Foster Care

Five Basics of Trauma-Informed Caregiving

This blog post was written by Mount Saint Vincent Trauma Training Specialist Jessica Pfeiffer, LCSW, SSWI

Jessica PfeifferI have the honor and privilege of training amazing foster parents all over Colorado. I hear regularly that being a foster parent brings families so much joy, excitement, and new adventures. At the same time, I recognize that being a foster parent can come with challenges.

At Mount Saint Vincent, our hope is to prepare parents as much as possible for those possible challenges, while helping them better understand where these behaviors stem from. Providing a trauma-informed training for caregivers is one way Mount Saint Vincent aims to support the foster care community.

Though our training consists of many topics, including child development, impact of adverse childhood experiences, and how to develop interventions, here are “5 basics” of trauma-informed caregiving that I think help all foster parents.

  1. A foster child’s chronological age is not always where they are developmentally. At times it can feel like you are working with a much younger child. Your goal: meet them where they are developmentally. For most of us, we all had times in which our parents were more than likely scratching their heads and saying, “Are you kidding me right now?” following some outrageous behaviors we displayed. That said, one of the symptoms children who have adverse childhood experiences can display is their inability to slow down and think through their behaviors before acting. Which means you might be saying, “Are you kidding me right now?” a bit more than you were anticipating.
  2. Self-awareness is extremely important. Challenging behaviors can cause you to feel stressed (an understatement, I know) and if you don’t know what you look liked stressed, your foster child will gladly tell you. Trying to help a child regulate when you yourself are stressed is virtually impossible and often goes south quickly. Think about the last time you were stressed and someone who was equally as stressed tried to help you. I’m guessing you were thinking to yourself, “Just leave me alone!” We all have these crazy things called mirror neurons in our brains, and while they can often help us, they can also become our worst enemy and pull us to the dark side if we aren’t aware of the internal and external cues our body is sending us that we are being stressed.
  3. Consequences are healthy and a part of development. Let me say that again; consequences are healthy and a part of development. However, it’s all about timing. I often get foster parents who feel as though we said, “Don’t consequence kids” and that’s not true from my perspective. Parents just have the challenge of giving the consequence when the child is actually ready to hear it. If we consequence too early it’s perceived as a threat, and if we consequence too late then we aren’t connecting it to the original behavior. It’s also important to remember that while some children might be able to think through “if/then” statements, for children who have more of a trauma background that’s a really tough job for them.
  4. The intentionality we place on behaviors can influence how we feel and respond. Learning how trauma can impact the developing brain, and in turn can influence the behaviors we see, can decrease the intentionality we use. Though it’s completely normal to want to use words like “manipulative” when describing behaviors or say, “They are doing it on purpose and know better,” truly understanding the stem of the behaviors can be extremely helpful. If I had a dollar for every time I reacted to a behavior based on my own intentionality I put on it, I’d be a millionaire. Catching yourself and not personalizing it is a difficult skill to develop.
  5. Our ability to engage in safe, healthy, consistent relationships is directly related to the type of relationships we had early on in life. And the same is true for foster children. It can feel like you are speaking a different language to them by showing that you love them and care for them. It can feel foreign, and for some foster children engaging in safe, consistent, healthy relations can be too intimate and cause fear instead of trust. The infamous honeymoon effect is directly related to this idea. Right when you feel like you’ve got it and get in your stride, could be when we’ve become too close emotionally for our foster kids. The more short bursts of positive interactions you can have throughout the day, the better. I really mean short, no more than three to five minutes, numerous times a day!

I hear regularly, as I’m sure you all do, that we need more foster parents in Colorado. It’s my belief that not only do we need more foster parents, we need to ensure that all foster parents current and future have a trauma-informed lens on. Foster parents’ role is so valuable and has such a potential to truly change a child’s life for the better.

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Foster Care Up and Running

In early 2016, Mount Saint Vincent opened a foster care program to serve the Denver area, a decision that aligns with the agency’s mission to serve the needs of children. The new program offers a wide array of services, including 24/7 family support and guidance, training opportunities, respite care, a monthly support group, and more.

