There were approximately 422,490 youth in foster care nationwide according to a 2019 Statista study. The number of foster care youth is steadily increasing, especially as we see the effects of the pandemic illuminate harmful dynamics some children experience within their immediate household environments. Black children accounted for 97,142 of that total number and continue to be disproportionately impacted by systemic barriers that result in family separation and continued trauma exposure. Primary reasons a child may be removed from their home and placed into the child welfare system include one or more of the following: abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional), neglect, medical neglect, parental drug abuse, juvenile offenses, runaway, truancy, parental incarceration with no other family members to care for child, and parent’s illness.
As an associate therapist working with children, adolescents, and adults, I have witnessed how being a foster youth can have long-term impacts on mental health, the development of healthy relationships, secure attachments, and self-perception in adulthood. For the majority of youth who enter the foster care system, this is not their first exposure to trauma. Many individuals have experienced chronic trauma throughout their lifetime that can then be exacerbated by family disruption, multiple foster home placement, and the potential maltreatment experienced once placed in a foster home. In childhood, some of the trauma symptoms that may manifest as a result of being involved in the child welfare system include:
- Feelings of guilt and rejection
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Sleeping difficulties
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty forming healthy attachments
- Hyper arousal
- Increased aggression
- Reduced cognitive capacities
- Defiant behaviors
- Fragmented sense of self
I’ve seen many of these responses carry over into adulthood and watched how they can impact one’s ability to navigate through life in a healthy way.
For Black women who have been a part of the foster care system, but never resolved their trauma, it is more critical to identify the ways in which that childhood experience can still be an impact today. Due to our intersectional identity, we’re often wired to protect ourselves and to utilize survival techniques when necessary. Consequently, when attempting to form healthy relationships in adulthood, it may feel difficult to form secure and intimate attachments with friends, partners, and family out of fear of abandonment or loss. Some protective factors that may have been developed during childhood such as isolation, dislike for physical touch and affection, frequent anger, being argumentative, a need for control, may be tactics used in adulthood in order to ‘protect’ against re-traumatization. Conversely, someone who may have been neglected in childhood may find themselves being overly dependent in adult relationships because of their intense need for connection and stability.
Involvement in the foster care system may also impact vigilance to environment and need to be hyper- or hypo aroused when in particular settings or around specific people. It may be difficult to then regulate emotions and arousal levels due to constant perceived exposure to threat. So, what’s the best way cope and best advance the healing process?
Find a therapist
Having an objective person to help guide you and provide a safe space for you to process your varied experiences during childhood will help you release and unpack some of the weight you’ve been carrying.
Acknowledge the trauma for what it is:
Some experiences can become so normalized that we push it down and embrace it as just another ‘life event’ that we’ve endured. There is power in naming the trauma and assigning meaning to what that experience meant to you.
Use grounding techniques to become centered and one with your body and your environment. This can help with arousal regulation and developing a deeper connection with self.
Show yourself compassion and patience:
One of best ways you can heal is by giving yourself the compassion and love you may not have received in childhood. Practice honoring your progress, affirming yourself, and letting go of negative views of self that manifested in childhood.
Lean into your resilience:
Never forget that we are resilient beings! We have an innate capacity to adapt in the face of adversity. Continue to identify your protective factors and explore healthy ways of coping and tapping into community to support you along your journey.