April 16, 2006

The Holistic Foster Child

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Modified Paper from 2003 - "Holistic Approach for Handling a Foster Child’s Grief and Loss"

Grief and loss with respect to the foster child have not been dealt with effectively in the USA, and I believe a holistic approach has been proven to be the most effective way of dealing with grief and loss in foster families. There is a need to take an insightful and personalized approach in dealing with complex issues, for the foster child goes through a traumatic time being shifted from one home to another. The basic rationale for addressing grief and loss as experienced by the foster child, stems from the lack of family education and awareness of the issues surrounding the foster child’s grief and loss. In particular, grief education and foster care training for foster families would provide tools to aide in a smooth transition for the entire foster family.

With over 550,000 children in the foster care system, the nation is failing to get them out of the system and adopted into homes. The very system that was created to protect neglected and abused children, has wrapped itself up in so much bureaucracy, that it has created a parallel and inescapable cycle of abuse. Unfortunately, most foster children spend months and even years, being shuffled in and out of various temporary homes. Each year, only a fraction of children are legally adopted, while the rest are thrown back into the recycle bin of the foster care program. The net result is, we have thousands of children experiencing loss and grieving with each change of residence. In the life of a foster child, change is constant. This change presents uncertainty. When taken from one home to another, the child walks into the unknown carrying with him or her, fears and insecurity.

Most, if not all children in foster care experience a tremendous sense of loss. There is a loss of their familiar home surroundings, at least some disruption of daily routines, loss of personal belongings, and family members. How a child experiences loss depends on many factors including: the child's developmental level, the significance of the people separated, whether the separation is temporary or permanent, and the degree of familiarity of the new surroundings. Foster children are often in an indeterminate state. When initially placed into care, it is often unknown whether the child will or will not return home. Until a biological parent's rights are relinquished or terminated, it is difficult for a child to complete the grief process. If the child goes on to be placed in other foster homes, he or she may never complete the grief process until they are out of the foster care system.

A holistic approach for handling a foster child’s grief and loss can be broken down into four sections, based on factors that influence a foster child’s life: the foster parent, the biological parent, the social worker or educator, and the adoptive parent if there is one. All four factors impact a foster child’s life and shape it in the process. Offering grief education and foster care training to all parties involved in a foster child’s life, would arm them with tools to aide in a smooth transition. Grief education can include classes or seminars covering the psychological impact of grief on a child, with a particular focus on the foster child. The format can be a mixture of two styles; lecture and interactive. Attendees will learn and use what they have learned at the same session, which opens up the course for further feedback.

Support groups for foster parents are a great opportunity to discuss and network with others whose lives have been impacted by a foster child and the foster care system. Working together the parents can gain a better understanding of the foster child’s emotional vulnerabilities and share what methods worked best for them when dealing with grief issues. On a one-on-one level, the foster parent can help the child feel safe, secure, and better prepared for their next placement. Through honest and direct communication, the foster parent can facilitate and assist the child’s natural grieving process by discussing foster care issues and educating themselves and their foster child. In addition, foster parents and social workers need to work closely to develop a plan to help the child grieve and adapt during the transitional time between permanent homes.

Educators spend a lot of time with their students and in many cases, are not aware of those in the class who are foster children. A teacher might unintentionally refer to biological or foster parents in a way that brings a foster child’s grief to the surface, causing them to modify their behavior. Also, a teacher might not be equipped to discuss the foster care situation with any degree of sensitivity. If a foster parent meets with the teacher and informs him or her before the child starts class, it would make the child’s classroom experience more favorable for all. It is best to teach the child to take the energy from their grief and trauma and focus it on something positive, like school interactions and building friendships. Brief one-on-one occasional meetings between a foster parent and teacher are ideal, because foster children tend to need more attention.

The social worker should work with the foster parent and assist the child to deal with his or her feelings. The child may not want to put feelings into words, so using play, drawing pictures, creating clay models, and other artistic methods of exploring feelings can be used. If the child wishes to verbalize their thoughts, then active listening can be an effective tool for validating emotions. Also, at this point the child’s biological parents and the loss experienced by being separated from them can be addressed. Most foster children feel abandoned by their biological parents and deeply grief the loss of the parents with grew up with however dysfunctional the family.

Involving the future adoptive parent in the life of the foster child before the placement takes place, aides in a better transition. Between finding a permanent home for a foster child and all the lengthy legal paperwork involved, there could be a long waiting period. If prospective adoptive parents attend adoptive or foster parent support groups, it could prepare them for what is to follow. Ideally, with the foster and adoptive parents working together openly in front of the child, it makes the child feel less of a sense of loss when they move into a permanent home.

Addressing grief and loss in foster care and creating awareness aides in the prevention of more complicated psychological issues for the entire foster family. Through the assistance and support of their foster parents, biological parents, social workers, educators, and adoptive parents – all working collectively, a foster child can come to terms with their being in the foster care system and work through their grief and deal with their loss. The key is for individuals to help individuals build a better family through education and awareness.