By Rebecca Vivrette and Jessica Dym Bartlett, Child Trends, September 30, 2020
Children and youth who become involved in the child welfare (CW) system often experience trauma as a result of maltreatment and other adversities while in the CW system, including removal from home and multiple out-of-home placements. Children and youth of color, particularly Black and Native American children, are disproportionally represented in the CW system and are more likely to experience trauma due, in large part, to structural racism and historical trauma. LGBTQIA+ youth (lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, genderqueer, queer, intersexed, agender, asexual, and the ally community) are also at high risk for trauma while in the CW system.
The good news is that decades of research on resilience shows that protective factors can help children and youth thrive in the face of trauma and adversity. Although children and youth who are exposed to trauma are at greater risk for negative impacts on their brain development (e.g., responding to threat cues, managing emotions like anxiety and anger), as well as mental health and physical health problems over the life course, it is essential that CW professionals recognize the strengths and potential of all children and youth to succeed in life. Rather than focus on risk and deficits (e.g., “What’s wrong with you?”), CW agencies should focus on the experiences that led to trauma (e.g., “What happened to you?”); agency staff should also help children and youth build on their strengths and leverage these to recover, heal, and lead fulfilling lives (e.g., “What’s right with you?”).
To promote positive child outcomes among children and youth in the CW system, it is essential to first understand that they are not “doomed” to poor life outcomes. Research affirms that certain types of supports are especially likely to help children and youth thrive after traumatic experiences such as pandemics. In fact, a number of evidence-based interventions and approaches can help mitigate the negative effects of trauma and positively impact brain development. Among the most important factors in promoting resilience to trauma and supporting healthy brain development among children and youth is having at least one reliable, nurturing caregiver.