If a house is built on a cracked foundation, it doesn’t matter how much money you spend on improvements to its exterior – the house will remain unstable. The same is true for people, according to a group of child advocates who gathered for a “Putting Children First” seminar at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet on Thursday and Friday.
Coordinated by Chief Judge Haiganush Bedrosian of the Rhode Island Family Court, the two-day seminar brought together more than 500 educators, social workers, child care providers, attorneys, law enforcement personnel and court staff. The goal, Bedrosian said, is to improve communication among stakeholders and ultimately improve outcomes for children who end up in state care.
“Communication is critical and that’s part of what we’re doing today. We’re trying to help all of us to understand that there are new ways of helping kids to cope,” she said.
Often times, when a child ends up in Bedrosian’s courtroom, they have already faced significant hardship and may be in serious trouble. Last week’s seminar got to the root causes of why these children are affected so profoundly by their pasts.
Robert Hagberg, LICSW, deputy director and clinical coordinator for Casey Family Services, gave the keynote address with his colleague, Dr. James Greer, who is a psychiatric consultant at Casey, as well as the clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University Medical School.
In their experience, no amount of love can erase the years of trauma that children in the DCYF system face. By the time a child gets to Casey Family Services, one of DCYF’s placement agencies, they have already been through an average of eight placements. In Rhode Island, as of August 2011, DCYF’s caseload included 6,989 children.
“What these kids go through is going to be with them for their entire lives and we don’t know how to erase it; we can’t hit reset,” Greer said.
Mistrust, deception, anger, violence – they are all learned traits, Greer explained. Each time a child, even an infant, has an experience it is hard-wired into their brain. Without the positive feedback from a parent or guardian, development can stall or even regress.
Greer and Hagberg used the example of a toddler learning to walk. Under normal circumstances, he or she is anxious to stand for the first time. They know from previous attempts that it is easier to fall, and by extension get hurt, if they stand on two feet as opposed to crawling. It is the affirmation of a parent, encouraging that child to press on, that hard-wires them to understand that walking is a good thing – something to be applauded.
The same is true for creative experiences, and stretching their learning. If a child draws a crude picture for their mother, for example, most parents would applaud them, tell them how beautiful the picture is and hang it on the refrigerator. As a result, that child will be prolific with his or her artwork, wanting the approval of their loved one. A child whose artwork is insulted, crumpled up or ignored, on the other hand, will be less likely to draw in the future.
“That experience is getting hard wired in that kid’s brain. The brain is a use it or lose it organism,” Hegberg said.
Trauma has a similar impact. Whether through abuse, neglect or the loss of a loved one, stage-related developmental tasks can essentially be skipped, as survival becomes the priority for the child. Rather than worry about their toys or about school, they worry about where their next meal will come from, or when they will be abused again. That developmental trauma can have lasting effects, and leave a child not fully developed.
“They’re 8 in reality, they act like their 12, sometimes 2, and they have mouths like 30 year olds,” Hegberg said of some of the children he has worked with.
Children who are not exposed to empathy or caring are less likely to understand or exhibit those emotions later in life. Early childhood experiences, then, are perhaps the most important for development. They do not even realize that their reactions as teenagers or adults are a direct result of the initial training of their brains.
“They can’t put into words why they do what they do or why they feel how they feel,” Greer said.
By the time a child gets into the DCYF system, no amount of therapy can reverse the negative experiences hard-wired into their brains.
“These kids do not get better just in the therapist’s office; these kids certainly don’t just get better with medication,” Greer said.
He believes it’s “everybody’s job” to reverse the trend. Fortunately, he said, it is possible.
“There’s all sorts of hope; there are all sorts of possibilities if we intervene early,” Hegberg said. “We have to go back and redo the stages that weren’t done correctly.”
The results of neglect and trauma manifest differently for different children. Some internalize the pain, while others act out. Acting out, in reality, is a positive sign for child advocates.
“All these have an implication of hope. We see that as a positive because at least that means they have broken out of that helpless state,” Greer said.
To chart a child’s course for the future, caregivers must first identify what trauma occurred throughout that child’s life, and focus on reversing that hard-wired experience.
In the case of a foster parent who takes in an abused child who does not trust adults, they cannot just tell the child they love them, or that they are safe. They have to prove it through experiences.
“How do you take a 14-year-old kid and redo 2? It’s not easy but it is doable,” he said.
He believes the regenerative power of the brain is cause for hope for child advocates, and as educators, social workers and professionals in the justice system get on the same page, the outcomes will further improve.
Each adult in a neglected child’s life, however, needs to take responsibility in order for things to get better.
Maura McInerney, Esq., of the Education Law Center in Pennsylvania, spoke at the conference about how to improve educational outcomes for children in foster care. The key, she said, is continuity and stability, as her research shows that children lose between four and six months of academic progress every time they switch schools.
“They really need to feel attached to these schools. We need school districts to reach out and engage these kids,” McInerney said.
For teachers and administrators, it’s about engaging them in the classroom, encouraging them to get involved in extra-curricular activities and following up to reinforce education as a priority.
“It’s really encouraging that child to make education a priority and assume that no one else is doing it,” McInerney said, adding that of the former foster children success stories she knows, all said, “it was one teacher who made the difference.”
For foster parents or guardians, it means emphasizing education and making schoolwork part of a nightly routine, even if it’s just reading a few chapters of a book together each night. If the child moves on from that placement, staying in touch and asking them about academics can also make the difference.
Otherwise, McInerney said, “Education is the thing that’s slipping through the cracks.”
Going forward, districts and the state Department of Education must lend their support to foster parents and child care services. McInerney said the state must figure out a system of tuition reimbursements for children who bounce around a lot, and should also work to offer transportation that keeps a child at the same school when possible. Lastly, she said records must follow the students in order for educators to make informed decisions about their care and education.
Also speaking at the seminar were attorneys with Brennan, Recupero, Cascione, Scungio & McAllister, LLP, DCYF representatives and professionals from Rhode Island KIDS COUNT and the Rhode Island Foster Parent Association. Former foster youth spoke about their experiences, and elected officials brought greetings as well, including Senator Jack Reed and Gov. Lincoln Chafee who spoke of the “challenging and at times heartbreaking work” that youth advocates do, despite tight budgets that will likely become even tighter this year.
Connecting all the information and research, and the stakeholders, is half the battle in Bedrosian’s eyes. She is encouraged that communication and resources have improved so much, and she hopes to continue the dialogue started at the seminar.
“The family court has a concerted interest in the kids that we see,” she said. “We want to hear from them. We are interested in knowing how their lives are being impacted.”