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Understanding the Unique Needs of Children in Foster Care

By: Chaya Surie Malek

Published in Building Blocks, December 2011

Children placed in foster care have been removed from their homes and separated from their families, and as such have unique needs particular to their experience. While these needs may include emotional, psychological, behavioral and developmental issues, OHEL foster care social workers and case managers work closely with the child and OHEL foster families in order to best meet the child’s needs.

WHY IS A CHILD PLACED IN FOSTER CARE?

When there are concerns about the safety of a child that are brought to the attention of the city, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) will investigate the family. In general, the city’s policy is not to remove a child from a family, but to rather provide supportive services within the home that address any safety concerns and strengthen the family. However if the investigators feel that a child is in imminent danger, ACS may decide to place that child in foster care. In New York, OHEL is the only Jewish foster care agency contracted with ACS. Once the child is placed with OHEL, they are responsible to work with the parents to improve the conditions that led to placement, in order for the child to be returned home. If that is not possible, then OHEL explores family or other resources. In situations where the court determines that a child can not safely be returned home and there are no other appropriate resources, a child may be may be freed for adoption by a family court judge.

UNIQUE CHALLENGES OF CHILDREN PLACED IN FOSTER CARE

Common diagnoses of children in foster care include Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Adjustment Disorder, Anxiety Disorders, Depression, Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). While these conditions are the most commonly diagnosed, it is not a given that every child in foster care will be diagnosed with a disorder. Regarding children who are diagnosed, the presentation of symptoms will vary based on many factors. These factors may include the child’s genetic composition, coping skills, age, the specifics of what the child experienced, the child’s interpretation of that experience, and the number of foster home moves, in addition to other factors. Children placed in foster care may have difficulty feeling safe. They may have memories or nightmares, re-experiencing their trauma. Trust can be very difficult to establish. They may fear removal from the foster home. As a result, children may act out in order to protect themselves; they may lie or steal as way to feel secure. Children placed in foster care will likely have difficulty adjusting to their new environment. In many cases, children will be moved to a home that is in another community and may need time to adjust to a new neighborhood and school. In some cases, siblings will be split up and placed in different foster families, adding to their difficulty in adjusting to being separated from their family, home and community. Children placed in foster care may experience many complex emotions. They may feel sad, helpless, hopeless and unsure of their future. There may be self blame or guilt, as children may hold themselves responsible for breaking up their family. Children placed in foster care may have difficulty with conflicting feelings of loyalty between their birth and foster families. Although the children were removed due to neglect and abuse, they still tend to feel loyalty to their birth families. Once placed in a foster home, they may begin to feel loyalty to the foster parents as well. This can create an internal conflict.

Another common theme may involve grief, loss and separation. Some children may be needier; more dependent or require more attention than others their age. They may have difficulty separating from their foster parents or going to sleep at night. Other children may have difficulty attaching and building a relationship with their foster families or others. Some children may display feelings of anger or resentment regarding their situation. If there was no structure in their home environment, they may have trouble acclimating to the rules in the foster home. Some older children may be used to taking care of their siblings and have difficulty allowing foster parents to parent their younger siblings. Some children may display oppositional behaviors towards others. It is not uncommon for some children placed in foster care to have developmental or educational delays.

Many infants and toddlers may need early intervention to help them achieve their developmental milestones. Some older children may not have attended school regularly prior to their removal from their homes. It is also common for children to have peer related socialization issues as they may not have had the proper guidance or opportunities to socialize with other children.

Eight year old Nachi was moved to a new foster home as his foster family was moving to another country. Nachi began to act out during the transition. He was disruptive at school. There were times when he was frustrated and got into fights with other children. Sixteen year old Gitty was placed in foster care with her younger sister. Gitty’s mother was physically and emotionally abusive. Gitty did not have any friends, because she was responsible to take care of her sister most days after school. Gitty was very protective of her sister and wanted to take care of her herself. Her younger sister refused to go to sleep at night, and would awaken several times a night from nightmares.

With the proper support, children placed in foster care can overcome significant challenges enabling them to live safely, make progress in school and develop the skills to live independently and contribute to society. Working as a team, birth parents, foster parents, the agency staff and community can meet their needs.

The new foster family was patient and accepting and able to respond to Nachi’s behaviors calmly. They helped him with his homework after school and set up play dates in their home with other children so they could supervise him and provide feedback. It took several months, but they were able to help him express his feelings and improve his coping skills. Over time, Gitty began to allow the foster parents to care for her sister. She began to socialize with the other girls in her class and made friends. She participated in therapy with her foster mother in order to help her connect. Today, Gitty is a teacher and is married with two children. She maintains a close relationship with her biological family, her foster siblings and foster parents. Her foster parents were involved in planning her wedding and her children refer to them as their grandparents.

Children placed in foster care need what every child needs; someone to comfort them, someone to encourage them and someone to believe in them. They need structure, security and normalcy. They need to be invited into someone’s home; they need to be welcomed into someone’s heart.

Seven year old Naftali was asked what he would buy if he had all the money in the world. He answered, “A woman to take care of me like a mother.” Fifteen year old Miri was in the car with her case worker. A song came on the radio. Miri told the case worker that was her favorite song. The case worker listened to the lyrics. The chorus contained the lyrics, “Won’t somebody come take me home?”

The role of the foster parent is to help the child adjust to the removal, provide a stable and safe environment and work with the agency, school, therapist and birth family to meet the child’s needs. Whether it is a short term or long term placement, foster parents have the opportunity to teach by example about family and life values, provide a child with positive experiences and better a child’s life. While foster parenting can be challenging, there are many benefits to becoming a foster parent.

Yehudis, a foster mother, discusses some of the positive aspects of foster parenting. “My children have learned greater empathy for others. My husband and I have become better parents by learning different techniques in meeting the needs of the children placed with our family.” Suzie, an adoptive mother, wrote about the best part of adopting a child who had been in foster care for several years. “It is the smile on my son’s face, the light of laughter in his eyes, the pride when he introduces me as his Ima.”

Becoming a foster parent is a big decision. OHEL will meet with any prospective foster family to explore the idea and discuss the steps. Prospective foster parents will participate in training to learn more about how to help children adjust to their temporary home, understand how to work with birth parents and assess their own strengths as foster parents. For more information on becoming a foster parent with OHEL, please contact the home-finding department at 718.851.6300.

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