The Need to Belong

How the System Must Preserve a Foster Youths’ Belonging-ness
Jim Roberts
November, 4, 2015

November is National Adoption Month--a time to celebrate parentless children being assimilated into families. Much has been written as to how wonderful this is for kids and why it is the right thing to do; especially for foster children. But I would like to give you a back story; a context to the importance of adoption and permanency in the foster care system.                                          

Beginning with the landmark research of Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary in the mid-nineteen nineties, we have learned so much about the Need to Belong. People have a basic psychological need to feel closely connected to others; caring, affectionate bonds from close relationships are a major part of human behavior. In this modern world, interdependency has diminished, and with it, the strength of many social bonds. We have also learned that the absence of belonging-ness produces ugly consequences for an individual, as well as on a macro-societal level. For instance, relational-disconnect is almost universally prevalent in the lives of the recent mass shooters. A sense of “belonging” has strong effects on people’s cognition, emotions, behaviors, social skills and relationships.

Foster children represent the population of kids with the highest degree of vulnerability to relational-disconnect and estrangement. Imagine the trauma a child or youth feels when removed from his or her family, regardless of the degree of abuse or neglect necessitating the extraction. That child’s sense of belonging is immediately disrupted. His/her belonging-ness is further exacerbated when the child is placed with a stranger, or even a relative or friend, who wants them to feel “part of the family.” Undoubtedly, this circumstance causes the child to have very conflicted feelings and cognitive dissonance. Now, we have added trauma to an already traumatized child!

It is extremely common, in fact it is the norm, for children and youth experiencing a prolonged break in their normal “belonging” relationships to interpret this as rejection. A child’s perceived rejection is especially important because of the vital physical, social and psychological development that takes place during this stage in life. Rejection impacts a person’s self-regulation, mood, levels of aggression, self-esteem, intellect and levels of depression (Gere & MacDonald, 2010). In fact, the psychological pain caused by social rejection is so intense that it involves the same brain regions involved in the experience of physical pain! (MacDonald & Leary, 2005)

A child suffering from extreme or prolonged rejection is less capable of interacting with his or her social environment, one of the primary driving forces of youth development. A lowered ability to interact with and learn from one’s social environment can lead to highly dysfunctional behavior. If these negative outcomes of rejection take root during childhood, they provide a significant barrier to living a socially acceptable life.

Add to this picture the fact that so many foster children are moved from home to home--trauma to trauma--is there any wonder why they act out, become depressed, reject the family and appear antisocial? Their individual sense of “belonging” has been severely damaged by the very system designed to “protect” them.

Belonging has two main features. First, people need constant, positive, personal interactions with other people. Second, people need to know that the bond is stable, that there is mutual concern for one another and that there will be a continuation of that attachment into the future. Foster care, especially long-term foster care, is contrary to this last precept, as it actually promotes instability and unpredictability!

For the past 10-15 years, the Child Welfare Services (CWS) world has made some very positive moves away from a Foster Care System which has repeatedly traumatized children through de-stabilization, multiple placements, a continual sense of rejection and the inability to “belong.” Most often, foster youth identify with belonging to the family from which they were extricated and has been rightly or wrongly vilified by the system. Federal standards for child Safety, Wellbeing and Permanency have played a key role in this transformation. Fewer moves, focus on trauma-informed interventions and a rapid path to permanency, (i.e., family reunification, kinship placement or adoption) have been positive elements in this advent. But there is another major step which needs to occur.

Significant, orchestrated efforts must be made to preserve every foster child’s sense of belonging. From Child Protection intervention forward, preserving the child’s natural connections and supports must be a primary goal embedded in the Safety, Wellbeing and Permanency process. Great strides have been made in finding family and friends to place a child with in the unfortunate circumstance that s/he have been removed from their family setting. San Luis Obispo County has one of the highest family/kin placement rates in the nation--bravo! But this is where the system breaks down.

I am one of those who contends that every child/youth entering into the CPS/foster care system needs some degree of therapeutic intervention. Foster children have all experienced some degree of trauma which needs to be addressed for their wellbeing. Fast-tracking a child to permanency/adoption without ensuring the child’s wellbeing, is a setup for failure for the child and the family.

In today’s CWS world, whenever a foster child or youth displays a high need for “treatment/therapy,” the practice is to “place” them in the appropriate treatment program. This could be therapeutic foster care or a residential treatment center. The operative word here is “placement” which means additional disruption, continued instability, rejection and a fragmented sense of belonging. This can be more detrimental to the child’s wellbeing than beneficial.

Keeping the child’s need to belong in mind, services need to come to the child within the safest, most connected family environment possible. Due to archaic, outmoded CWS funding and practice regulations, this is nearly impossible! We should be teaching families how to properly care for these children, paying them like a professional Therapeutic Foster Parent and providing wraparound services and supports to promote success and preserve Belonging. Yes, changes in this direction are beginning, but not nearly fast enough. Lawmakers and bureaucrats need to make a fiscal investment in foster children’s safety, wellbeing and permanency, and stop giving lip service to the process.

It goes without saying, every child needs to belong to a family; Adoption is a wonderful mechanism for making this happen. Let’s make sure the adoption process preserves the child’s need to belong, provides full scope, family-based services that are needed for that child’s wellbeing, and fully supports and equips the adoptive family.