Trauma-Informed Care for Youth in Foster Care

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For decades, evidence has shown an undeniable connection between childhood trauma and chronic adverse reactions across the lifespan (Bilchik & Nash, 2008; Perry, 2001; Perry, 2006). Childhood traumatic experiences are associated with serious and persistent, long-term physical, psychological, and substance abuse issues. In addition to adverse effects on physical health, research indicates that early childhood trauma has particularly adverse effects on adolescent self-esteem, coping skills, school performance, self-regulation, critical thinking, self-motivation, and the ability to build healthy relationships (O’Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009). A traumatic event is a dangerous or distressing experience, outside the range of usual human experience that overwhelms the capacity to cope and frequently results in intense emotional and physical reactions, feelings of helplessness and terror, and threatens serious injury or death (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network [NCTSNET], 2014). Approximately five million children each year in the United States experience some type of traumatic experience (Perry, 2006). Nationwide community studies estimate between 25% and 61% of children and adolescents have a history of at least one exposure to a potentially traumatic event and 38.5% of American adults claim to have experienced at least one traumatic event before the age of 13 (Briggs et al., 2012; Gerson & Rappaport, 2013). According to results of a 2002-2003 survey of 900 New York City adolescents, 24% reported a history of witnessing someone being shot, 12% reported exposure to someone being killed, and 51% reported witnessing someone being beaten or mugged (O’Connell et al., 2009). Each year, 2-3 million children are victims of maltreatment, a type of trauma, including physical and/or sexual abuse (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2014; Perry, 2006). Compared to the general population, youth in foster care are significantly more likely to have experienced violence, specifically abuse and/or neglect (Burns et al., 2004). It is estimated that approximately 90-percent of children in foster care have experienced a traumatic event, with nearly half reporting exposure to four or more types of traumatic events (Stein et al., 2001). Given the widespread prevalence of traumatic exposures, it is important for the mental health professionals working with foster care youth, to be aware of the prevalence and various types of trauma that are most common. Focus in treatment is typically on behavioral and emotional reactions rather than addressing the context of these symptoms, including trauma exposure histories and trauma-specific reactions. Clinicians must maintain awareness of the frequency and impact of childhood traumatic experiences on subsequent behaviors and overall functioning. Clinicians should appreciate the link between how traumatized children understand the world and interact with others differently from other children and how to provide appropriate treatment for children with a history of traumatic exposures. Practitioners must remain alert to symptoms that may suggest a history of trauma and must have an understanding of the difficulties adolescents may face regulating their emotions and behavior, as a symptom of a past traumatic experience. The failure to address trauma through screening, assessment, and treatment has major implications for long-term public health costs and services.

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