Removing Children From Their Home Is A Traumatic Experience
Removal is trauma, no matter which way you try to dress it up. It’s a scary and often terrifying experience. It is the kidnapping of a child. Just because the kidnappers wear a state issued name tag instead of a ski mask doesn’t make it any less scary. This results in a great deal of stress for the child.
The biological signatures from removal (stress levels, somatic illness, risk for shock, etc.) can be every bit as severe as they are for physical assaults or rape. Consider that…
It’s often violent; a child is pried from their caretakers’ arms or otherwise overpowered by police and welfare workers.
1) A child faces a complete loss of control during removal. Their desires are ignored, they have no control over what is happening, and no idea of what is being done to them. Remember, the loss of control is what makes rape so potentially destructive, causing the trauma. Moreover, this lack of control is in regards to literally everything about their life.
2) It’s extremely stressful. Children are thrust into an unfamiliar environment, with unfamiliar people; something that’s among the most terrifying of experiences for anybody, let alone a small child. Cortisol levels fly through the roof, and it’s not uncommon for a child to go into physiological shock or to go mute afterward.
3) It involves conflict, something toxic to kids. Conflict between them, their parents, and police and social workers. Let me give you a real life example.
We once had two children at our center who were severely abused and neglected. About as bad as it gets. They were verbally abused in the worst of manners…screamed at, called names, and put down constantly. Both had been physically and sexually abused, though in the overall scheme of things, these played a minor role in their disturbance in comparison to the other problems. The other big factor aside from the verbal abuse was the neglect. Both were severely neglected, both physically and emotionally – something that when mixed with the verbal and physical abuse created major behavioral problems. (The insecure attachment that neglect can bring, added to the shattered self esteem and negative sense of personal identity that verbal abuse creates, is perhaps the worst maltreatment combination a child can come by.)
They were either ignored or yelled at in the home. We would send them home at night with extra snack because they’d come in complaining that they were hungry last night and never had dinner. Most members of their family had drinking problems. Between all these factors, it caused severe disturbances in both of them.
Both children had already been kicked out of every other child care center and preschool in the area. The older boy, Dan (names have been changed), had also been expelled from numerous elementary schools. When he started second grade, he lasted about a week at his new school before being expelled. After that, every elementary school in the county refused to take him, effectively saying that they weren’t going to educate this child. (He was told he must wait for a special education slot to open up.) We did our best trying to school him at the center, but we weren’t set up for elementary education. Eventually, we were forced to make the tough decision of dis-enrolling his little sister. At 4-years-old, her behavior was jeopardizing the health and safety of the rest of the class. She would scream out obscenities in group time, throw blocks at the teacher, rip off her clothing and throw it at people, and pull hair. When she threw her tantrums, there was little the teachers could do but attempt to restrain her. She would scream cusswords, spit, kick, bite, scratch, try to eye gouge . . . for 4-years-old she was quite the little fighter. Our teachers only had so many hands to control a child with. We couldn’t give her the constant one-to-one attention she needed in a classroom setting, and my teachers couldn’t spend the day sitting with Ashley, restraining her feet with their legs so she couldn’t kick, holding her arms by her side so she couldn’t punch or claw, all the while being repeatedly bitten and spit on for half-an-hour until the tantrum stopped, only to repeat the process again and again throughout the day. This behavioral breakdown was a direct result of the verbal abuse. She was so hypersensitive to any sort of criticism that trying to guide or discipline her in any manner would set off an episode where she would withdraw and lash out.
After they were removed from us, we would later hear rumors that mom began locking the kids in the closet while she went to work for the day, where she was employed, of all things, as an assistant to handicapped children for the county’s school bus routes. (A previous child abuse conviction didn’t stop the state from hiring her.) So as you can see, their situation was on the severe end of the spectrum when it came to abuse and neglect. Of the thousands of children I’ve worked with, which has included a great number of abused or neglected children, as well as those in foster care with similar backgrounds, this situation was probably the worst I’ve seen. That plays an important part in what we’re about to tell you.
A couple of months before being removed from our care, Dan came in with a huge bruise over half his face that couldn’t be ignored. We called social services, who called the police, who called the parents and asked them why their son’s face was black and blue in the shape of a handprint. What happened next illustrates both the massive incompetency of the child welfare department and the factor that conflict plays in removal.
The reporting system is supposed to be confidential and professional. In this case, it was neither. We had a social worker come to our center, who immediately substantiated the abuse. She called a police officer who confirmed it and opened a case. Then the officer called the pair’s mother and grandmother from our phone, and proceeded to get into an argument with them over the phone.
