The good that came out of all that tragedy, if there is any good that can be mined out of it, is that we learned an awful lot about how kids and caregivers get injured or killed in out-of-home placement. We learned that there are two root causes in almost every tragedy. Firsts, there are what I call “relationship failures,” and the second root cause is “interruption in routine.”
Relationship failures are by far the number one root cause of injury or death in foster care. It’s not difficult for child welfare professionals to imagine where this starts. They know intimately the inherent problems of caring for kids who have been traumatized by abandonment, neglect, and abuse. Anyone who has been involved in foster care for any length of time knows that trying to care for wounded children is like trying to pour water into a bucket that has holes in the bottom. Simply put, traumatized kids need more than any one person is able to give.
On the surface of an incident, it may appear that the injury or death was the result of an accident. The accident, vehicle or otherwise, is the direct cause of tragedy, but the root cause may go back to the argument that was happening in the vehicle right before the accident. Or it might go back to the disagreement at the breakfast table an hour earlier, or the incident that happened at school the day before that resulted in detention at school that put the foster parent on the road during a heavier trafficked time of day. Or the fact that the bio kids of the foster family were signed up for soccer, but the foster child was not.
When we look deeper at the details and step back through the circumstances preceding tragedy, we nearly always find a breakdown in relationship—usually between foster parent and foster child, but sometimes it’s between bio child and foster child or foster child and an extended family member, friend, or neighbor.
I’m not a psychologist or some kind of expert in the area of human relationships, but having been in the child welfare system, and in seeing far too much of what can go wrong in foster care, I’ve gained some insight into this subject. In my opinion, failures in relationship can be minimized by caregivers doing a few simple things:
- From the first moment that you meet your new foster child, and in every conversation from that point on, tell the child that you care about him or her, that you want him or her to feel safe with you, and that every “rule” or “healthy boundary” that you establish is for him or her to have a good life.
- Be patient. Be calm. Breathe. Take care of yourself. You can’t take care of anyone else if you’re exhausted, frustrated, or in poor health. Self-care and healthy coping mechanisms are critical to creating a successful life for yourself, your family, and everyone within your care and influence. When you take care of yourself and encourage others to take care of themselves, you are modeling good self-care.
- Understand that you are not solely responsible for the outcome of the young person in your care. You are responsible to protect, defend, and care for the child as if he or she were your own for the time (regardless of length of time) that the child is in your care. In other words, do your best and then trust that the seeds of goodness that you plant will take root.
The second root cause of tragedy is interruption in routine, such as a neighborhood potluck, a family reunion, a party, moving day, a family vacation, etc. Avoiding tragedy that results from an interruption in routine, is relatively straight-forward. Simply knowing that the risk is greater during these times, allows you to plan accordingly. One of the things you can do is to ask other adults to help you keep an eye on the children so that someone is always specifically responsible for their whereabouts and activity. Or you can arrange for make arrangements for respite care in advance.
To improve your experience of parenting, and the experience of everyone involved, adopt the mantra of, “I care about you. I want to keep you safe. I want to prepare you to create a good life for yourself from today forward.” If you say this clearly and succinctly and often, with sincerity, everyone in your life will know, without doubt, that this is the reason you’re doing foster care, that this is what you stand for, and that every word you speak and action you take is for this one purpose. Once everyone in your life understands this, you will have significantly reduced the risk of tragedy in your home, and made it easier to defend yourself in the event that something outside of your control does happen.
Rhonda Sciortino is one of the estimated 12 million former foster kids in the US. She is founder and chairperson of Successful Survivors Foundation, a non-profit organization created to help survivors of trauma create personal and professional success. She has authored 6 books, and her seventh, Acts Of Kindness, 101 Ways To Make The World A Better Place is scheduled for release November 18th. Rhonda can be reached at [email protected].