The Foster Care Drift
by Michele Morrissey
We have all heard the stories from former foster youth who grew up in the system. Their stories often share the same common problem of growing up in multiple foster homes – the foster care drift (Placement Patterns in Foster Care). More than one disrupted foster home is traumatic enough for a child, but it’s difficult to fathom the harm experienced by a child when they have moved through 5, 10, 15, or even 20 homes.
What causes a child to move so many times? Who are these foster families that keep rejecting this child? Is the child welfare system so bad, that it cannot find permanency for these kids? The answers to these questions are not easy to find. It is too easy to say that the foster care system or foster family failed a child once again. It is also too easy for foster families to say, "I will never request a child be removed from my home."
I have had a specific child on my mind for a couple of months now. I was at a provider meeting that included several foster care agencies and this child was presented, as he’d been on a waiting list for some time. In professional lingo it is called a ‘placement request’ where agencies collaborate on locating an appropriate foster home for a specific child. This male child is three and half years old and needed to be transferred from his current foster home to a new home because of behavior issues. Further information reveals that he was part of a sibling group of four children and they were trying to find a home for him and his sister. The brother and sister had been separated from the other two siblings also due to behavior issues. When placed, the newest foster home will be his fifth foster home. The mother side of my brain is already shouting, "For heaven's sake this child is only 3 years old, how bad can his behavior truly be!!!"
Our intake coordinator presented his referral packet to a home and we found a match! The siblings had, what is considered, a long transition into the home. He finally moved into his new foster home with his sister. However, within days he was removed from the home due to severe behaviors and aggression. The little boy was screened by a state funded mental health team (the Mobile Crisis Team) and deemed safe to return to the foster home, but again, displayed very unsafe behaviors, property destruction, and aggression. He was moved to another foster home within our agency.
So what happened in this small child's life that brought him to this place? Obviously, abuse and neglect by his birth family brought him into the foster care system. Why so many foster homes? Most people think of behavior problems as tantrums, hitting or something similar. However, a child affected by trauma can bring bad behavior to new levels that are hard to imagine. Some of the most challenging behaviors that I have seen are bed wetting, hurting a family pet, hurting or battling with another child in the home, or even acting aggressively toward a foster parent or their biological children. It should also be said that rarely does this bad behavior mean one isolated incident. It occurs frequently and patience, additional supports, therapies, and “thinking outside the box” may have no impact. Providing a loving home for a child with these kinds of challenges will test even the most seasoned foster parents. Can a foster family that has tried everything under the sun and had no success be blamed for giving up?
One of the points that are taught in our MAPP (Massachusetts Approach to Partnership Parenting) training is that the safety and health of your own family needs to come first above the needs of a foster child. This is a hard concept to wrap the brain around until it has been experienced.
Foster families are all created differently and each experience is unique. The thought of a child with extreme behavior issues has chased many potential foster families away because of fear. Not all foster children have extreme behaviors. I have often been surprised by a family who seemed to be tailor made to handle a particular child. I admire those who choose not to give up and I understand the heartbreak and grief of those who need to make a change. There are no black and white rules when it comes to children in foster care.
The foster care system is working hard to minimize placement disruptions. There is now collaboration between state social services and private agencies to increase the chance of finding a home that fits a child's needs. Placing a child in a home that is good fit right from the start is an important piece of the puzzle.
If you are interested in becoming a foster parent, take the first step. Please call LUK at 800-579-0000 to talk about your interest in becoming a foster parent. We will answer any questions you have, and will begin the process when you are ready to proceed.