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Feature Articles

Healing Without Harming
Understanding Trauma in Foster Kids

By Shenandoah Chefalo

If you are a foster parent or considering becoming one, understanding trauma from a foster child’s point of view can help you heal without harming your foster child.

I’m part of the three percent of all foster children who get into college and the one percent who actually graduate with a degree. I did it on top of an enormous amount of trauma (I’m an eight on the ACE’s questionnaire). It is my mission to create awareness and alter the system so it serves its purpose — the children.

The more you understand about the trauma your foster child has gone or is going through, the better off your entire family will be. Although pieces of my story may not exactly match what you have witnessed or may experience, I want you to have the chance to see what trauma can look like to a foster kid — and what’s possible if we all pay more attention and ask better questions.

Plagued and embarrassed by my name, made worse by a nomadic childhood that made it impossible to build lasting relationships, I developed tough skin at an early age. Along the way I learned to deal with disappointment, push through discomfort, overcome adversity and accurately gauge people — qualities that have helped me to succeed.

After spending nearly 20 years as a law office administrator, I became unsettled by the ever-revolving door of people coming into the criminal justice system and set out to find a way to change it.

I began researching and learned that there were more than 400,000 children in the foster care system in the United States — a fact that was astonishing, since I had never known another foster child while I was in care. Out of those children, nearly 60 percent would age out of the system without having a place to live, nearly 50 percent would end up incarcerated within two years of aging out, and almost 80 percent of people on death row are former foster alumni. These horrendous statistics made me realize that I had to do something. I started writing.

“Garbage Bag Suitcase” is the true story of my wholly dysfunctional journey through childhood. I blog about related issues and what I see possible. One of my standalone pieces, written from a foster kid’s viewpoint, is headed to one of the largest school districts in the country. Since I know foster children don’t often speak up, I am.

Being placed in foster care causes trauma. The upheaval affects everything, including school.

Children have little say in a foster care decision — and even less understanding about the process as it unfolds. The reasons that led to their removal likely were many. Regardless, the removal itself has caused trauma.

It is important to remember that children can have a hard time understanding and expressing themselves in normal, “functioning” situations. When you add chaos and trauma, their ability to understand can be nonexistent.

Here are some thoughts they might share if they could:
• My life is a bit chaotic and I have a lot of unknowns.

• I value my education, but my basic needs still come first. I can barely function because my food, housing and safety issues are in question.

• Just because I am in foster care doesn’t mean that my situation is stable. I know I could be moved at any time.

• Depending on when my birthday falls, I could end up homeless and still in high school.

• With all of this uncertainty, it is difficult to always keep school and homework the priorities where I know they need to be — and I truly want them to be.

• Everyone keeps telling me that things will be OK, but that doesn’t seem to be true. When I was removed from my house in the middle of the night, the officer told me not to be scared, but I haven’t seen a single person I recognize since my mom was arrested.

• My foster family showed me around their house and where I will sleep, but I don’t understand why I can’t sleep in my “old” bed.

• If I stay at this house I have to go to a new school. What happens to all my friends? And who will my teacher be? When do I get to see my mom?

• I’m not sure how I fit in at home, and I’m trying not to let the other kids know what’s going on. Please don’t give up on me, even if my actions make you want to throw your hands in the air and walk away.

• Please tell family members, neighbors, friends and teachers what’s going on so I don’t have to tell them and we can work through this together.

• My living arrangements are much different than most. I already feel like an outcast. It feels like everyone is judging me, trying to figure out what I did wrong.

• Hopefully the judge won’t make me go to any more court hearings; those give me anxiety and it’s hard to focus during the whole week before every hearing. Seeing my biological parents is hard, and I feel like I am disappointing everyone around me.

• Everybody thinks I should feel safe because I’m in foster care. I’m away from whatever dangers you think lurked in my home, but my family was there — and so was my bed. I’m afraid about today. Tomorrow scares me. I’m terrified about my future. Am I safe? Not even in my own head. Please let me try to do the best I can with what I have (even though it’s not much right now).

• I feel alone, and wonder if any adult at all cares about what’s going on with me.

• I don’t feel comfortable in my own skin because I’m not even wearing my own clothes. I grabbed whatever could fit in the garbage bag someone tossed to me as I was hauled out of my home.

• I’m feeling trapped. Please understand that sometimes I don’t know why I do the things I do. I can’t think straight. My foundation has been shaken or totally demolished.

