All children who are removed from their home tend to suffer from the same kind of syndrome. It’s a tragedy repeated millions of times over, caused by the psychological formula in removal:
The child is removed from their home, something that is a scary and traumatic experience. The move from their own home to the foster home creates feelings of rejection, guilt, hostility, anger, abandonment, shame and dissociative reactions in response to the loss of a familiar environment and their separation from family and community. (Katz, 1987)
2. The separation is so traumatic that children develop extreme pathology from it. They act out. They misbehave. They lash out. They develop severe depression or refuse to talk. They are angry at their new caregivers, who they often see as part of the conspiracy to take them away. They often run away. While each child’s unique personality and means of coping brings about different forms of adjustment problems, acting out or misbehaving is one of the most common reactions.
3. These behavioral problems create rifts with the foster family. The child’s new caregivers struggle with the child’s behavior. Quite commonly, the behavioral problems don’t resolve themselves, and after 6 months to a year the child is returned to the agency. They are then usually held in a temporary facility until turned over to another foster family. This creates yet another catastrophic break in attachment, and one the child seldom recovers from. The average foster child will endure at least several moves while in foster care. Long-term care children usually endure many more.
4. With double the rejection, double the anger, double the abandonment, double the attachment issues, a child often takes to the new family double the behavioral problems. The same thing happens with the new family. It’s the start of a continued cycle that will destroy the child’s life.
For some examples of this syndrome in action, see: Bernstein, 2001; Lindsey, 10-13-07.
Marilyn Benoit, president of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent psychiatry, sums it up: “When children are removed from their homes, they often are traumatized and face separation issues. They express their distress in behaviors that often get them punished and eventually removed from the home. When children are ejected from their foster home placement, it compounds their trauma, reinforces their negative perception of themselves, and disrupts their ability to form trusting relationships.” (Lehman, 2002)
This general pattern is sometimes referred to as reactive attachment disorder. (ABC, 20/20, 11-28-08) It’s a syndrome marked by severe behavioral problems, trouble bonding, and transference; which is psychological mumbo jumbo for saying that the hurt and frustrations endured over previous breaks in attachment end up getting transferred into general ambivalence towards caretakers in general, leaving children distrustful, antagonistic, and quick to blow a fuse.
It’s the same general syndrome described in chapter 24 on parental estrangement. Children are built with a biological yearning to seek the affection of their parents. One caretaker at a school for troubled kids notes that no matter how horrifically abused and neglected they are, children will always strive for mom and dad’s affection. Summing up the attitude of such youngsters, she states, “if mom and dad don’t want me, who the heck am I?” (PBS, 7-28-09) Parental approval is at the very core of a child’s identity. This is further evidenced by adoptees who as adults often go to great lengths to connect to parents they never even knew. No matter how abusive and neglectful a child’s primary caretakers may be, they are still first priority in their children’s lives.
When this attachment is disrupted by a parent’s absence, whether it is by disinterest or the placement of the child in foster care, it creates a serious injury to attachment. What often happens next is perhaps the most troublesome cause & effect in all of child maltreatment.
The result of such an injury is that attachment becomes paired with feelings of hurt, injury, abandonment, rejection, and the immense social pain that comes along with it. This places a reservoir of hurt directly underneath and in relation to love and affection. This reservoir of injury can then be triggered at any moment. Those who have worked with foster kids would be quick to tell you that they are often prone to erratic behavior. They can be the most loving child at one moment, soaking up affection and sharing it just as generously, only to be throwing things and screaming at you the next. Such behavior is often misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder. Yet what actually drives it is not any chemical imbalance, but the pairing of attachment issues to this profound injury that exists right underneath the surface. They are desperate for affection, they crave attention, and they seek love and security.
Yet this love and security they so desperately seek is also inescapably tied to their past injuries, which created feelings of hurt, rejection, and abandonment. As a result, any little thing that taps into this underlying reservoir of hurt, such as an attempt to discipline the child, a caretaker showing affection towards another child, perceived favoritism, a caretaker’s rebuke or off the wall comment; anything that causes the slightest perceived threat of disapproval or rejection triggers this injury and brings about a change in mood befitting that of the incredible hulk. Hence a child can go from the sweetest thing one moment to appearing to be the spawn of Satan the next. Dozens of everyday scenarios that a normal child would absorb without much difficulty have the potential to dredge up this underlying hurt and lead to an outburst of biblical proportions. Such difficulties mean that foster children are often difficult to deal with. This difficulty means that many will then be abandoned again by the foster parents who consider them too much work and can’t take it anymore. Off they go to another home, by this time carrying scars that will likely never heal, (something we don’t say lightly,) along with the psychological and behavioral problems accompanying them.