The Trauma of…Foster Care


This summary sheet was created by members of the Greater Lowell Trauma Advisory Group, based on the roundtable discussion held on December 13, 2011 in Lowell, Massachusetts. The purpose of this event was to educate one another about this complex issue through a discussion regarding the trauma of foster care. The goal was not to develop strategies to “fix the problem” but, rather, to raise awareness among professionals and parents about foster care and the many layers of trauma. A total of 25 professionals, staff and supervisors from the Department of Children and Families, and foster parents participated in this event.

Foster Care = Loss

  • Child loses control of where they live, family members, and everything that is familiar to them (including family rules, toys, their room, etc.)
  • Frequently there is a loss of culture/ethnicity (food, traditions, language, familiarity)
  • Loss of their role in the family
  • Loss of school, neighborhood, friends, pets, family members.
  • Frequently there is loss of all personal belongings.
  • When a child is removed, these losses all occur very quickly.
  • Loss is also experienced by caregivers in that child’s life—the biological parents and the foster parents when children leave their care.

The Many Layers of Trauma in Foster Care

  • Children are exposed to trauma prior to removal (violence in home and society, drug use, multiple moves, loss of connection to supports, availability of guns).
  • Child witnesses violence during their removal from the home.
  • When moving from one home to another, attachment is often disrupted.
  • Ongoing cycle of multigenerational trauma: parents who lose their children were often also part of the foster care system.
  • Foster parents are exposed to the child’s trauma, as disclosures are made to through discussions, behavior, and traumatic play.

Challenges We Face As Providers and Foster Parents:

  • Obtaining kinship placements.
  • Children lingering in care.
  • Legal System moving too slowly.
  • Vicarious Trauma: helpers wanting to “fix it,” multiple providers involved with the same family so we can feel like we are “doing something.” Often we are just overwhelming the family and child because we are not sure how to help. Providers also become triggered by reminders of their own trauma.
  • Immigrant & refugee populations coming to Lowell/USA: Trauma brought them here and then they experience multiple other “layers of trauma” as they experience the foster care system and obtain help from professionals who are not able to adequately meet their needs due to language issues, differences in cultural norms, or lack of knowledge regarding their culture.

Trends: What We Are Seeing Now

  • As children in the foster care system grow up they have more and more questions about their parents, medical history and family of origin.
  • Technology is allowing kids to find their families of origin through social media (e.g., Facebook) and maintain a connection with them, which can be positive but also potentially negative, depending on the reasons the child was removed and the extent to which the family members are positively influencing the child and thinking of his/her needs first.
  • Caregivers having serious health problems, which impacts their ability to care for their children.
  • Children entering the foster care system due to the death of a parent through interpersonal or community violence (and the children witnessing this death).
  • Parents with trauma histories struggling to take advantage of supports to help themselves or their children.
  • An increases in substance abuse, domestic violence, and gambling, which leads to more removals.
  • Children entering the foster care system because their caregiver “chose the batterer over their child” due to reasons having to do with safety (their child’s safety and their personal safety), economic pressures, and the affordable housing shortage.

   Ideas for Providers and Foster Parents:   

  • Listen to the child and family (i.e. the “experts”)
  • Remain open to other perspectives—cultural, spiritual, etc.
  • Take care of ourselves by asking support from supervisors and obtaining information regarding Vicarious Trauma so we can recognize the signs and get help when needed.
  • Bring as many resources to the table as possible. We can’t be afraid to ask for input and help from other providers. We need to work together to help these children, because we can’t do it alone.
  • Be supportive and sensitive to the “front line staff.”