A recent foster care case in Florida this month has many wondering about the abuse of children in the foster care system. Six children were removed from a home after nearly dying of starvation, having been locked in separate rooms, covered in feces and abused for a long period of time.
The foster parents had the six children in their care after they were abused years before. This situation and many others like it have advocates wondering how we can protect these vulnerable children. It also has well-intentioned foster parents, mentors, social workers, psychologists, teachers and journalists asking, “what now,” when these cases come to their doorstep. How do you end the cycle for these children? And what can you do when these children’s issues come into your home or office?
A blog I follow posed a question by new foster parents that has weighed on my mind all week. They have two new foster children who were neglected and starved before entering their home. And now, the unexpected challenge is the “unusual” eating habits of the children. They are overeating, they are demanding more food than normal for their size and age, they seem continuously unsure of their physical and nutritional security.
This simple post hit home for me. I was taken from my mother at a young age, after I was found locked in a basement, abused, suffered from severe malnutrition and was unable to speak or walk. The challenges I and many others like me faced, were innumerable.
When a young child whose brain is still developing is starved nutritionally many things happen physically and psychologically. The brain simply does not develop optimally. Stimuli response is thwarted, memory is disturbed, physical senses are interrupted, sometimes learning disabilities develop, and psychological “survival” instincts kick in full mode.
Once a child is taken from a food/sunlight deprived scenario, the mind reacts very similar to that of a released prisoner. It confuses day and night. Sleep patterns are interrupted. And the search for food and quench of hunger is heightened. These reactions to the natural instinct to hunt and secure food and water are actually quite normal. The long-lasting effects of this trauma can be mitigated.
Obviously I always felt my physical safety was not certain in my early childhood when I was taken from my mother. I had a PTSD reaction to the dark, to the light even, and it impacted me physically. I made friends, I had normal interactions with other kids. Most had no idea of my background and thought my foster siblings were siblings. The lurking deprivation, however, kept me in an instinctual mode at varying degrees for many years.
I remember being 8 or 9 and stealing canned food from my foster mother’s refrigerator. I would hide food under my bed and open cans when everyone was asleep. While the scenario was not optimal, I certainly had access to food. However I never knew if this was a sick game? Would I be deprived of food if I misbehaved?
I ate more than a 20-year-old boy at times, but had a little body. (I still do!) I would steal food from friend’s homes even years later. I felt a certain sense of security in thinking I had some type of back up. It was never a healthy place to be, later, at 15 rummaging through a friend’s cabinets for what I could quietly steal. It was not a proud moment, but it was satisfying to me.
Without doing that, I could not rest. Most of the time I never even ate what I took. In fact I was never overweight. But I felt a sense of security. This was far healthier than the alternatives I saw other foster siblings take because of their pasts. I never drank, I never did drugs..in fact I really enjoyed being in control of my own body. In fact, stealing food gave me a sense of control, when nothing else ever did.
Later as I grew into a young woman, food truly did equal love to me. To this day I feel a sense of psychological purging when I see my pantry full. Luckily I developed a habit for nutritional food and for cooking, which I have passed on to my own daughter. The kitchen is my heaven. There is not too much on this planet I love more than feeding someone I love. Strolling food markets is one of my favorite, most serene hobbies. But the positive now had a very dark past.
For the children foster parents invite to their home, the worst comes before the best part of their life. It takes patience and vigilance. In the end, though, a foster parent, mentor, teacher, friend, may be the one voice that gives those children peace and lets them enjoy some sense of a childhood. Something everyone deserves.
Here is some advice for foster parents, dealing with children who have suffered malnutrition, been neglected of sunlight for long periods of time, or have been emotionally, physically or sexually abused:
- Remove any physical/sexual/physical threat in your home before bringing in foster children.This means even biological relatives that are unhealthy in this way .
- If there are alcoholics/drug addicts in your home, or maybe some of your visitors have this habit, do not become a foster parent.
- Learn other ways to discipline children than hitting. Hitting children says more about an adult than it does the child. It is especially traumatizing to children who have suffered child abuse before they got to your home.
- Take parenting classes.
- Allow children who have suffered from malnutrition or were starved, to have a small refrigerator to store their own personal food items. Maybe give them a special shelf in the pantry where they can freely take snacks at any time without impacting your family.
- Introduce them to new healthy foods.
- Never use food as a punishment or a reward.
- If foster children are severely overeating, enroll them in free community cooking/nutrition classes. Also, take some classes yourself.
- Make sure that your meals are compensating for a lack of protein, iron, Vitamin C and E; deficiencies that cause the most damage in children with severe malnutrition.
- Above all else, most states/county systems do allow for mental health care for foster children. Get them the help they deserve.
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