There have been two situations in my teaching career that have haunted me and made me wonder if I could have done more to prevent the situation from happening. Both of them involved disruptions of students. One I mentioned in a post on knowing your limits and saying no to placements you aren’t equipped to handle. Today’s is on a similar theme: preventing disruption when you’ve already accepted a placement.
Early in my career, there was a student asked to leave the school I taught at. It was one of those students who had a few struggles but was a good kid and so close to a turning point. I was so confident I could reach this child. I just needed a little more time. That time never came. One day, I arrived at work as usual and was informed that the student would not be returning after an outburst the day before. The news shocked me, and in my mind, the punishment didn’t fit the crime. It didn’t seem to follow any protocol- here one day and gone the next.
Although I hadn’t made the decision, I still felt like I had failed that student. I was so close to making progress, changing the child’s negative impression of school, and helping to build a positive rapport with a teacher. But I hadn’t gotten there yet. And I couldn’t reach out knowing that it would undermine the authority of the school and their decision.
I never spoke to the family again. I did see the student about a year later in the grocery store. We were at opposite ends of the aisle, and before their family moved on, I smiled and waved. The child stopped for a second, returned a smile, and waved before moving on to a different part of the store. And that was it. No words were exchanged. I never saw them again. I couldn’t get the whole situation out of my head for a long time, especially that last, sad encounter in the grocery store, but it would eventually come to shape my views on disrupting placements.
We all know that disrupting a placement has a negative effect on the child. 95% of children in foster care will have one or more disruptions in out-of-home care. What’s more is that research shows that disruptions can have negative effects on brain development (Preventing Disruptions). Children who have experienced multiple placements have more behavioral problems, spend more time in foster care, are less likely to be reunified, and experience more long-term instability (see Chicago Journals). The study goes on to indicate that about half of disrupted placements are due to behavioral issues, such as fire starting, drug use, aggression, and not getting along with others in the house. Other causes stem from a lack of bonding.
Be Aware of the Factors
Being aware of the top factors for disruption can help you be better prepared. This list comes straight from Childwelfare.gov. My main takeaway with this list is to find a caseworker that will tell it like it is and to really ask questions before accepting a placement. Understand that when you get a call for a placement, the more of these you can check off, the higher the risk is for disruption.
• Older age (Festinger, 1986; Barth & Berry, 1988; Rosenthal,
Schmidt, & Conner, 1988; Coakley, 2005)
• Presence of emotional and behavioral issues (Barth, Berry,
Yoshikami, Goodfield, & Carson, 1988; Rosenthal et al., 1988,
Berry & Barth, 1990, Smith & Howard, 1991)
• Strong attachment to the birth mother (Smith & Howard,
• Being a victim of child sexual abuse (Nalavany,
Ryan, Howard, & Smith, 2008)
• Lack of social support, particularly from relatives (Feigelman &
Silverman, 1984; Barth & Berry, 1988)
• Unrealistic expectations (Barth & Berry, 1988; McRoy, 1999)
• Foster/Adoptive mothers with more education (Festinger, 1986;
Rosenthal et al., 1988; Berry & Barth, 1990)
• Inadequate or insufficient information on the child and his or
her history (Nelson, 1985; Barth & Berry, 1988)
• Inadequate parental preparation, training, and support
(Nelson, 1985; McRoy, 1999; Smith et al., 2006)
• Staff discontinuities (i.e., different workers responsible for
preparing the child and family) (Festinger, 1990)
• Having more caseworkers involved with the case (Festinger,
1986; McRoy, 1999)
• Not having sufficient services provided (Goerge et al., 1997)
Understand Attachment Breaks and Developmental Impacts
Cfcare.org has a really good training video on how to prevent placement disruption. In the video, the presenter discusses how most placements are disrupted in 1.5-10 months, and surprisingly, the average age of disruption is 4.5 years old.
Sometimes children will go through a honeymoon stage at the beginning of a placement. Whether or not that happens is directly related to how many disruptions they’ve experienced. A key to minimizing behaviors in the beginning is to prepare the child for changes. A child just coming in will be unfamiliar with your routine. Let them know what’s going to happen in the day, give them a head’s up when something new will be taking place (like a shopping trip), and provide a tangible object to help transition (such as a picture schedule).
After the honeymoon phase has ended, behaviors often appear. The speaker shows how those behaviors are ways to test bonding. Initially, it’s usually straight misbehavior (Can I trust you enough not to give up on me? Will you keep me longer than the last home?), followed by more verbal questioning (Are you going to keep me? Are you going to adopt me?). When asked how long it will take to bond with the children, the speaker responded, “It is different for every child. In my experience, the first thing you need to do is look at what is the longest stay they’ve had in one place. If they’ve stayed in that home for two years, set yourself in the mindset that it’s going to take two years to get to the belonging stage. And then in two years, I’m going to go through it again. And usually it’s going to be quick, but my body will tell me that, ‘It’s been two years. Guess what’s going to happen?'”
The presentation goes on to describe areas of development per age and what to expect. The last thing mentioned was that kids can only focus on changing 2-3 things at a time. Identify what you want to work on and hone in on just those things.
- Children can only work on three things at a time more and they are lost and will resist
- Write down what your working on
- List obstacles – benefits AND PROGRESS!
- It always helps to have a place to look back and see where you have been and how far you have come …
- It is motivational!
- Learn what you might need
- Find supports and resources
The last thing to mention is that services for foster children and parents have proven to decrease disruptions. The PATH Bremer Report did research on how specific programs led to decreased behaviors and longer stays at randomly selected foster homes. Early Intervention, day treatment, wraparound programs, and attachment services were all shown to have positive effects.
None of us go into a placement thinking, “Yeah, this might not work out. I might end this in a month.” But sadly, it happens. What we can do on our part is to anticipate issues that may arise, evaluate the risks of a particular placement, and prepare ourselves with proper training and support. Hopefully with some concerted effort, we can work towards minimizing disruptions nationwide.