We All Want To Feel Safe…

Safe by Kristin Brantley Poe<LINK

I was inspired by this adoption related painting to consider the concept of Safe. I found a related kind of article at LINK>Fostering Perspectives, an effort by the North Carolina Div of Social Services and their Family and Children’s Resource Program.

Safe can be defined as free from harm or hurt. So, feeling safe means you do not anticipate either harm or hurt, emotionally or physically. One emotion we often feel without consciously knowing it is the feeling of safety.

It’s likely you’re able to recall at least one time in your life when you didn’t feel safe. Do you remember what emotions you were experiencing when this happened? Several emotions often compete for attention during traumatic events like this. The author of the article writes – When I was feeling unsafe, I was scared and anxious, and my body just froze in place. My heart pounded and my mind was racing to figure out what was going to happen next. Because I was not in control of my body’s reaction, panic was closing in.

Your interest in adoption related topics including foster care and family preservation is probably why you read this blog. It is highly probable that you may have heard the expression “safety, permanence, and well-being” before. We use these terms to compartmentalize the vision we have for child’s welfare. Caring people want children to have a permanent family who will be there for them for the rest of their lives.

The concept of safety is always evolving. Historically, we may have thought of safety as simply being free from physical abuse, free from sexual abuse, free from emotional abuse, and free from neglect. This type of safety is a critical first step on the road to well-being. We can broaden our definition of safety to include the concept of feeling safe; a concept that is called psychological safety.

What research tells us is that permanency and general well-being alone are not enough. It matters if a child does not feel safe. To have the kind of a good quality childhood that allows the child to develop, grow and be well in all aspects, the child needs to have a feeling of psychological safety as well.

At every age in a child’s development there are things that help a child to feel safe. When they are very young it might be a pacifier, a special blanket, sucking their thumb, a stuffed toy, a loving caregiver, a kind word, a smile, a hug, or the act of either rocking back and forth or being rocked. As children grow older, a feeling of safety might take the form of a friendly voice on the telephone, a comfy pillow, a special meal, friends, clubs, a special location, spiritual beliefs, or books.

Unfortunately, some seek safety through unhealthy behaviors – over-eating food, getting drunk on alcohol and/or high on drugs.

One important thing to remember is that children who have experienced trauma may get a sense of safety from things we hardly ever think of being related to the concept – food being readily available to the child at all times might just help them feel safe from hunger. The comfortable temperature in a room might help them feel safe if they have experienced homelessness or inadequate shelter.

It can be surprising to learn that things we may believe should create the feeling of safety such as a comforting hug or a hot bath could actually cause a child who has been abused to feel terribly unsafe. Sights, sounds, smells, people, places, things, words, colors and even a child’s own feelings can become linked to trauma. Afterward, exposure to anything associated with the trauma can bring up intense and terrifying feelings. Often, these associations to a trauma will be completely unconscious.

This is why it can be challenging for non-related (genetically and biologically) caregivers to actually help. It could help to become a really good detective. Such an effort might help a child identify things that make them feel safe. It could also help eliminate or minimize the things that cause the child to feel unsafe.

All caring people should understand that just because a government agency has certified a foster/adoptive/kinship parent as “safe” (often meaning such obvious factors as having the right locks on doors, or that there are no criminals living in the home, and that family pets are up-to-date on their rabies shots) does not mean that a child moving into this home will feel safe. In fact, what government agencies define as a “safe home” has very little to do with a child placed there feeling safe.

“If your (adoptive) parents or foster parents go on and on about what happened a long time ago, that’s kind of putting you down and not really making you happy.”
~ Angel, age 13

Recognize Your Worth

Many adoptees don’t even realize that they are carrying unhealed trauma with them throughout their lives. Because for infants who were adopted, this trauma occurred during a per-verbal stage of their lives, they lacked words to describe what their emotions were saying to them. Both of my parents were adopted when they were less than one year old. My mom was adopted after having been placed temporarily in Porter Leath orphanage as my desperate maternal grandmother tried mightily to find a way to support the two of them with Georgia Tann circling them like a vulture. My dad was adopted after the Salvation Army coerced my paternal grandmother into relinquishing him. So both of my parents were carrying unhealed trauma throughout their lives.