After the call from the officer, mom and grandma rushed over to the center, where they, the police, and the welfare worker proceeded to have a shouting match and intense argument in our front office, just as we were trying to get the entire center down for nap. It was so heated that it could be heard from Dan and Ashley’s room, two classrooms over. They could hear the argument, and it had both of them distraught and drowning in tears. You could see on their face the fear, stress, and emotional toll the conflict was having on them. Each was begging to see their mother. They kept asking what was going to happen. Dan, who had spent brief time in CPS custody before (he had boarded a bus in the middle of the night and was found wandering around Denver at 2:00 in the morning) kept telling us how he didn’t want to go with “those people” again. Dan, who had told us the truth before about how he got the bruise, was now lying or said he didn’t remember. The point is, I remember thinking that for as abusive and neglectful as this mother was (who was also the one who had beat him the night before), their home and their mother were still important. They didn’t want to be rescued like this, and the conflict that they were thrust into was devastating. More devastating than all the abuse and neglect they had endured.
When a child is willing to lie about legitimate abuse and would rather endure dozens more assaults, dozens of more bruises than endure the conflict and trauma they would endure when child welfare gets involved, it’s impossible to make the argument that removal is some benign process that isn’t harmful. These children weren’t just abused; they virtually ran a monopoly on every type of abuse a child could experience. And yet they were still terrified of being removed from their family. Welfare workers can dress up removal with words like “rescue” or “save,” the nicest words in the world won’t change what it is: child abuse. Every time a child is removed from their home, CPS is committing an act of child abuse that is more egregious than any of the abuses they remove children for. No matter how kind they are and how polite and loving they try to be, it’s a traumatic experience. And it’s a traumatic experience not just because of how it’s done, but because it injures what is most important to a child: attachment with their family. Bruises and broken bones hurt, but a loss of family hurts more.
An update: After the incident the mother was charged with child abuse and the kids were placed in foster care . . . with their grandma, who was also abusive. Coincidentally, mom lived with grandma anyhow, so it was little more than an intervention on paper. We lost contact, and the only other thing we ever heard was that the kids were being locked inside the closet while mom and grandma went to work, because none of the schools or child care centers would take them. We don’t know if this later development got them placed with foster care. We can only hope that since then they’ve found the love and attention they so desperately needed.
For the record, these kids needed intervention. They weren’t getting the love and attention they needed at home, and when you poured the abuse on top of it, the situation became desperate and dire in a hurry. But they also needed the RIGHT TYPE of intervention. We’ll show you later in the chapter how welfare workers can still intervene, but do it productively rather than destructively.
Abusing A Child Where It Hurts Most
Removal attacks a child’s most important need: attachment. It creates an injury in the place where they are most vulnerable. A child’s primary caregivers are important – no matter how imperfect, abusive or neglectful they might seem to us. You can’t just simply swap a child’s family out as if you were trading in their wardrobe.
In fact, it’s in those cases where the child has a marginal relationship with the parent to begin with that often cause the most injury. Removal often does little more than provide an opportunity for marginal parents to become even more irresponsible and neglectful. Removal only separates a child even more from what they need most: their primary caretakers’ love and affection. An abused child is likely one who has experienced difficulty developing appropriate attachment to his abusive or neglectful caretakers as it is. In other words, they are particularly hypersensitive when it comes to attachment issues. When such children are removed from their home and placed in foster care, they only suffer further due to an inability to separate in a healthy way. (Charles & Matheson, 1990; Kadushin, 1980)
This injury leads to a variety of social/emotional problems; everything from guilt and hostility to chronic depression, ADHD, or other behavioral problems. Thoughts of suicide or children attempting to kill themselves are common. Chertoff (et al. 1994) found that 15% of the children 3 and older either admitted to or were suspected of having suicidal thoughts. It’s not unheard of for even extremely young children in foster care (5, 6, 7 years old) to have suicidal tendencies; something that’s almost unheard of among the general population and even populations of abuse victims. The aforementioned researchers also found that another 7% either admitted to or were suspected of homicidal ideation or thoughts. There appears to be something uniquely injurious about family separation and removal that creates problems more serious than that of any other abuse. Another alarming example of the potential harm to a child from separating them from their family can be seen in brain development. Lab studies have shown that brain cells die in maternally deprived animals at a rate twice that of those in a normal environment. (Zang et al. 2002) In other words, the distress from family separation basically causes a child’s brain to “commit suicide.” (Jensen, 2006, p. 98)
Removal alienates a child from a permanent sense of belonging. This is perhaps one of the deepest wounds of all, and is often ignored. Every child needs to feel like there’s a place where they belong. It’s the foundation they need to build the rest of their life upon. Everything from self-esteem and personal identity to general happiness is hinged upon it. When this is missing, they become lost and discouraged. They are easily overwhelmed and frustrated. Take the foundation away and a building crumbles. The same is true with a child.
In addition to the social and emotional problems this alienation creates, it causes numerous support deficiencies. This is why you see so many problems of homelessness and criminality among former foster care kids. Families are for life, even when they’re not very good. Foster care isn’t. Family serves as a means of support far beyond the time when a person is physically capable of caring for themselves. Whether it is college or helping out in tough times, families are an important source of financial and emotional support for us all. Foster kids end up having their family ties broken, and are then tossed to the curb at age 18 with little more than a check for $500. They must struggle alone, without anyone to lean on for help.
