Dear Dena,

Can you describe the harm to the child when the department suddenly moves a school aged child from a home of over a year, where the child is bonded and attached? When given no transition to a new school and a new family all at once to live in a temporary home. And what can be done to help the child?


Worried About the Child


Dear Worried,

Except in the event of abuse or neglect, there is never a good reason for an abrupt move without a transition plan.  In a case where the child is showing bonding and attachment indications, a move is especially unwise.

What we understand about development and attachment is that predictability and stability are the bases for emotional health.  The opposite is also true; unpredictable moves and instability in home-life are the bases for attachment disorders, as well as a host of auto-immune diseases that are documented to be more prevalent in children with adversity in childhood.

Our job as those who are called to serve the children in our foster-care system is to ensure children the best possible chances for a healthy future. This includes not only removing children from abusive or neglectful circumstances, but also not adding to the harm a child experiences.  The uncertainty, lack of bonding opportunity, loss of social and emotional connections, new schedules, new schools, new rules, new foods…all of these contribute to the trauma a child experiences.  There is so little a child in the system has control over. She has lost her parents, lost her home, lost her siblings, lost her familiar faces and places. The very least we can do is to offer consistency and permanency while children are in our care, rather than add to the chaos.

Should a move become necessary, experts recommend a well-planned transition period where no sudden losses are experienced and where children have an opportunity to participate in some of the choices involved in transition.  Continuity with schools, churches, sports, etc. is strongly encouraged. The sudden pick-up or drop-off is as traumatizing as the initial removal from an unsafe home, and it triggers trauma all over again. And children with complex-trauma have smaller chances of re-attaching or functioning as an emotionally healthy adult.

Most families who have fostered for any length of time have a story of traumatic and abrupt disruption a child in their care has experienced.  The story is too common and it begs the question as to what motivates these decisions from case-managers and social workers who know the same data about attachment and trauma that I do.

If politics or personal likes/dislikes have any role in decisions about placements or removals then we are truly responsible for creating the next generation of dysfunction, criminals, unplanned pregnancies, domestic violence, homelessness and child abuse.  The uncomfortable truth is that children are sometimes removed from foster-homes because the foster-parent is accused of becoming “too attached”, or for being the “squeaky wheel” and pointing out problems in the system or advocating for the foster-child in ways that require extra time and money from the department.  God help us when we punish children and foster-families for doing exactly what they are called to do: love and care for children.

-Dena Johnson MA, LMHC

Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Attachment-Trauma Focused Therapist, TBRI Practitioner