A little too close to home? When the crisis of childhood trauma becomes a personal mission

18/06/2019 2:25:32 PM | Sarah
I’m a creative, laughter-loving, coffee-drinking Jesus follower. My husband and I are kinship carers (hence the need for coffee) and have spent 9.5 years of our 11 years of marriage living with others who needed a family. I’ve got two degrees (social work and psychology) but have a knack for doing unpaid roles. Among other things, I’ve been a lead tenant, a residential care worker with kids in Out-of-Home Care, a foster care case manager, a house parent within a teenage boy recovery house in Hong Kong and now, a therapeutic kinship carer of two. 

The curve ball

 I got a call one day and everything changed. It’s one of those stories…
 
Our life was as “normal” as it had ever been. We were studying and working full time, it was one of the rare times in our 11 years of marriage that we were living “just us”. Perfect timing, you might say, to get a call asking us to drop it all and prioritise two little lives. We had always thought we might like to do foster caring one day. Seems the kids were ready before we were. 
 
When a child is removed from their caregivers, Child Protection set about the task of determining whether there are any kith or kin who would be suitable to provide care. The Child Protection worker introduced herself on the phone, and guess what? We were the suitable people. Would we take on the care of two kids, whom we had met once, starting the next day? We were it, there weren’t any other options.
 
What do you say? What would you say? 
 
The commitment: Why say yes to foster care?

We had, from a worldly perspective, legitimate reasons to say no. We could have stated health reasons, we could have pleaded “no time”, we could have reasoned “no space” or we could have said we haven’t had little kids before. We even had a very spiritual sounding reason to say no, we were at the time enacting plans to go overseas and do mission long-term, we were months away from leaving. 
 
But two children were knocking on the door, so to speak. What do you say?
 
You say yes, of course! No really, of course you say yes, despite all our reasons not to, our fears, and our insecurities.
 
Of course we would say yes. Wouldn’t you? 
 
In Jesus’ final parable before He went to the cross, Matthew 25 in the bible, Jesus tells a story about sheep and goats. He says when we love the “least”, we love Jesus Himself. The people who Jesus said had truly loved Him (the sheep) asked, when did we love you Lord? They didn’t even recognise Him in the face of the stranger, the naked, the thirsty, the sick, the oppressed. They just did it. The people who thought they were loving Jesus, missed Him completely, despite doing very spiritual sounding things (the goats). We didn’t want to miss Jesus, tell Him to go somewhere else. There was a line being drawn in the sand, did we want to be counted as sheep or goats? As impractical as it was, and as scared as we were, we didn’t afford ourselves the luxury of contemplating whether we should ‘suffer for Jesus’ whilst the kids suffered without Him. So they arrived, with nothing but little backpacks of newly bought basics and broken hearts full of worries. 
 
Childhood trauma: A glance at Out-of-Home Care in Australia

Like all issues relating to justice, you will either know that childhood trauma is one of the most pressing (and hidden) issues of our time, or you won’t. This is the kind of blog that doesn’t sit easy, nor should it. But for the sake of these children who have very little power to change things in their lives, read on with an open mind, and resist the idea that this issue is for someone else to resolve. 
 
This issue was one close to my heart since I was 18-years-old, when I began as a lead tenant for girls who were struggling with life controlling issues, or who couldn’t live at home because it wasn’t safe for them. I began to see the incredible suffering and trauma that can occur in children and young people- and these were ones who didn’t meet the risk threshold for entrance into the Out-of-Home Care (OoHC) system[1]. In Australia ‘tertiary child protection services are a last resort, and the least desirable option for families and governments’ which in layman’s terms means things have to be really, really bad and not be likely to get better for a child to be removed and placed in OoHC (Council of Australian Governments, 2009, p. 7). Yet despite the high threshold of risk needing to be met for a child to be removed from their caregivers, for around 50, 000 kids, 47,915 to be exact, the Out-of-Home Care system is “home” (Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, 2018). That’s about 9 out of every 1000 children and young people (AIHW, 2018). For Indigenous children in Australia, the number leaps to 58.7 per 1000 children, making them almost 10 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be subject to substantiated reports of risk/harm (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2019). The rates vary across the states, with the rate of placement in OoHC for Victorian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being 95.9 out of every 1000 kids (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2019). Why such over representation of Indigenous children? At the forefront sits the impact of past and present colonial policies that continue to perpetuate intergenerational trauma and discrimination (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission [HREOC], 1997; SNAICC, 2016; Titterton, 2017).
 
