Almost 250,000 children are removed from their family of origin because of neglect or abuse each year. Here’s the CAPTA (2010) definition of abuse and neglect:
Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.
Abuse is traumatic
Child neglect and abuse are typically complex and chronic, leading to complex psychological trauma responses, including pervasive depression and anxiety, anger and irritability, inability to feel safe, strong physical responses to trauma reminders (triggers), insomnia, numbed positive emotional response and difficulty feeling close to others, extremely negative and irrational self-image, and avoidance. Treatment for post-traumatic symptoms can be very helpful and must include connections to supportive others such as a therapist or family. Unfortunately, the trauma itself makes it difficult to connect with others. It’s a catch-22. The strong relationships abused and neglected kids need are hard to come by. Luckily, there are great therapists, wonderful supportive social workers and family members and amazing foster families to help with the recovery.
Removal is traumatic
Even when a child is removed to a wonderful situation, being removed from even the most abusive family is traumatic. And though there are wonderful, caring social workers, foster families, and others to help traumatized kids, there are also abusive and corrupt social workers, foster families, and therapists. When additional trauma is heaped upon the original trauma, recovery is even more difficult.
Children should be in the most familiar setting possible
When a child is removed, the least traumatic removal will include people already known to the child. When loving family members or close friends are willing to care for the child, the removal trauma is minimized. Barring that, being geographically close and keeping routines and other social contacts stable is best for the child. If s/he can stay in the same school and the same neighborhood, routines and people are stable. Stability is key in trauma recovery.
However, sometimes there’s no way for the removed child to remain in the same neighborhood or school. Such transitions are traumatic. Trauma’s effects on the nervous system are life-long. Over time, with a loving, supportive, structured foster home, the effects of the removal trauma, as well as the original abuse and neglect, can be moderated, though never erased.
Breaking an additional attachment causes multiplicative harm
A child can actually survive and even thrive with love and stability. Imagine, though, that you’re that child. You’ve survived abuse and neglect – and then a traumatic removal. Still, life is good. You’re in a loving family. Your parents are foster parents, but they’re still Mom and Dad. Your siblings are foster siblings, but, to you, they’re just your sisters and brothers. You’ve lived there for years. You love your school and your friends, and pets. But now you’re moved to another home. Kids take improper responsibility for traumatic events, so from your perspective, you must’ve been bad. You’ve been rejected. You thought the world was safe and that things would be good for you, but you were wrong.
The harm of the initial trauma comes flooding back. The child may not even consciously remember it, but the nervous system remembers. It’s not in a child’s best interest to be moved from a long-term, stable placement.
It’s extremely damaging to move the child after a long-term, secure attachment. Because abused and neglected kids are more likely to abuse or neglect their own children, the children they traumatize are more likely to continue the cycle of abuse. You cannot save a culture by traumatizing its children.