Fostering vulnerable youngsters
For over 20 years now I have had the great privilege to temporarily become part of numerous children’s and young people’s lives either as a respite foster carer, or in my work as a family support and parenting worker for Children’s Services, NSPCC, Barnardos , Survive and Wish for a Brighter Future, oh, and as a child-minder. I have no idea what my input has or has not done in their lives as it was only ever for a limited period but I firmly believe in this quote from Louise Bomber:
Neuroscientists now tell us that in the presence of a ‘good enough’ other – for example, a foster carer, and adoptive parent, a therapist, a mentor, a teaching assistant – that a new and more sophisticated neural pathways can be formed in the child’s developing brain, and new patterns of relating and behaving can emerge.
(Bomber, L. 2007)
The irony of being in Oxford this week delivering a conference on Trauma, Resilience and Recovery on the day another eight men were arrested for grooming and child sexual abuse and exploitation, did not escape me but did sicken me. Details are yet to emerge of whether the children who have been abused are children in the care system, my fear is that some will be because, as those who chose to foster know only too well the children who come into our homes and lives this way are predominantly ‘the’ most vulnerable ones in society. They are without early experiences of emotionally ‘mattering’ to someone, or the kind of unconditional nurturing and flowing back and forth interactions with a caring adult which offer a foundation for feeling that they are likeable, are enough and that it’s not about everyone else validating them for everything. They have often internalised that they are ‘trouble’, not ‘enough’, will upset everyone, and therefore, are unlovable, all of which makes them open to exploitation by those capable of seeking out vulnerability in children. The abuse of children and young people in Rotherham, Bristol, Oxford and the many other horrendous examples of children in care being targeted for abuse by gangs of, and individual, paedophiles highlight this.
It is important to understand vulnerability at a time when there is a growing need for placements for teenage girls, who will not only be incredibly frightened and confused, but also at a stage of being more curious about intimate relationships, particularly as a way of finding reassurance that they are ‘good enough’ to be chosen by someone, and for a sense that they ‘matter’ and ‘exist’ in the mind and heart of another. After all, the need to connect and be emotionally ‘seen’ is a basic one for us all:
Attachment to a protective and loving caregiver who provides security and support is a basic human need, rooted in millions of years of evolution……..Attachment is a physiological, emotional, cognitive, and social phenomenon. (Levy & Orlans, 2014)
Babies are born with an ‘inbuilt’ drive to connect and to draw the caregiver to them as a means of survival as that is how they will get their physical and emotional needs met. This need to feel ‘connected to’ and ‘part of’ does not leave any of us. Young people have a strong urge to belong, to fit it and matter, if they have a distorted view of their own value and what kindness, concern and being in a relationship is then they are at risk. Perpetrators of violence and sexual abuse are initially attentive, charming and appear to care as they know that is what will win a vulnerable child around. They seem to offer them the attachment they are seeking and make them dependent on it and then the wheels are set in motion for the dependency and ultimately the abuse.
It’s a bit like visiting a country you really want to go to, say France, for the first time. You have gone there because you are looking for this amazing place that you have always wanted to visit as you are sure it will feel great to be there. You meet some people who are kind and helpful on your journey, although you speak different languages, but unbeknown to you, they DO NOT want you to visit this special place. They guide and persuade you to take a different route, and although it feels slightly wrong, you go with it as you are lost and they seem so kind they would not mislead you. They give you food and drinks, seem to know just what you need and like so you trust them. When you get to their destination it is dark and scary and they have become mean but you are dependent on them and lost with no way out now and question yourself for trusting them.
Sadly, this is what can happen to children who do not get their early attachment needs met and therefore have a faulty map for their relationship journey moving forward and out in to the world. Fostering can be the opportunity to repeatedly show them, this is what a caring relationship looks like, feels like and can be. Important messages can be repeated to ourselves and then later offered, ‘I get that I need to show you this over and over again as your brain needs help to rewire and trust that this is a safe place and we accept all of you’.
Foster carers tell me of the difficulties they face when youngsters find it hard to believe that they are ‘good enough’ and acceptable and how instead they can seek outsiders to reinforce their sense of being ‘damaged’. It takes great self-care by any foster carer as they will need to be able to see the young person’s needs through ‘trauma and attachment’ glasses at every turn. Young people and children need their care as never before and we should all recognise the vital role fostering plays in the lives of our most vulnerable youngsters.
Bomber, L, 2007 Inside I’m Hurting, London: Worthing Publishing
Levy, T & Orlans, M, 2014 Attachment, trauma and healing, Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Trauma Parenting & Behaviour Specialist