How long do they stay in OoHC? Most will stay for over 5 years (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2018). How many placements do kids have in OoHC typically? In one study that examined the placement history of 77 young people who had been in OoHC in Victoria and Western Australia, 40% had experienced between 2-5 placements, 14% between 6-10 placements and 32% had been through more than 11 placements (Johnson, Natalier, Liddiard &Thoresen, 2011). From working in the field we know of kids who have had over 30 placements. But surely if home was so traumatic to warrant the child’s removal, they must leave care better off? Research shows that in the main, young people leaving care are ‘at increased risk of a range of poor social, educational and health outcomes including homelessness, mental illness, unemployment, substance misuse, contact with the justice system, early parenthood and low education attainment’ (Campo & Commerford, 2016, in AIFS, 2018).  
 
Unacceptable Realities
 

Unresolved childhood trauma has devastating effects on individuals, families and our whole community. Often budgetary restraints are used as justifications- even if you don’t work in the sector you may have heard talk about overloaded child protection case-loads and a lack of funding for welfare services. Perhaps we don’t have enough money? Resist that thought. Blue Knot and Pegasus Economics estimate that unresolved childhood trauma may cost the annual budget as much as $24 billion (Kezelman, Hossack, Stavropoulos & Burley, 2015). Yes, I said $24 billion per year. How? We pay for trauma in other systems - hospitals, mental health, prisons, law enforcement, drug and alcohol, homelessness services, family violence response. You see, it’s politically advantageous to announce funding for hospitals and that the government is putting more police on the street. Not so politically advantageous to announce we will strive to turn the tide on trauma, and that we will see the long-term benefits in 20 years’ time. 
 
What you can’t put a price tag on though, is the unfathomable personal cost of child abuse and neglect, as children begin their lives on a trajectory of mistrust, despair and survival that will continue to run its course unless there is an effective intervention. We cannot underestimate how hard it must be for a child, who with an immature arsenal of psychological defences must find ways to survive whilst being unable to fully trust or rely on adults to protect or nurture them.  Without effective intervention, traumatised children typically grow into traumatised adults, who face re-traumatisation through engaging with systems which pathologise and stigmatise the behaviours that once functioned to keep them safe. The trajectory of unresolved, chronic childhood trauma and neglect is all too well known: addiction, poor mental health, suicidality, risk taking, educational impairment, work impairment, crime, relational difficulties. How many of us in our fight against injustice work with adult survivors of childhood abuse and neglect? Dr Krish Kandiah raises a serious point for reflection: ‘why do we wait until the system picks these kids up, chews them up and spits them out before we get involved?...These kids need help when they are 5&6’ (Kandiah, The Justice Conference, 2019). Let’s not wait.
 
An honest look at what it means to “get involved”:
 
Traumatised kids need a special kind of love. They need reparative experiences of relationship and we have the opportunity to offer that. Traumatised children need relational healing, a repetition of safe, predictable and nurturing care. It is different to raising our own kids. Hear me when I say this is not for the faint hearted and that you cannot do it alone or without understanding of the impact of developmental trauma.  I wish I could say that once children are removed from their traumatic environments, they simply soak up good care like a sponge. It’s not that simple.  Good care is so radically different to what they have known... and aren’t we all highly suspicious and afraid of the unknown? They resist it because their neuro-biology is telling them not to trust anyone, especially these ‘aliens’ who are being nice to them – “what on earth are they up to?” wonders the child. For kids in care, trauma and neglect have provided the organising environment for their brains. Through experience, traumatised children become physiologically primed for bad things to happen, they come to expect that caregivers will hurt them and they learn to protect themselves. We recently told our kids we were planning a family holiday. Did they erupt with joy and excitement? They were terrified. Our son began yelling and swearing at us, becoming controlling and demanding. Our daughter immediately had a tummy ache, and was visibly anxious and sad. 2 years in, and still, their bodies are primed for disaster and even the novelty of something good was frightening.
 
A special kind of love
 

We had such good parenting strategies that had been tried and tested on non-traumatised kids, and that we ourselves received growing up- ready to deploy. They didn’t help much, instead we needed to learn a whole new way of caring for traumatised children. Developmental trauma causes a child’s neurobiology to be different to their non-traumatised peers, and as such, their behaviour, experiences and needs are different (for some great material on the impact of childhood trauma look at the work of Bruce Perry, Kim Golding, Dan Hughes and Alan Schore). 
 
Two of the most pertinent negative outcomes of developmental trauma are an interrupted capacity for emotional self-regulation (Schore, 2001) and secure attachment (Bowlby, 1969). These two impacts alone speak of unfathomable difficulty for the child, and those who are close to them. Without the experiences necessary for optimal brain development, healthy development won’t occur (Perry, 2006). Traumatic care giving environments impact the ‘nature, pattern and timing’ of the experiences that are essential for the healthy development of neural systems which support a child’s capacity to function optimally in the world (Perry, 2006, p. 48). Sadly there are no shortcuts, if your foster child missed out on developmentally essential experiences like co-regulation, they can’t just skip that part and independently develop self-regulation. What that looks like is you might be caring for a 13-year old who has the self-regulation capacity of a 4-year old. It’s a little harder to “rock the baby” at this age, but I assure you it can be done, and indeed it must for the child to assume a better life trajectory. 
 
