After a year of stability, 4-year-old Rachel returned to bad behaviors around the same time as Christmas decorations showed up at the mall.
Rachel’s backtracking was bad enough that her adoptive parents canceled a planned visit from Spokane resident Janet Mann, who had fostered the girl.
“Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the parents called and said, ‘We figured it out, and you’re not going to believe what she said.’ ”
After getting the child to talk, her parents realized Rachel (a fictional name used to protect identities) linked Christmas decorations to having to move between caregivers because she had relocated from homes twice before in either December or January.
“Her conscious mind moved into fear of losing another caregiver,” said Mann, founder of a Spokane family intervention program for foster kids. “She had unconsciously connected holidays with loss. We need to keep those things in mind in foster care – how is a child experiencing something?”
Stories like this surround strategies in a new book by Mann and Molly Kretchmar-Hendricks, a Gonzaga University developmental psychology professor, “Creating Compassionate Foster Care: Lessons of Hope for Children and Families in Crisis.”
Released by Jessica Kingsley Publishers a few months ago, the book draws from real foster care situations and childhood attachment research to help foster caregivers and professionals better respond to the complex needs of children and parents in crisis.
Mann and Kretchmar-Hendricks will read from the book Dec. 7 at Auntie’s Bookstore.
Mann has more than 20 years experience working with families both as a foster parent and in her past role as director of the Children’s Ark, formerly a Spokane center for evaluation and intervention services for at-risk parents and children.
In 2005, Kretchmar-Hendricks invited Mann to speak to her Gonzaga psychology classes. That inspired talks between them about writing down descriptions of cases from Children’s Ark interventions and impacts to recommend foster care system approaches.
The book offers strategies that keep in mind the child’s perspective and within the context of their relationships with early caregivers.
“It was in my mind an ideal partnership,” Mann said. “I’d simply write the story of the child or a family, and Molly in essence would put the science behind it.”
Part of that science is how children form attachments and need a sense of security from infancy, along with what occurs when those elements are disrupted. Kids can develop what Kretchmar-Hendricks call disorganized attachment strategy, trying to stay close to a caregiver in a fear-based relationship.
Rachel represents a child in the care of a parent who wasn’t necessarily abusive but couldn’t provide a sense of security and regularity for the young child, Kretchmar-Hendricks said.
“I was so impressed by Janet’s experience with Rachel, and the principles by which she worked with Rachel,” said Kretchmar-Hendricks, as an example among foster situations Mann brings to the book.
“It was such a clear presentation of disorganized attachment, a strategy a young child develops to try to stay close to a caregiver from whom they feel both a sense of connection but also fear. Those key figures in the first year or two of life are so foundational to the child’s sense of safety and security.”
One clear message in the book is always to consider a child’s experience in foster care and ways of handling that, Mann said, and the stories in chapters help bring to light what that looks like.
“You have to take into consideration the entire family; you have to involve the caretaker in treatment with the child,” she said. “You can’t separate them out and think you’re going to fix one and then put them back together. It needs to be the entire family, or certainly the caretaker.
“You need to minimize the moves, minimize the separation. As much as possible, have the family together when you’re evaluating and treating the problem. You need to be considering the parents as part of the solution, not just the problem. You need to support foster parents to help children deal with their losses.”
Attachment is a core theme. Mann is trained in Circle of Security parenting strategies, developed by Spokane therapists Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper and Bert Powell around bonding with young children in relationship with parents to build a secure attachment.
Foster children, removed from a home because of abuse or neglect, also are wounded by relationship problems and attachments gone wrong, according to the authors.
“If wounding occurred in relationship, the healing has to occur in relationship,” Mann added.
According to Kretchmar-Hendricks, what Mann and her husband, Paul, learned through being foster parents for six years and then developing the Children’s Ark, is that the separation between infant and a parent often became the biggest obstacle to reunification.
“Infants and young children don’t understand the concept of temporary, and as Janet described, attachment is really about survival,” Kretchmar-Hendricks said. “If you have lengthy separations between children and biological parents, those foundational attachment relationships can be compromised.”
Using Mann’s case studies, the women first co-authored pieces in 2006 for a publication called “Zero to Three Journal,” and its editor encouraged a book format. The pair formed a bigger vision for that book in 2011. They received permission from families to tell the stories, although names are changed.
The co-authors said they hope the book reaches anyone affeced in some way by foster care – be they foster parents, biological parents, children who grew up in foster homes, government policy makers and those in the judicial system.
The Children’s Ark, which closed in 2010 after 15 years in operation, created a model of care with biological parents present with their children under supervised treatment, and foster parents became partners in the process. Although the center closed when funding ended, lessons emerged, Mann said.
“We have highlighted lessons the families themselves have taught us about what is really needed to encourage lasting change,” Mann said.
She believes that a real solution is to move the foster system away from an adversarial arena and toward support and treatment of families addressing what children are experiencing.
Some people might ask about keeping parents in the picture if they were abusive, but she counters that parents in the Ark treatment quickly learned they had work to do if the child were to stay in their care.
“Sometimes that led to relinquishment,” she said. “The child wins either way, whether the parents do the work and they’re reunified or they make a decision they feel is better for the child.
“If the transition is handled properly, you can minimize the loss as much as possible. The biggest leap would be to move away from an adversarial focus. The court system is not the place to solve family problems, because you have to win or lose.”
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