The various ways people anesthetize themselves . . . is a wail from the deep. I once listened to Marianne Williamson’s A Course in Weight Loss on cd. I gained a lot of insight into my own compulsive eating experiences listening to her. I see how clothing our bodies in excess weight is a protective device. Both of my parents were more or less overweight their entire lives. I am told that my father was still breastfeeding with his original mother when he was taken for adoption. My mother struggled with her body image due to an adoptive mother who was obsessed by eating and weight issues. I have one memorable experience of that with my adoptive grandmother when she took me to England and embarrassed me dining at The Dorchester in London when I reached for a warm dinner role. I didn’t talk to her for almost 24 hours but gave it up in favor of not ruining our whole experience there together.

Your Blogger at The Dorchester

My mom was passive and secretive about eating. Some of that behavior certainly filtered down to me. My dad struggled with some drunken experiences, one that I didn’t even learn about until after he died, when my sister and I found a letter from him about spending a night in jail for DWI and praying not to lose his job and family over it. But after he was “saved”, he didn’t stop drinking – though he was never a violent alcoholic – and able to work even double shifts and nights at an oil refinery.

Joel Chambers writes about The Lifelong Challenges of Adoptees at the LINK> Search Angels website – Adoptees face more traumas, and more challenges, than many other people, and it affects their lives in ways that we are just beginning to understand. He has also written a post, speaking at great length about how addiction, in all of its various forms, is all too common among adoptees. These have experiences such as grief and loss, self-esteem and identity issues, substance abuse and addiction, mental health, and challenges to the types of relationships that they can form with their adoptive families. Adoptees also deal with feelings of grief, separation, and loss for their biological parents and birth families, even if they never knew them. 

A healing I didn’t even know I needed started in the Autumn of 2017, when I began learning what my parents never knew – who my original grandparents were. Then, it was only natural that I really begin learning about this thing called adoption. My daughter once said to me – “it seems like you are on a mission.” True, guilty as charged.

A Growing Problem

It is possible for parents to love their children dearly but be unable to kick an addiction that endangers their ability to parent.

Nationally, neglect is the most common reason for the removal of children from their parents (62 percent).  These cases often involve other underlying factors such as drug or alcohol abuse or parental mental health problems, which may not be reported or even known by child welfare agencies at the time of removal.

The threshold for indicating parent drug abuse as a reason for removal varies among, and sometimes within, states. For example, some states require a formal diagnosis of drug abuse for parental drug abuse to be listed as a reason for removal, while others maintain lower thresholds such as a positive urine screen or investigator suspicion. States also do not report data on informal arrangements in which a child stays with relatives or family friends without formally entering foster care.

In 2017, the rate of children entering foster care due to parental drug abuse rose for the sixth consecutive year to 131 per 100,000 children nationally—a 5 percent increase from the previous fiscal year and a 53 percent increase since FY 2007. Of the 268,212 children under age 18 removed from their families in FY 2017, 96,400 (36 percent) had parental drug abuse listed as a reason for their removal.  35 US states have experienced an increase in both the number and rate of children entering foster care due to parental drug abuse.  Federal law does not require states to specify the type of drug abuse involved in a child’s removal from the home and so the role of opioid addiction is not quantified.

Challenges for keeping families together include a lack of resources to provide appropriate treatment for parents battling addiction and a shortage of foster homes to care for children while their parents are in treatment.

Addiction is an isolating disease.  Due to the pandemic, AA and other 12-step groups have moved online, and some methadone clinics have shifted to phone meetings and appointments.  The coronavirus may make it harder for parents who have struggled with addiction to stay in recovery.  The pandemic has changed some long standing rules for treatment – it is recommended that clinics stop collecting urine samples to test for drug use.  Many patients can now get a 14- to 28-day supply of their addiction treatment medication, so they can make fewer trips to methadone or buprenorphine clinics.

It’s too early to tell what long term effects this unprecedented time we are living through will have on families.  Compassion, understanding and whatever support can be given under pandemic restrictions may be critical to the long term outcome.