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Helping troubled foster children

Shannon Williams

Shannon Williams


Sunday, May 12, 2019

Note: The Community Collaborative on Children, Youth and Families shared this column in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month.

Many people know that I work with children, but I am often asked “What exactly do you do?”

So, I explain to them that I work as a licensing coordinator at a therapeutic foster care agency.

“Therapeutic?” they ask.

“What is therapeutic foster care?”

Most of us know what foster care means — a child needing a home outside of their birth family. But many folks outside of the mental health field do not know the purpose of therapeutic or treatment foster care.

Children are removed from their home due to physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and emotional maltreatment and then placed in foster care.

There are children who have developed strong resilience and are able to go grow into adults with few issues.

There are many others that are not so lucky — the trauma from their abuse, neglect and dysfunctional home life causes children to have extreme anxiety, depression and anger.

This leads children to needing more than a loving home.

They need structure, boundaries, healthy coping skills, routine and to feel safe. They come into care with cracks in their foundation, and due to the trauma they have experienced, they have a degraded trust for adults.

They often test limits, trying to be rejected by foster families and others and often perceive the world through the lens of past sexual, emotional and physical abuse.

They also have many needs in dealing with the emotions from their trauma and express those needs through negative behaviors.

These negative behaviors lead to children who are defiant, verbally aggressive, exhibiting extreme sexualized behaviors, destroying property, running away, physically aggressive to peers and exhibiting poor social skills.

Therapeutic foster children are often diagnosed with mental health disorders, such as oppositional defiant disorder, mood disorder, sexual trauma and attention deficit disorder.

All but one foster child currently in our care has a mental health diagnosis.

The impact of child abuse and neglect have long term effects on the child’s life. One in five will become homeless after the age of 18, only half will be employed by the age of 24, and less than 3 percent earn a college degree.

Other impacts include behavioral and achievement problems in school, and a slew of health issues, including drug abuse and alcoholism.

Child abuse does not only affect the individual victim but impacts the community. Problems linked to child abuse and neglect tax the health care, education and criminal justice systems.

Therapeutic foster children with mental health diagnosis have a multitude of professionals working to help them work through their trauma. All therapeutic foster children receive individual therapy, and when appropriate receive family therapy.

They also receive intensive mental health services.

Foster parents are seen as the agent of change for foster children. Foster parents will need to meet the child’s needs as well as build their strengths. Helping the child bond and form attachments, having patience, understanding, empathy, and an understanding of how trauma affects a child’s decision making and behavior.

So, what are we doing as a community? There have been many positive strides in the past few years with mental health “issues” becoming more acceptable and not a stigma.

There are groups such as the Pitt County Child Collaborative, the Pitt County Coalition Against Human Trafficking and the BRACE group that meet monthly to share information and provide awareness about child mental health and abuse.

Family and community resource fairs, mobile crisis, text/online chat groups, 211, the Trillium call center/kiosks in the community are also additions to positive strides in helping others manage mental health diagnosis.

Another common question I am asked is “Why do you work in this field with so much sadness?”

I and others who provide services in social work or mental health did not choose this field to make money, but to help others.

We do this to help others strive to live their best life, but we cannot do it alone.

It takes a village.

Shannon Williams is a licensing coordinator at New Horizons and co-chair of the Pitt County Collaborative on Children, Youth and Families. She can be reached by email at shannon.h.williams@rescare.com


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