It takes a [very large and dedicated] village 
 
If it takes a village to raise a non-traumatised child, how much more people-power is needed to raise and heal a traumatised child? As therapeutic parents of two, we will be the first to say we so wished we had more people around us linking arms and loving our kids back to life. Just like we did, I’m sure you have lots of reasons to say you can’t get involved. So I’ve got a proposition: What if as the church, we shifted to the idea of small groups of people who say yes to fostering? What if “Joe and Natalie” say they want to foster, and their best friends say they will do fortnightly weekend respite?  Then let’s say there’s two families from church who say they will help with a few afternoon school runs a week. Billy says he will mow the lawn (believe me “normal” tasks become near impossible when you necessarily highly structure and supervise your foster child’s time and maintain your presence with them). Jane and Ted say they will be pseudo grandparents. Kim and Jen say they will take foster mum out for a coffee every fortnight and let her cry, laugh, and just do something ‘normal’. Lacey says she will take the kids to the park once a week for a couple of hours. Gerry and Tom say they will take foster dad out for a beer every fortnight. Someone comes around to watch the kids as they sleep so the foster parents can go out to see a movie. Someone says they will pay for the kids to get play therapy. Someone else says they will coordinate a prayer support group. Get the picture? No matter what your life looks like, you can do something. Together, we could be ‘looking after “orphans” in their distress’ practicing this ‘religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless’ (James 1:27). Working together makes the daunting task of fostering, suddenly much more communal and doable. 
 
Who do you need to talk to about what you might be able to contribute? Don’t wait for a call, do one better than us and sign yourself up. Let us be Jesus with skin on for some of the most vulnerable in our society. But only if you are willing to learn about developmental trauma and therapeutic parenting (spoiler alert: it’s the only way to effectively “love” traumatised children), commit (the process is long) and do what it takes (selfless love, some serious back-up and a very stubborn persistence to not give up and let trauma have the last word). It’s easy for us to sit in our comfort zones and wonder whether we want to help- but for these kids there are little choices available to them. It’s not all up to governments, who plan the degree to which they will execute justice based on their budget. In God, we have an unlimited supply of the very things that these kids need in bucket loads: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Ephesians 5:22-23). What are we doing with the grace we’ve been given? Let’s lead the way in welcoming kids in need into our world, because that’s what the Kingdom of God is like.
 
 References:
 
Australian Institute of Family Studies (2018). Children in care: CFCA Resource Sheet— September 2018. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved online https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/children-care

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2018). Child protection Australia 2016–2017 (Child Welfare Series No. 68). Canberra: AIHW.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2019). Child protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children: CFCA Resource Sheet— January 2019.Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved online https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/child-protection-and-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-children

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. New York: Basic Books.

Council of Australian Governments. (2009). Protecting children is everyone’s business: National Framework for protecting Australia’s children 2009–2020. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved online https://www.dss.gov.au/sites/ default/files/documents/child_protection_framework.pdf

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). (1997). Bringing Them Home. Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. Sydney: HREOC.

Johnson, G., Natalier, K., Liddiard, M., & Thoresen, S. H. (2011). Out in the world with no-one: A qualitative study of the housing pathways of young people who have recently left state out-of-home care. In Mendes, P., Johnson, G., & Moslehuddin, B. (Eds.), Young people leaving state out-of-home care (pp. 116–139). North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Kandiah, K. The Justice Conference Podcast, Episode 5. TEAR Australia.

Kezelman, C., Hossack, N., Stavropoulos, P. & Burley, P. [Blue Knot Foundation] (2015). The cost of unresolved childhood trauma and abuse in Australia. Retreived online https://www.blueknot.org.au/Portals/2/Economic%20Report/The%20cost%20of%20unresolved%20trauma_budget%20report%20fnl.pdf

Perry, B. (2006). Applying principles of neurodevelopment to clinical work with maltreated and traumatized children: The neurosequential model of therapeutics. In N. B. Web (Ed), Working with Traumatized Youth in Child Welfare, pp. 27-52. Guilford Press: New York.

Schore, A. (2001). The effects of early relational trauma on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22, 201-269.

SNAICC. (2016). The family matters report: Measuring trends to turn the tide on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child safety and removal. Melbourne: SNAICC, the University of Melbourne, Save the Children Australia and the Centre for Evidence and Implementation.

Titterton, A. (2017). Indigenous access to family law in Australia and caring for Indigenous children. University of New South Wales Law Journal,  40(1), 146–185.
 
[1]
Out-of-home care (OoHC) is the placement of children (aged 0–17 years) with alternative carers on a short- or long-term basis, because they are unable to live with their primary caregivers, most commonly due to abuse and/or neglect. OoHC can be arranged informally (arrangements made without statutory intervention) or formally (via child protection intervention) (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2018). 
 


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