There is an ongoing need for foster care homes that provide safe, family-like settings. “The need for good foster homes is astronomical,” said Director of Foster Care Melissa Maile, MSW. “When you look at the data of how many Colorado kids are in out-of-home care and how many foster homes there are, it’s not even close to being equal.”

Indeed, the numbers are staggering. According to the Colorado Department of Human Services, there were 5,327 children in out-of-home placements at the end of the 2015 fiscal year. Of those, there were foster homes available for only 3,534 children.

Melissa urges anyone who has ever considered becoming a foster parent or respite care provider to attend one of Mount Saint Vincent’s monthly information nights. Her experienced staff, as well as one or more foster parents, will be on hand to provide information and answer any questions. For details, call Melissa at 303-458-7220, or email mmaile@msvhome.org.

Photo credit: Melissa Yocum Photography

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From Foster to Forever

Josh and Darice Hanson never imagined they would be foster parents. The couple had two wonderful children and lived quite happily in their Denver-area home. But then one day, a chance meeting with a woman and a baby would change their lives.

Darice was picking up her mail when she bumped into a neighbor who lived across the street. The neighbor was holding a newborn infant. “Did you have a baby?” Darice asked. “I didn’t even realize you were pregnant!” It turned out that the neighbor provided respite care for foster families who needed to take a break from parenting. She was just watching the baby for a few days. “Oh, I could never do that,” Darice said. As it turns out, her statement could not have been further from the truth.

A few months later, Josh and Darice’s neighbor became ill while she was providing respite care for a baby girl. Josh and Darice offered to watch the baby so the neighbor could catch up on her sleep. “We instantly fell in love with her,” Darice said. It wasn’t long before the couple decided to provide respite care for other families. Respite care quickly turned into actual foster child placements.

The couple’s two children, nine-year-old Hayley and three-year-old Harper, were excited to accept new foster siblings into their home. Haley in particular took her responsibility seriously. When she was in middle school, she took it upon herself to complete CPR and first-aid training so she could watch her siblings while her parents ran errands.

Participation in a monthly support group provided the family with understanding and encouragement. In addition to speakers discussing relevant topics, the group was a place where parents could check in with their peers. “If you’re having a rough time with your case, or having difficulties with your child or issues with your child’s biological family, it’s great to just talk it out with people who have been through it,” said Josh.

Nearly all of the children the Hansons cared for were infants who tested positive for either drugs or alcohol in their systems at birth. Although all their past histories are tragic, Haylon’s story is particularly heartbreaking.

Haylon’s birth mother abused substances on a daily basis, all throughout her pregnancy. She received no prenatal care and gave birth to Haylon at home. When Haylon tested positive for illegal drugs at a hospital, he was stabilized and brought to the Hanson’s home a few days later. Despite all odds, Haylon began to thrive. Today, Haylon is a happy three-year-old who runs all around his home, giggling nonstop. The Hansons call him their miracle baby.

“The need for good foster homes is astronomical,” said Darice. “When you look at the data of how many Colorado kids are in out-of-home care and how many foster homes there are, it’s not even close to being equal.”

According to the Colorado Department of Human Services, there were 5,327 children in out-of-home placements at the end of the 2015 fiscal year. Of those, there were foster homes available for only 3,534. Mount Saint Vincent Director of Foster Care Melissa Maile, MSW, agrees that the demand for foster families exceeds the number of available homes. “Nearly every day, our agency receives a call from a county caseworker with a child who has been abused or neglected that needs immediate placement,” she said. “If we have to turn that child away because we don’t have a foster family available, there may not be a place for that child to go. It breaks my heart every single time.”

For six years, the Hansons have opened their hearts and their home to children in need of a family to love and care for them. Josh and Darice adopted Harmony and Haygen in 2012, Harlow in 2013, Haylon in 2014, and Harkin in 2015. The couple says the official “adoption days” are wonderful celebrations, like a birthday, wedding and anniversary rolled into one. “I think we hold the record for the most people showing up for every adoption,” said Josh. “We had 40 friends and family at Harkin’s.”

When asked if they will take in another child, the couple doesn’t rule it out. Josh says it is the most rewarding feeling in the world to know you’re helping a child. Darice agrees. “It’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but it’s so worth it,” she said. “We’re the luckiest foster family in the world because we had five placements and five adoptions. We’re so blessed.”

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