By: Joseph P. Berry, BSW
I work as a behavior specialist in Kansas City, Missouri. Spofford Home is a residential treatment center for children with emotional and behavioral disturbances. My duties include being accountable for daily structure and reinforcement of treatment plans. In addition to my experiences at Spofford Home, I have also volunteered at Crittenton Children’s Center, another residential treatment center in the Kansas City area. While at Crittenton, I interacted with male adolescent and pre-adolescent units and assisted with therapy sessions in chemical dependency groups. The combination of my experiences in these organizations, combined with my increasing knowledge of the child welfare system through my practicum placement at the Johnson County Children’s Division in Warrensburg, MO, provided frequent opportunities to share what I had learned thus far in my career.
During my practicum, we had to lead group sessions, and I wanted to lead groups on something that was familiar to me. Based on my interactions with many children in the residential facilities, I chose to lead Foster Parent Support Group Training for Children’s Division and Division of Family Services in the Johnson County area. My training discussed common topics related to foster parenting, such as: foster parents’ interactions and ability to understand and empathize with foster children previously living in environments addicted to chaos, common behaviors of foster children and ways of reinforcing positive alternatives, foster parents’ potential risk for vicarious trauma (witness to hearing about someone’s trauma and abuse can cause personal trauma over time through accumulation), appropriate ways of reacting to a child’s behaviors and maintaining healthy boundaries, burnout prevention, and the effects of compassion fatigue.
The Foster Parent Support Group Trainings were primarily attended by foster parents and the Children’s Service Worker for the division where I was presenting. During several of my training sessions, I was privileged to welcome foster children who were accompanying their foster parents. This allowed for conversations that truly allowed for insight into the mindset of a foster child in the child welfare system.
Prior to beginning discussion about my main training topics, I wanted to grasp the audience’s attention with a first-person narrative I wrote from the view of a child being removed from his or her parents’ custody. The narrative was primarily intended to evoke emotional responses exhibiting empathy for the trauma a foster child faces when removed from parental custody.
After completion of the narrative, I observed nonverbal behaviors of the group members and prompted discussion among the audience members by inquiring about the emotions aroused by the “Foster Child Removal Experience.” During some training sessions, the exercise brought some foster parents to tears as they responded, saying, “I’ve never thought about how traumatizing it would actually be to be removed from my parents and home.” Other reactions from foster parents included: “This really helps me to see how I really don’t know what my child has gone through when she tells me, ‘You’ll never understand and nobody ever does!’” Many of the foster parents also reported that the narrative made them feel more empathetic toward their foster children and helped them to realize where some common behavioral issues may originate.
Foster children in attendance stated the narrative described “exactly how I felt when it happened,” and accurately depicted “how scared I was and all the questions that were going through my head.” The responses of the foster parents, combined with the reactions of foster children present during the narrative experience, truly helped to confirm the success of my intent for the exercise, which was to accurately capture the emotions and imagery present within a removal experience in addition to helping promote a mindset conducive to the topics I would be discussing within the training session.
Joseph P. Berry, BSW, is a graduate of the Department of Social Work at the University of Central Missouri. He is currently employed at Spofford Home, an adolescent residential treatment facility, as a behavior specialist, where he works with children who have behavioral and emotional disturbances. Joseph has also been employed and volunteered at a number of facilities, including Crittenton Children’s Center, Johnson County Children’s Division, Trinity Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, and Clare Bridge of Leawood. His current interests include child welfare, issues relating to secure/insecure attachment in adolescents, and childhood behavior disorders.
This article appeared in The New Social Worker, Summer 2012, Vol. 19, No. 3. All rights reserved. Please contact Linda Grobman for permission to reprint.