As new foster parents, their child’s frequent tantrums concerned them. Not only were the episodes extreme, the triggers were unpredictable. They connected the little girl’s behavior to the trauma she had experienced before joining their family, but it was hard to know how best to respond.
In North Carolina, a new program is helping foster parents learn how to support the special needs of children in their care by better understanding trauma and its consequences. Called ARC Reflections, the skills-building model has been piloted in six child welfare agencies, including five in North Carolina.
With promising results from the test sites, The Duke Endowment is now funding expansion in South Carolina. There’s more to learn, says Phil Redmond Jr., director of the Endowment’s Child Care program area, “but we believe ARC Reflections will help agencies provide a valuable new resource for helping foster families thrive.”
Though more evaluation is needed to learn the full impact of the model, early findings are encouraging. Child Trends’ evaluation of ARC Reflections found improvements in family functioning and resiliency, nurturing and attachment, and child praise. Placement stability also increased, which means that children were less likely to be moved from one foster family to another, and more parents stayed on as foster parents after the training.
Other findings were also positive. Participants agreed that the training was interesting and balanced, that the presenters were clear, the activities were useful, and that parents learned practical approaches to caring for children who have been exposed to trauma. Parents said they learned more about child trauma, they felt more resilient and attached, and used positive parenting strategies more often.
“This provides strong preliminary evidence that ARC Reflections can be an effective mechanism for really improving foster parents’ homes, sensitivity to child trauma, and being able to be better caregivers, which children benefit from,” says Jessica Dym Bartlett, deputy program area manager in child welfare and early childhood development with Child Trends.“If implemented well,” says Tracey Feild, director of The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Child Welfare Strategy Group, “the curriculum can reduce placement disruptions and foster-parent turnover and allow children and their caregivers to focus on building a relationship and permanence.”
Most young people in foster care have experienced trauma, through abuse and neglect, or through household dysfunction such as domestic violence. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as high as 25 percent have been reported, and more than 80 percent of children aging out of foster care have received a psychiatric diagnosis.
“Even the systems in place to protect children may prove traumatic, necessitating separation from home and siblings, sometimes in multiple foster placements,” the AAP says.
Recent advances in developmental science show how trauma can have a long-term impact on mental and physical health. Unrelenting negative experiences – toxic stress – can disrupt developing brain circuits and increase the risk for academic challenges, alcoholism, depression and even heart disease.
Children deal with adverse experiences in different ways – and experts tells us that understanding trauma and its aftermath can help caregivers decipher and react to challenging behavior.
“The field of foster care is beginning to develop evidence-informed models in trauma-focused training as a way to provide ongoing assistance for foster parents, improve foster parent retention and reduce placement disruptions for children,” says Redmond at the Endowment. “Through these pilots, we learned that ARC Reflections can be used with promising results in a DSS setting. Staff members liked it and families benefited from it.”
The Trauma Lens
With its nine sessions, ARC Reflections is designed to shed light on the effects of past trauma and share tactics for good parenting.
The curriculum was developed with support from The Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore. It was piloted in five N.C. counties – Buncombe, Catawba, Cleveland, Haywood and Lincoln – in 2015. The Duke Endowment funded an evaluation by Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center.
The first two-hour session focuses on the role of trauma in children’s and teens’ lives. Other sessions look at understanding behavior, building relationships, tuning into your own needs, and staying “calm, cool and connected.”
“It’s looking at parenting through a different lens,” says Chrissy Triplett, a child welfare program manager at Catawba County DSS, one of the pilot sites. “It offers hands-on training, but it also gives child welfare staff and foster parents a way to partner together on meeting the needs of children in their care.”
One foster mom said ARC Reflections improved the way she handled her foster child’s distress. The girl, a 2-year-old, had been removed from her biological home after parental substance abuse led to neglect.
“We had training before we became foster parents, but ARC Reflections took us to the next level of learning,” the mom explains. “Being a foster parent is a complex calling. Along with all the blessings, there are challenges. This gave us new skills and a chance to talk to parents in similar situations.”
Working Better Together
In South Carolina, ARC Reflections will be offered through Connie Maxwell Children’s Home in Greenwood, and the S.C. Department of Social Services will implement the program in one of its five regions.
Connie Maxwell has a history of recruiting, supporting and training foster families, and leaders there want to increase those efforts to serve more children.
The need is great. With more than 4,200 youth in care, South Carolina’s DSS has only 1,600 licensed foster families.
“Recruiting capable and caring foster parents – and keeping them – is a tough job,” says Tim Duncan, vice president for programs at Connie Maxwell. “This model will help us work better together toward child well-being.”
Phillip H. Redmond Jr.
Director of Child Care