Monday, July 20, 2015

No More Trashbag Kids

By National CASA CEO Michael Piraino

Children who have been abused or neglected have typically had few, if any, trustworthy adults in their lives. Then they enter a child protection system that is challenged to provide the kinds of childhood experiences that are essential to healthy child development. Without smart, evidence-based interventions, it is no surprise that these children may lack confidence in their ability to succeed. The result is huge wasted potential, at a huge cost to the public.

These foster youth are probably more susceptible to the damaging effects of adverse childhood experiences because they have often experienced more of them, and more of them associated with immediate family connections. There is strong evidence  that “bad events have stronger and more lasting consequences than comparable good events. Close relationships are more deeply and conclusively affected by destructive actions than by constructive ones.”

Research on trauma-informed care tells us the consequences of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including lack of goals, poor problem solving, a shortened sense of the future and school failure in teen years. Researchers are also increasingly aware of the potential negative and positive impacts of different mindsets.

The nature of foster care in the United States creates at least two mindsets that are particularly damaging to foster children. These do not arise from anything inherent in the children, but from their experiences within the system, and from adult perceptions, that focus on failure.

The “Nothing But A Paycheck” Mindset

There is a public mindset that foster parents are in it only for the money. Because most people have no direct experiences with foster care systems, this mindset persists even when it is not the reality. Some studies have found that the primary motivations for becoming a foster parent often have to do with caring, community service, and helping children, although financial support may be an additional consideration. And in most states, basic foster care rates are less than the estimated cost of caring for a child—in several states, less than half the cost. So if foster parenting pays, it doesn’t pay very well.

When it comes to financial motivations for caring for foster children, either the reality or the perception can create a mindset that can be damaging to the children. In her testimony to the US House of Representatives, Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources, Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew described how the “nothing but a paycheck” theory leads young people to devalue themselves, making them more vulnerable to traffickers.

The Trashbag mindset

There is another foster care experience that seems particularly ubiquitous and equally disturbing: putting all of a kid’s belongings in a trash bag when they have to move from one home to another. It’s bad enough that foster kids have to move repeatedly. Foster youth move an average of 2.8 times during each stay in foster care. In 2012, states met the federal standard for placement stability for children in foster care over 24 months only 35% of the time. Kids can easily get the message that they do not deserve a permanent home and they are no more valuable than rubbish.

Improving children’s lives by changing mindsets

So our foster youth have experienced severely adverse childhood experiences that are further reinforced by the ways they experience foster care. Fortunately, new research can help us overcome these difficult circumstances. Two key strategies are to reduce the adverse childhood experiences and strengthen relationships that protect children from the effects of stress. Among key protective factors are positive role models and consistent, stable and appropriate relationships with adults. In particular, having a relationship with a caring adult outside the family has a meaningful impact on an at-risk child’s well-being. These relationships can help children learn to stay calm, be interested in learning, care about school, get more exercise, join after school activities, and avoid bullying.

One of the most promising ways that consistent, caring adults can help foster youth is by helping them get out of the hopeless mindset and into a success mindset. At the recent HOPE Global Forum, I was struck by a comment by Ricardo Semler, Chairman and Non Executive Partner of Semco Partners: “without hope, there is very little statistical chance life will ever work out.”

In my work with CASA volunteers over the last 21 years, I have frequently seen the corollary to Semler’s comment: a hopeful, success-oriented mindset is a key ingredient in overcoming a history of serious maltreatment. Research over at least a decade has shown just how important this is. Carol Dweck has written about the key differences between “fixed” mindsets—in which failure becomes permanent trauma—and “growth” mindsets, which accept failures as challenges to be overcome. The approach Dweck and others suggest is not just simply telling kids to be hopeful. There are evidence-based ways to help children develop a growth mindset. The evidence of this approach’s impact on educational success is particularly encouraging.

Conversations with young people served by CASA volunteers confirm to me that for decades, this approach has been an inherent part of the way our volunteers work. Themes like consistency, support, caring listening, guiding—these are what the young people think were the most impactful part of the volunteers’ work. Clearly, while the court work is important, it is the relationship and its positive and consistent motivation that means the most to the children.

Within the CASA for Children network, we have been specifically applying research about mindset and positive self-identity in our work with older youth for several years. Because CASA volunteers are often the most trusted and consistently present adult in a foster child’s life, they are in an ideal position to apply the evidence-based mindset approaches. The particular research we have used had shown positive and sustained impacts on at risk youth in academic initiative, test scores, grades, depression, school behavior and absences. Applying this evidence-based approach to foster youth, we believe we can help them rise above the negative messages given by the system, help them understand they can be successful, while recognizing that they will face challenges and can learn to deal with them.

One of the great strengths of this approach is that it does not foster further dependency. In her testimony to Congress, T. Ortiz Walker Pettigrew described how foster care often “normalizes the idea to youth that other people are supposed to control their lives and circumstances.” The mindset and “possible selves” research counteracts this by fostering protective factors and a more positive identity in the young people themselves.

