Beth and Michael Barns, brand new foster parents, were excited when their first child, Brad was placed with them. They knew his basic story. They knew he had been hurt. They knew he had been removed from his family. He was shy at first, but polite and obedient…
In the beginning.
They decided that they would “save” him. They thought, despite their extensive foster parent training, that they could love the hurt right out of him.
As Brad became more familiar with the home…and the family…his behavior began to devolve. He would throw tantrums at bed time, bath time, dinner time…and basically any time he was told what to do.
They hung in through the screaming, the tantrums that occurred daily and even through the curses that streamed from his mouth in front of their smaller cildren.
They gritted their teeth, but hung on. For three months they persevered hoping he would settle down and fit in..
When Brad, in a fit of rage, put a hole in their wall with his fist…they called the agency to come get him. They were so sad when he had to leave. They felt defeated. Amazingly, when his social worker came to get him, he was quiet and docile, almost relieved to be moving on.
The Barns could not understand. They had done everything right. Why would he be happy to leave?
They didnt know his entire story.
Brad was only 9 years old. For the vast majority of his life he had been immersed in chaos, domestic violence and physical abuse. His constant companions: Pain and loneliness, were all he knew.
It hadn’t always been that way for Brad. His birth had been celibrated by his parents! Brad’s father, a firefighter, and his mother, a nurse, had been married for two years when he filled their lives with joy and completion. His mother left her job to care for him, enjoying the ability to bond and to provide for his needs. He still remembered the smell of her hair as his head often rested on her shoulders: floral and fresh.They were a family. However, when he was 14 months old, learning to talk in crazy half sentences and waddling playfully on two legs around the kitchen while his mother cooked dinner, his life changed.
Brad’s father had an accident, which resulted in his death. Under-insured, and after funeral costs, there was not enough left over to make ends meet.
Brad’s mother, reeling from grief, anxiety and fear sunk into depression. She was forced back to the job market before she had grieved properly, She worked 12 hour shifts on the weekends. Brad stayed with various friends and family while his mom worked. When she returned home, she had very little left to give him.
Brad’s cries, whether for food, dry clothing or just to be held were met with a haphazard and cool response. Some times she met his needs but sometime she did not.
His mother, looking for a way to take the edge off, found solace in marijuana at first. She liked the dulling affect the drug produced around her raw and screaming nerves. It became a daily habit. Soon, she graduated to meth because of the energy and urgency she felt when taking it. She felt alive again.
After missing multiple days of work, she lost her job. She and Brad moved in with her dealer, who supplied her with a roof over her head as well as crystal. To please her man, she also helped him deal and transport. She was arrested on the way to a drug deal because, still high, she was swerving on the road. The police officer not only found the meth, but also found Brad perched on the backseat, without car seat or even buckled in. The officer called children’s services and the screaming 2 year old, entered the foster care system.
While his mother had initially agreed to participate in drug court, she continuously failed her drug tests and was dismissed from the program. Luckily the case worker found family who was willing to take the young child.
Brad was sent to live with his Aunt Sue. She was sister to his mother and a good caregiver. His mother continued her downward spiral into drugs, overdosed and died a year after Brad entered care.
Fortunately, Brad began to make progress, living and bonding with Aunt Sue and Uncle Gary. They were willing to provide a home for the child, but were not interested in custody or adoption. Brad had lived with them for a year when Uncle Gary lost his job. The relatives could no longer afford to care for him. Their survival depended on moving out of state to live with Gary’s parents.
Brad was then placed with his father’s sister, Jean. Aunt Jean was not married, but had a boyfriend named John. Jean had neglected to tell the court about her boyfriend because he had a mean temperament made worse by heavy drinking. For the next 2 years, Brad witnessed domestic violence between Aunt Jean and John, often ending up with Aunt Jean going to the hospital, leaving him alone with John. John also unleashed his drunken rage on Brad, slapping him, punching him and berating him as a stupid orphan. When a neighbor, tired of hearing the child’s screams, called 911, Brad was picked up again. With no more viable relatives available, he was placed in a foster home. Brad was 5 years old.
To look at his angelic face was to fall in love. But the rage, fear and anxiety originating from the trauma that had consumed his young life, led to multiple placement disruptions. By the time he was placed with the Barns, he had disrupted six other placements over four years. They had all given up on him.
These were some of the factors…the big story…that the Barns did not know. Brad had been discarded and abandoned by all of those with whom he had begun to bond. Brad had begun to build layers of protection around his heart…meant to protect but also to repel.
Over and Over he learned to reject them before they rejected him.
The behavior that drove him to disruptions was fueled by the fear and anxiety of being discarded again. And each disruption validated the narrative that no one wanted him and that he would abandon them before they inevitably abandoned him.
After disrupting at the Barnes home, The agency social worker felt she had no choice but to place Brad…9 years old. .in a residential treatment facility.
How could this placement have gone differently? What can we learn? As a social worker, caregiver, or therapist for Brad…What could you do to really give Brad permanency?
1. Give the foster parents as much information as you know. In Brad’s case, they did not know the depths of his trauma and allowed themselves to shoulder the blame and guilt for not meeting his needs as they understood them.
2. Really engage the foster parent in the team decision process. For example, had the Foster Parent been involved in team decision making, they could have advocated for and received more support and guidance on how to manage Brad’s trauma behavior. The agency could have offered more physical supports in the home when the behavior escalated, modeling interventions for the Barns.
3. Really dig for the underlying causes of trauma behavior so that the best treatment interventions can be offerred and provided.
4. Be creative and consistent in the interventions. If at all possible keep the same worker and therapist to minimize losses for the child.
4. Keep your mind and your eyes on the goal! With Brad, the goal was adoption. Yet that goal’s success potential diminished with each move.
When the behaviors started to escalate, the team could have moved in proactively and provided a more intensive behavior plan, supporting the foster parents and supplementing their efforts with outside help…all while the therapist continued to discover and address his underlying trauma.
Brad’s trauma response didnt happen overnight. Like the center of a juicy onion, after each act of abuse, neglect, trauma, violence, sadness, and abandonment, Brad wrapped layer upon layer of protection (disguised as indifference and anger)around his heart and mind. Like a chrysalis, these layers protected him but also made him hard to reach. He didnt feel safe. In his mind, the protection layers served him well. But they also walled him in. Like a Caterpillar who could not emerge from their cocoon, Brad’s hope and ability to trust/attach died a little each day.
The challenge this week is simple.
Really look at the children you are helping. How can you more actively involve your team to develop proactive responses to their cries for help that are expressed through trauma behavior? How can you support the caregivers who deal with this every day.
Building trust takes time. Working together, proactively NOW, you can begin the process.
Take the time necessary to slowly work with your team, to reach and peel through all the layers of that chrysalis and help a beautiful butterfly emerge.
As for Brad, all was not lost. The Barns did reach out to Brad’s treatment team to offer themselves as a visiting resource for Brad while he was in the residential facility. They worked with the team to participate in the plan for Brad’s treatment needs, with the goal of returning the child back into their home. Together, the foster parents and the team began working to get through Brad’s layers with the goal of permanency with them.