Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Compassion Fatigue in Foster Parents ...

I have had touching conversations, this week, with two foster parents who called to ask if they would be considered "helping professionals" and, therefore, permitted to attend the fall compassion fatigue workshops.

My immediate response was, "Yes, of course.", having seen my great aunt and uncle raise several developmentally delayed foster "cousins" over the years of my childhood. While not endowed with university degrees, they had learned through years of experience the skills of attunement, attachment, and empathic behaviour management. My cousins thrived in the safe and loving environment of my aunt and uncle's small Fraser Valley farm but their care left a secondary traumatic stress impact in the lives of both their caregivers.

Foster parents work 24/7 with children who have been traumatized and, while research is still in the early exploratory stages, it does indicate that, because of this high level of secondary trauma exposure, foster parents may be at greater risk for CF than other helping professionals.

What other factors contribute to this increased risk? David Conrad, LCSW, Coordinator of the Secondary Trauma Prevention Project in Colorado, offers 4 possible factors in his article, Secondary Trauma and Foster Parents: Understanding Its Impact and Taking Steps to Protect Them:

1. Empathy: Empathy is needed to care for traumatized foster children but if foster parents over-empathize or over-identify with clients, they place themselves at risk for internalizing the children's trauma.

2. Insufficient Recovery Time: Foster parents may hear similar, horrific stories over and over again, often seven days a week without the respite needed to heal or get some distance from the stories. Thus, an accumulated secondary trauma load builds and can lead to CF.

3. Unresolved Personal Trauma: Many foster parents have had traumatic experiences in their own lives. (eg, loss of a family member, childhood abuse or neglect, accidents, addiction or mental illness in parents, serious illness or disability in their family of origin, immigration trauma and others). To some extent, the pain of their own experiences can be "re-activated" by the trauma stories of their foster children, causing an increased risk for internalizing the children's trauma.

4. Children's Vulnerability: Young children are completely dependent upon adults for their emotional and physical needs. When adults mistreat children, it evokes a strong reaction in any person who cares about children. Foster parents are at risk for these strong emotional reactions and their inability to change the children's situation can make them even more vulnerable to CF.

Early research is also showing that broadbrush training in childhood trauma and general self-care does not have an impact on CF risk in foster parents. As a result, Theda Parker's study of CF in Foster Parents at California State University, Fresno, suggests CF-specific training for all foster parents. (An idea with which I concur wholeheartedly!) Perhaps, even better than attending a general CF workshop, would be the creation of a workshop specifically for foster parents ...?


Cheryl said...

Hi Jan,

I agree that all foster parents should have training in the area of CF and to take it a step further it would be great to offer it specific to them. I have worked in the field of children's mental health and specifically on a team that included foster parents. At the end of the day, I could leave and go home to a "normal" life. For them, such little rest and resources were offered. In the short period of time (approximately one year) that I worked in this model, we went through two sets of full-time foster parents.

Jan Spilman, MEd, RCC Compassion Fatigue Specialist said...

Thanks for your comment, Cheryl. It certainly affirms the potential value of a workshop for foster parents. I will look at planning something for the winter or the spring of 2012. Cheers, Jan.