Friday, January 12, 2007

Identity development and self-protection among group home residents

Author's premise:
'Although it is a given that children come into foster care with multiple, complex problems that stem from traumatic experiences such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, parental substance abuse and mental illness, there is little evidence that foster care ameliorates those problems.' (Definition of ameliorate: To make a situation better or more tolerable).

I love this quote from the research study: "There is a dearth of foster care research to elicit the perspective of the child."

In studies that did interview foster youth:
-Very few were able to articulate the reason for their placmment or plans for their future
-Most articulated high levels of insecurity about the permanency of their current placements

-Teenagers from ages 15-19 who had been in foster care between 2-11 years
-This sample was drawn from group home settings

Group homes are structured residential settings, housing several foster youth. The use of group care for teenagers is high for many reasons, including a lack of available foster homes for adolescents. Group settings are often chosen for teenagers in order to facilitate their preparation for independent living.

Identity development, according to Erikson, is the process by which a teenager develops a concept of his/herself. It includes the recognition of personal capabilities and limitations.

This process involves:
-Coming to terms with past experiences
-Accepting a realistic self-definition
-Manifesting a future direction (*educational disruptions don't help)

Self-identity is socially bound: A person's sense of self emerges, in part, through their interactions with others. Therefore the social context of living in a group home has a critical influence on the residents' developmental process.

Group home residents experienced:
1.) Development of a stigmatized self-identity (*culture of foster care)
2.) Self-protection

--Institutionalized: Group foster care was described by residents as being 'like an institution.' Despite being based on a familylike philosophy of care, group homes were perceived to be overly restrictive and to lack individual consideration or respect.

--Pathologized: Furthermore, caregivers interpreted normal teenage behavior, when expressed by group home residents, as psychopathological or devient.

--Stigmatized: Entering group care conferred a new status on the child. Being labeled a 'foster child' or a 'group home kid' was experienced as a diminished social status. Other people assumed that the teenager was delinquent or disturbed.

Impersonal treatment and disrespect: These assumptions were communicated to group home residents in everyday social interactions, and, in effect, devalued their personal worth.

Negative stereotypes followed them in both their living situations and their larger social world, and were widely held by adults and peers in their neighborhood and school environment. This resulted in biased assumptions and behavioral expectations.

Internalizing the stereotype: In time, the negative views that other people held and communicated through interactions with the teenager were interalized into the teenager's self-view. This led to self isolation and limited future aspirations (lowering the bar of self-expectations).

Process of self-protection
When a child in foster care endures recurring assaults on his or her developing identity, defenses must be developed in order to prevent additional harm. Foster care is rife with uncertainty.

Self-protection is the process by which a child develops those defenses and strategies to protect self from further disappointment, rejection, loss or trauma. This process may begin prior to foster care placement, when a child experiences major losses, neglect or ongoing abuse.

The self-protective process is often accentuated in foster care due to:
-Multiple placement transitions
-Unstable caregiving
-Further episodes of mistreatment within foster placements

1.) The illusion of normality: Upon first entry into foster care, many children are given the illusion that they will be placed in a 'homelike' setting, that they will be safe, and that the people will be like a family. For many of us, this turns into broken promises.

2.) The unpredictability of foster placements is that they so often involve many transitions. Children are often left without a stable core of caregivers. The faces change, at school, in the foster placement. Even permanent foster homes end when a teenager is emancipated, which "terminates" the placement.

Each time you move, it's harder to get close to people: Trust diminishes. Most participants in the study could idenify at least one previous caregiver to whom they have felt close. The loss of that individual had been disappointing and painful. The repeated transitions underscored the original losses or rejections that had caused the young person to enter foster care.

3.) Personal loss and disconnectedness: Quote from participant in the study, "When you move, you always leave a little something behind that was yours"
-Multiple moves
-Difficulty maintaining relationships with siblings, relatives and friends
-Learning how to live without those relational connections

Strategies for self protection
1.) Creating a fictional self to conceal their foster child status: Forethought and selectivity before sharing personal information with another person. First measuring the risks of disclosure, trustworthiness of the person and potential changes in the relationship.

2.) Maintaining a defensive posture about foster care status: Apathy, "I don't care who knows" or defiance, "If they don't like it, it's their problem!" Might involve setting up fronts or barriers to avoid involvement with others or distancing themselves through antisocial behavior.

Quote from participant: "I keep my problems to myself and I solve them in my own mind. That's the way I handle things."

3.) Keeping relationships superficial: Nearly all the study participants reported making a conscious decision not to get too close or make attachments to other people.

One participant said, "I'm not really close to anyone that lives here (the group home). Oh, I'm nice to them, like when I need to borrow something. So I basically just use this place like a motel."

Underlying themes for self-protective strategies:
-"I can and must take care of myself"
-"Others can hurt you"
-"I don't need anyone"

The key defense was a veneer of self-reliance, giving the appearance of self-confidence, competance and independence. This is accomplished by using one's internal resources to combat or cope with external conditions that have a real or potential impact on the self.

It's basically a barrier to protect self from further harm.

Kools, Susan. Self-protection in adolescents in foster care. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 139-152.


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