Migrant Children, Separation, and Foster Care: What you Need to Know about the Mental Health Risks

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“Children being displaced often struggle to best deal with and survive these traumatic events.”

For the thousands of migrant children being separated at the border and placed into foster care system that is already in crisis, there is sure to be great trauma, anxiety, and psychological effects for these children.

In general, the placement of a child into a foster home is a distressing, harrowing, and life changing experience for a child. Placement disruption is the term used when a child is removed from a home and placed into the custody of a child welfare agency, and many times into a foster home. For many, it is a frightening time, as the fear of the unknown can quickly overwhelm a child. Others are filled with anger, as they emotionally reject the idea of being separated from their family members. Feelings of guilt may also arise within the foster child, as the child may believe that he or she may have had something to do with the separation from the birth and/or foster family. Some children experience self doubt, as they feel that they simply did not deserve to stay with their family. For all, it is a traumatic experience that will forever alter the lives of children.

As distressing as this may be for a child, even more traumatic may be the removal from the child’s birth home comes without any notification, as is often the case for these migrant children, and in general in foster care. These emergency removals oftentimes occur late in the evening, and with little to no warning for the children. As social workers remove a child from a home suddenly, most are unprepared. Children leave their home and their family with a quick goodbye, leaving behind most of their belongings, with a few clothing and perhaps a prized possession hurriedly stuffed into a plastic bag. Before they know it, they are standing in front of strangers, people they have never met before. Against their will, they are in a strange home, their new home. With most children in foster care, it is a time of fear, a time of uncertainty, a time where even the bravest of children become scared. Indeed, foster children often have no control of this transition, no control where they are placed, and no control of when they will go back to their birth family. It is this lack of control that many times sends children in foster care spiraling into depression, various behavioral issues, and into a world of anxiety.

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“There is the added challenge of a cultural and language barrier, as they are placed in shelters and in homes that do not share the same cultural beliefs and same language.”

Many times, children placed into foster care suffer from mental health issues. A placement disruption may be so severe to the child that it feels as if their entire world is falling apart. For them, it is. Everything they know to be true in their world is now turned upside down. Their mother and father are no longer there to comfort them when they are troubled or afraid. The family they lived with, grew up with, laughed with, and cried with is no longer there to take care of them. The bed they woke up in each morning is now different. These children now live with a strange family, wake each morning in a different house, sit in an unfamiliar classroom, and are no longer surrounded by those who love and know them best. Children in foster care often struggle to best deal with and survive these traumatic events, as they struggle to adjust to a new home and new family. To be sure, the losses in their life, along with the lack of a permanent home, often times prevent these children from forming a secure and healthy attachment with a primary caregiver.

Issues from anxiety can manifest themselves in a number of ways. Perhaps the one that foster children face the most is separation anxiety, an excessive concern that children struggle with concerning the separation from their home, family, and to those they are attached to the most. Those children who undergo many multiple displacements often times create walls to separate themselves in an attempt to not let others into their lives. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may also occur. Indeed, children in foster care suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at twice the rate of American war veterans. Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder and Reactive Attachment Disorder may also result, as well.

Yet, for these migrant children, there is also the added challenge of a cultural and language barrier, as they are placed in shelters and in homes that do not share the same cultural beliefs and same language. To be sure, it will be very difficult for a caregiver of any kind to try and comfort a migrant child who has been displaced when neither speak the same language.

As these migrant children are being moved from shelter to shelter, from home to home, and from state to state, a feeling of personal guilt may also set in. Some children may feel that it was their fault, that they did something wrong, and that their parents may have abandoned them, thus causing even more anxiety and trauma within the child.

For the thousands of children who are being removed from their families, the trauma of this experience will most likely haunt them for not only themselves, but for future generations. To be sure, it is a time of anxiety for all involved, and steps must be made to treat these children, help them heal, and bring families the support they so desperately need in this time of confusion.

Dr. John DeGarmo is an international expert in parenting and foster care and is a TEDx Talk presenter. Dr. John is the founder and director of The Foster Care Institute. He has been a foster parent for 17 years, and he and his wife have had over 60 children come through their home. He is an international consultant to schools, legal firms, and foster care agencies, as well as an empowerment and transformational speaker and trainer for schools, child welfare, businesses, and non profit organizations. He is the author of several books, including The Foster Care Survival Guide and writes for several publications. Dr. John has appeared on CNN HLN, Good Morning, America, and NBC, FOX, CBS, and PBS stations across the nation. He and his wife have received many awards, including the Good Morning America Ultimate Hero Award. He can be contacted at drjohndegarmo@gmail, through his Facebook page, Dr. John DeGarmo, or at The Foster Care Institute.

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Leading foster care expert and international empowerment speaker

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