regulate his/her emotions, and results in what children in foster care often experience: repeated placement changes, constant school movement, misdiagnosis of mental disorders, inappropriate use of psychotropic medication, punishments involving isolation and/or restraints, and increased levels of care leading to institutionalization. An isolated childhood makes a normal adulthood impossible, the foundation marred and fractured beyond repair.

Become a Critical Part of the Solution as a Partner of the Child Protection Connection
Despite these devastating statistics, there is hope. Now that we understand the reason for the downward spiral of harm, we can create a new path toward healing. Throughout the country, there is a push to make our foster care systems trauma-informed. This starts with training all who interact with or make decisions on behalf of children in foster care and also includes evaluating and changing policies and practices that may retraumatize children and increasing access to trauma-informed care, treatments, and services.

While the tide is turning, the children who are in foster care now cannot wait for change to trickle down, and we need your help. Through decades of study, research, and commitment to the work of improving legal representation for abused and neglected children, the Connection is advocating in our courts, communities, and legislature to reduce retraumatization of children in our foster care system and increase children’s access to trauma-informed care and services. With a network of over 3,300 judges and attorneys throughout Texas, and a recognized trauma training program (click here to see its impact), we have the unique ability to mobilize thousands of judges and attorneys (who are involved in hundreds of thousands of children’s cases) to transform our foster care system.

These children deserve our best and brightest legal advocates, and, together, we can harness the expertise and brainpower of these legal experts to ensure that all victims of child abuse have the opportunity for trauma-informed legal representation and judicial decision-making, services that meet their unique needs, and more positive case and life outcomes.

Please join us in this important work for the benefit of these precious children. You can help us stand up for these children -- Sign up below to get involved.

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