Infants and toddlers who are removed from their home and placed in foster care need special consideration and guidance through the grieving process, in their relationships, and through transitions from one caregiver to another. Because they may be non-verbal or lack the developmental ability and maturity to understand what is happening to them, let alone articulate it, their feelings are easily overlooked or misinterpreted. Young children in foster care suffer the same grief and loss and doubts that older children do, without the ability to express what they’re feeling.
For the new caregiver, being proactive in addressing these feelings in infants and toddlers is critically important in helping the child to transition from one household to another, and back again to their home or to yet another caregiver.
Here are some important steps to take, and some suggestions for making a smoother transition for the child.
1. Learn the child’s medical history
If that child was prenatally exposed to drugs and/or alcohol, the expression of these and other feelings will most likely manifest themselves differently than in a child not drug exposed or without fetal alcohol syndrome. Or if the child has other underlying medical needs or physical abuse symptoms, it may affect how and when they need physical touch or even how to lay them in their crib.
2. Learn and be sensitive to the child’s abuse and neglect history
If an infant is physically or sexually abused, they require extra sensitivity when dressing, toileting, and when held. If they have been neglected and aren’t used to physical touch, they may shrink away from it or crave it uncontrollably. If they went for long periods of time without being fed, they may only be able to eat small frequent meals, may eat until they vomit (and cry when you take the bottle away to prevent this) as a result of food insecurity, and without constant healthy eating habits reinforced, may carry food insecurities into adulthood.
3. Communication to help them understand
Talk to the child about what is happening, not just in the context of the transition, but as you do day-to-day things to care for them. The more they hear your voice in comforting and familiar tones, and the more language they hear at an early age, the better their communication skills will be as they develop and grow. Be age appropriate in what you say regarding their parents, but don’t avoid talking about who they are and the child’s background. When possible, include previous caregivers in the child’s life.
4. Work with previous caregivers to help the child transition
Let the child see that you are comfortable with each other and that it is OK to be with them and you and to love them and you. In the same way, when the child transitions from your care into another foster or adoptive home or back to their parents, do your part to ensure a smooth transition by communicating with the future caregivers and being present when possible in the child’s new home to help smooth the transition. Talk to the child about what is happening and reassure them throughout the change. Recognize their feelings verbally even when they are at an age where they cannot verbalize them for themselves.
If there are other children in the home, talk to them about making the new child feel welcomed, that a new child is not going to make you love any of them less, and prepare them in age appropriate ways to accept the child as they are if there are physical or medical needs apparent in the new child.
6. Identify routines and special objects that may help the child transition
Pay close attention to bedtime and nap time routines that the child is accustomed to, and when they transition from your home, be sure to share this information with the new caregiver and send any objects that the child is attached to with them to their new home. Sometimes the special routines that hold deep meaning to the child are not apparent. For example, one nonverbal toddler always stopped in front of puddles. He wouldn’t go around or step over, and he didn’t want you to pick him up. After asking his birth mother who hadn’t been coming for visitation but finally showed up a few months after placement in the foster home, she said that her father used to take him out and jump puddles with him. They would hold hands, count “One, two and three!” and jump. She and her son were living with her father when he passed away. They became homeless and her son was removed from her care. Before this, her father had been instrumental in her son’s life and was, in fact, the primary caregiver in the year before he died when the mother was at work. Writing down and passing along parts of the child’s story are important as the child grows and develops their identity, and for future caregivers as they help them along in their journey.
7. Make sure you have a support system in place, for yourself and for the child
Make sure the child is familiar with relief caregivers and babysitters before leaving them in the person’s care. Foster a relationship between the child and caregiver while you are present. The same goes for transitioning them to a new home. Plan several visits with the new caregiver at your home and at their home with both parties present to create a sense of positive involvement and comfort at the new home and with the new caregiver. Many times this is not possible, so be prepared to pass along pertinent information about routines, attachments, and behaviors with a written caregiver guide specific to the child. Revise as the child grows and changes.
8. Create a photo book
If a photo book has not already been started, create one that includes as many faces of the people important to the child as possible. Parents, grandparents, extended family members, siblings, previous caregivers–anyone who has had a significant relationship with the child should be included along with names, dates, who they are to the child and any stories associated with the person in connection to the child (like the puddle-jumping grandpa above). If one exists, add to it regularly. Include birthdays, holidays, friends, and achievements in the child’s life as well.
While your time with the child may be temporary, your impact on their life is long-lasting and will impact their future relationships. By applying the strategies above, you can help to make their future relationships and transitions go more smoothly and help to create a sense of significance and identity that will help them to develop in a healthy, positive manner as much as possible through difficult circumstances. This sense of self and fostering their unique identity and personality will help them with self-control and personal strength in system where they have no control. The steps listed above will help to minimize the fear that the child may experienced at the lack of control and lack of consistency in caregivers. Well-planned transitions reduce the fear of the unknown for the child by making the future caregivers known as much as possible prior to the change, and maintaining past relationships with caregivers as much as possible after the change.
CASA Advocates can play a significant role in pulling together the child’s history, facilitating past and future relationships in the child’s life, and in transition planning and facilitation.