• I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know what’s going to happen. So much of what I think just happened is not right — so I’m not (right now).

• Everybody has been talking about forgiveness, but I’ve not forgiven much. How could my mom do this to me? Who are these strangers? And why do I have to listen?

• You know more than I do that there’s one thing we can count on in life — change. This situation will change. I will change.

• Please know me, see me and support me. We’ll both be glad you did.

We often see someone’s behaviors as a reflection on them and their judgment. With kids, they are often times acting out a trauma that they may not even be aware of. Don’t we owe it to our kids, to those around us, to be more compassionate? To stop asking, “Why are you doing this?” and start asking, “What has happened to you?” “How can I support you?”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shenandoah Chefalo is a foster care alumna. She is a writer and advocate for foster youth and foster care reform. Her latest book, “Garbage Bag Suitcase” is available now. You can learn more about her and her work at www.garbagebagsuitcase.com.

Feature Article Archive

July/August 2016
Parenting Teens/Preparing Transitioning Age Youth

May/June 2016
National Foster Care Month

March/April 2016
The Role of Foster
Parents in the Child
Welfare System

January/February 2016
It Takes a Village

November/December 2015
Advocating for Kids in Foster Care

September/October 2015
Permanency for Children in Foster Care

July/August 2015
Reunification/Birth Family Connection

May/June 2015
National Foster Care Month

March/April 2015
Working with Agencies

January/February 2015
Mental Health

November/December 2014
The Foster Parent Calling

September/October 2014
Attachment & Trauma

July/August 2014
Parenting Teens

May/June 2014
Celebrating National Foster Care Month

March/April 2014
Working within the System

January/February 2014
The Dynamics of Working with Birth Parents and Kinship Caregivers

November/December 2013
Navigating Behavioral Issues with Children

September/October 2013
Back to School Parenting Guide

July/August 2013
Traditional Versus Therapeutic Foster Care

May/June 2013
National Foster Care Month

March/April 2013

January/February 2013
Kinship Care

November/December 2012
Understanding the Impact of Trauma and Abuse

September/October 2012
Nurturing Identity

July/August 2012
Working with Birth Families 

May/June 2012
Celebrating National
Foster Care Month:
Finding Support 

March/April 2012
Parenting Teens 

January/February 2012
Grief, Loss & Anger in Foster Care

November/December 2011
Promoting Better Communication Among the Foster Care Team 

July/August 2011
Discipline Techniques for Foster Parenting

May/June 2011
Celebrating National Foster Care Month

September/October 2011

March/April 2011
The Impact of Social Networking on Foster Care

January/February 2011
My Personal Foster Care Experience and What I've Learned

November/December 2010
Support Organizations Provide Assistance to Foster Families, Children

September/October 2010
The Importance of Keeping Siblings Connected in Foster Care

July/August 2010
Foster Care Health Care: Finding alternative therapies for healing 

May / June 2010
Celebrate National Foster Care Month and Foster Families Nationwide

March/April 2010
Kinship Care - The best interest for children or a foster care alternative?

January/February 2010
Emancipation or Family - Uncovering what's best for teens  

November/December 2009
Discovering What Foster Parents Really Need to Parent

July/August 2009
The Importance of Continuing Education for Foster Parents

May/June 2009
Celebrating National Foster Care Month

March/April 2009
Tips for Parenting Children into the Teen Years 

January/February 2009
Finding the Money Connection in Foster Care

November/December 2008
Looking Ahead at the Future of Foster Car

September/October 2008
Living the Daily Realities of Foster Care 

July/August 2008
Recognizing the Importance of Birth Parent Connection  

May/June 2008
Celebrate National Foster Care Month in May 

March/April 2008
Encouraging Foster Parents to Take Care of Themselves  

January/February 2008
Tips to Help Parents Tackle the Teenage Years

November/December 2007
Becoming the Best Parent for Children in Your Care

July/August 2007
Helping Children and Families Cope with Special Needs Issues

May / June 2007
The Power of Family

March / April 2007
Fostering Un
derstanding in Our Schools

January / February 2007
Finding Inner Peace in Parenting

November / December 2006
Are You My Family?

September / October 2006
Girl Scouts Beyond Bars

July / August 2006
Traditionally Speaking

May / June 2006
From Ward of the State to Defender of the Country

March / April 2006
Becoming Foster Parents

January / February 2006
Thank You, Foster Parents!

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