Every child under the care and protection of the state due to abuse or neglect deserves to have a caring adult whose commitment is to say “I am for the child.”An adult whose very presence will convince a child that he or she is no trashbag kid, no paycheck kid. I invite you to be part of this movement.

Originally posted on February 17, 2015 by National CASA,

The Danger of "It Wasn't Really Rape"

I watched in horror along with most of America as "19 Kids and Counting" parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar talked about their son, Josh's, molestation of their young daughters. Josh has admitted to sexually abusing five young girls, including his sisters, Jessa and Jill. And a recently-released police report shows that Josh told his father on three occasions that he sexually abused four of his sisters as well as a family friend.
Yet, horrifically, Jim Bob claims that, "This wasn't rape or anything like that. This was touching over the clothes." This perception that touching is somehow less traumatic that penetration is not only false, it is incredibly damaging to victims, and helps perpetuate a culture of victim-blaming and lack of accountability for perpetrators. The fact is that children who are sexually abused often face lifelong consequences, whether or not that abuse involved penetration.
Each victim's experience and response is unique, but common impacts of child sexual abuse include guilt, shame, depression, sleep disorders, difficulty trusting, low self-esteem, flashbacks, disassociation, eating disorders, substance abuse and difficulty forming intimate relationships. 
And, as the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network states, "The reaction of a survivor's friends and family to the disclosure of the abuse also has the potential to trigger immense feelings of guilt, shame and distrust, particularly if those individuals denied that the abuse was taking place, or chose to ignore it."
Disbelief and minimization by family members is often very re-traumatizing to victims, and can make the impact of the abuse far worse and longer lasting. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. And for me, my family's reaction was as painful and destructive as the abuse itself.
I was 15 years old when I disclosed sexual abuse by a family member -- my step-grandfather. Like many victims, my disclosure was first met with disbelief. My grandmother told me I was lying and kicked me out of the house. Years later, as I tried to rebuild connections with my family, my mother eventually admitted that she believed me, and knew I was telling the truth. But, she said that I should "just get over it," since "it's not like he raped you or anything."
This "it wasn't really rape" claim is one of the most damaging forms of victim-blaming and minimization. It causes victims to doubt their own feelings and memories, and to feel ashamed for being so hurt by the abuse.
In my experience, while it is true that there had not been penetration (that I remember), I was violated by someone whom I loved and trusted -- as were Josh Duggar's sisters. This type of betrayal is just as painful as rape by a stranger, sometimes more so.
In fact, two years after I left home, I was raped by an acquaintance in college. And while this act did involve penetration and was very traumatic, it did not have the same lasting impact on me as the abuse by my grandfather. The specific act that was committed is not as important as the impact it created. 
This is not at all intended to downplay the impact of rape by a stranger, acquaintance or anyone else. All sexual assault is traumatic. Each victim's experience is unique, and each reaction will be different. It's impossible to say what type of sexual violence is worse or will be more damaging. And that's truly not up to us to decide.
The fact is that any sexual touching or behavior without someone's consent, or before someone is old enough to consent, is sexual assault. Period. All perpetrators need to be held accountable. And all victims need to be believed and supported.
I have worked with survivors of sexual abuse for 15 years. And many of the survivors I speak with are afraid to come forward because they have been told that what happened to them was "not really rape." They doubt their own definition of their own experience, because they have been told they are overreacting.
We have to stop diluting rape and telling victims that only some acts are bad enough to justify outrage. We have to stop trying to define someone's experience for them, because we simply don't want to -- or can't handle -- the painful truth. All sexual assault is wrong, painful, damaging and illegal.
Jessa, Josh's younger sister and one of his victims, is defending her brother. She has stated that referring to Josh as a child molester is "so overboard and a lie." It doesn't matter whether Jessa sees -- or is ready to see -- her brother as a perpetrator. The fact is that what he did is not just a "mistake," as his parents claim, it was a crime -- multiple crimes. Sending him away to work for a summer is not an adequate punishment. It will not change his behavior. And it certainly will not help his sisters, and other victims, heal.
I cannot imagine how agonizing it must be to know that several of your daughters were sexually abused, and the perpetrator is your own son. I am sure this is very difficult for the entire Duggar family. And I imagine the desire to defend their son is strong, as it would be for any parent. But, to defend one child at the expense of your other children is tragic and unacceptable.
Children (and adults) who are sexually abused or assaulted need to know that they are believed, that the abuse was not their fault, and that they have support from friends and family. Having your experience validated is one of the most important steps toward healing and surviving. I can only hope that Jill, Jessa, and the other victims receive this support from someone, if not from their own parents, very soon.
To Jessa, Jill, and all survivors of all forms of sexual violence: I believe you. It was not your fault. And you are not alone.

Article written by Pamela Jacobs and used with permission.  For more information about Pamela Jacobs and the fantastic work she does, please visit her website at
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