It all boils down to a message we’ve emphasized repeatedly throughout this book, echoed by Daniel Goleman (2006, p. 170): “What kids are most concerned about in any major crisis comes down to: how does this affect my family?” When a parent strikes a child, they’re not concerned with their physical injuries. It’s the meaning and intention behind the act, and what it means about them and their family which causes the real injury. The actions of CPS to remove a child only leapfrogs this process, jumping from abusive or neglectful to massively devastating in one great leap. Physical abuse is only a means to a potentially harmful outcome. We worry about it because of the impact it can have on a child’ family environment. Sexual abuse is only a means to a potentially harmful outcome. In some cases it has the potential to harm a child’s attachment with their parents, which is why we worry about it. CPS jumps directly to the most harmful outcome, doing in one swift action what these other abuses only chip away at.
Foster Care Separations: It’s More Than Just Parental Removal
When a child is removed from their home, it’s more than simply removal from their parents. They are uprooted from everything they know, detached from their entire community and thrust into a strange environment. This creates multiple detachment issues in many different areas.
A child isn’t just removed from their parent; they are removed from their home. This home provides a familiar and comfortable environment. Their familiar bedroom, their familiar bed, their familiar surroundings. The tree outside, the yard they have played in. Perhaps the park down the street where they spent their summers. Such things can carry a lot of meaning to a child. They can be a source of comfort. There may be pets or other seemingly trivial things in the home that they’ve become attached to. A child’s home and surroundings carry numerous attachments, and these losses can have a lot bigger impact than one might think.
A child isn’t just removed from their parent, they are removed from their neighborhood and community. The children in the neighborhood they played with, any adults they know, all such ties are severed. Many of these are people the child may have formed strong attachments with. This is especially true in valid cases of abuse or neglect. A child will often find surrogate caretakers in other children or adults around them. Removal breaks these attachments as well.
Removal from their home routinely means removing them from a school. So once again, they lose contact with friends and teachers. Again, in cases of legitimate abuse or neglect, a child’s school often becomes a safe-haven and source of primary stability. Children will develop strong ties with teachers or other staff members, and their peers will also take a more prominent emotional role in cases where parental attention is lacking. This causes the child another severe loss.
How severe? Let’s take a look at a different but related example. In Postville, Iowa, immigration officials raided a meatpacking plant and arrested 389 employees suspected of being illegal immigrants. All their families, including children, then had to seek temporary shelter in a church to avoid detention. The children of these workers were left unattended after parents were arrested, many left wandering the town crying and asking why their parents never came home and where they were. It was left to neighbors and strangers to round up these kids and take them to the church that had been set up to deal with the disaster. (Rubiner, 6-16-08) This story is yet another horrendous example of the extraordinary lack of humanity shown among government officials, but we’re actually using this story to shed light on something else.
Overnight, Postville’s elementary school lost around one third of its pupils, and every child in the school lost beloved friends. Chad Wahls, the principle of that elementary school, reported that his third-grade daughter “cried and cried for days” after the raid, because her best friend was among those children whose parent was part of the raid. Her best friend was going to be lost. This is a perfect example of how mis-prioritized an adult’s view of maltreatment can be. The reaction this little girl displayed towards losing a friend would rank around a negative 4, possibly even a negative 5 on the Elemental Experience Scale – a reaction that would put it far more hurtful than most sexual or physical abuse cases. Keep in mind, this was the principle’s daughter; a child from a loving and secure home. Imagine how much more severe the impact would be on a child who depended on such attachments because of a detriment in affection at home. Such breaks in attachment can be a bitterly painful experience, and before welfare workers hastily brush off such harm with an insensitive “they’ll make new friends,” they would be wise to compare the laments of the harm they inflict to the abuse they are being rescued from. In this one single topic alone it can make welfare advocates a worse child abuser than the parent.
You might think that the state would at least keep siblings together, but this, sadly, is frequently not the case either. Siblings are routinely separated from each other and shuffled off to different foster homes. Care is routinely organized by age and availability, so a 4-year-old might go to a foster home who refuses to take her teenage sister, or children might be split up because three different foster families each have one opening. Some foster-care group homes only take girls, some only take boys, some only teens, some only infants. The result is that children within the same family end up being shuffled around the State in different homes having little or no contact with each other.
As far as secondary attachments go, siblings are #1. In neglectful or abusive homes, it’s routine for siblings to serve as surrogate caretakers. The real mother to a 3-year-old may actually be her 7-year-old sister. Children, even younger ones, are often quite capable of soothing a young sibling (Stewart, 1983), and will frequently take over the paternal care of younger siblings in an abusive environment. So a child’s sibling may be a very important attachment. It goes both ways as well. I once knew a 9-year-old girl who began living with her father after her neglectful mother dropped her off for a visit and then never picked her up again. What upset her most seemed to be not the loss of her mother, but the loss of her 2-year-old half-brother, whom she had dutifully raised since he was a baby. Making his bottles, feeding him, putting him to bed, and otherwise caring for him while her mother was out at the bar getting drunk. She was his surrogate parent. How would you feel if someone separated you from your child? She may have been a child herself, and shouldn’t have had to parent this toddler as much as she did, but this doesn’t stop a child from developing the same attachment a parent might form.