Kris’ Corner – Unknown History

January 26, 2022

In my last post, I addressed that you may not know much (or any) of a child’s history prior to them coming into care. Today’s post addresses a little of the why you don’t know much, what you may be missing, and how you (and your child) can move forward in spite of those gaps.

While child protective services will attempt to gather as much information as possible about a child’s history, there are often major gaps in information. And sometimes even if DCS knows the information, they are not able to share it with the foster parents.

There are additional reasons why you may not have access to the information: biological parents may be incarcerated; they’re not showing up at appointments for various reasons; or they’re simply unwilling to provide information to you.

It’s also possible a child has undergone many changes in caregivers, bouncing from person to person, which means that no single adult is aware of what a child has gone through. They may be able to provide snippets of information, but not a large, continuous piece of history.

Honestly, there are many different reasons why you may have a lack of information, but what kinds of gaps am I talking about? As mentioned in my previous post, you may not know the time of your child’s birth, weight, or length. And while those can be troublesome, there are other much larger unknowns. A major one often involves the biological mother’s pregnancy. What was her prenatal situation like? Did she receive any prenatal care? Was the child exposed to drugs or alcohol in utero?  Was she homeless or abused during the pregnancy?  What was the overall state of her mental health while pregnant?

The time a child spent in utero is one of those things that is not often considered, even when taking in a newborn or little-bitty. People often have the misconception that a child “has no trauma” if he/she came to them directly after the child was born; but I just need you to know that is not true. I used to believe it myself, until I experienced first-hand a child with pre-natal trauma living under my roof. Here’s the why:

As you may or may not know, when a person is under stress, the body produces cortisol. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone and can be helpful to someone when it is only released into the body infrequently…it helps curb non-essential functions during a fight, flight or freeze response. But it is problematic when the cortisol release is ongoing (such as when in a prolonged high stress situation), and even more so in a pregnant woman; if she’s producing high levels of cortisol, then the child in utero is practically swimming in it (not literally, of course, but I’m certain you understand my point). Such exposure to a child in utero can cause ongoing developmental delays and chronic levels of anxiety after birth.

So even if a child was not exposed to drugs or alcohol prior to birth, it does not mean they have not experienced trauma.

Now…additional details you may not know about a child coming into care: Developmental history may be missing. You may not know if a child walked, talked, or hit other developmental milestones on target; knowing those types of things can help foster parents (and their doctors) make more accurate predictions about the future. Does it mean you can’t still help your child be the best they can be? Absolutely not…it’s just a little easier if you know what milestones were achieved on time previously.

A genetic history may also be unknown. It may be unclear if a child’s family has a history of physical or mental health issues, developmental or cognitive delays, addictions, etc.

A child’s trauma history may be uncertain as well. Adults may not be aware of child’s history of neglect, abuse, or exposure to domestic violence.

The gaps in information likely mean there will be questions about a child’s attachment history. Children who don’t bond with initial primary caregivers (typically their biological parents, but not always) may develop attachment disorders, such reactive attachment.

And not to be discouraging, but sometimes mental health issues, developmental delays or physical health problems may not emerge until after a child has been living with a foster family for a while. This can be due to the fact that the child is learning to attach and has a sense of felt safety.

I know this may seem very “Debbie Downer” and that is NOT my intent. If you are considering fostering or are new to the game, I want you to go into this experience with your eyes WIDE open and aware of the possibilities.

All that said…what do we do about all this lack of information? Well, to some extent you have to move on and solve the puzzle with only the clues available to you. To be clear, I do not say this lightly. It is unfortunate and I completely understand this experience from my own time as a foster parent. We have to do the very best we can as foster parents with what we’ve been given. I have likened it to being a detective of sorts; my child is not a problem that I need to fix, but a puzzle I need to solve.

And how did I come to this realization? Well, first off, taking in a child with needs I didn’t understand was humbling. I know I am not stupid, but I, in no way, had all the tools I needed to help him when he first came to live with us. And if you don’t know what a child’s issue is, it can be a challenge to know how to fix it. For example, it may be an underlying issue, such as fear or sadness which can present like anger…so you have to address the fear or sadness in order to resolve the anger…see what I mean about being a detective? (TBRI is SUPER-helpful in this regard…please click to see my post with more info about it!)

To this very day, I am still not 100% certain why my child could not take a bottle or any food or liquid by mouth (they said he had “a shallow gag reflex” but I don’t exactly know what causes that…do you?), but the doctors told us he could learn to eat and drink by mouth…so we all worked HARD with an amazing occupational therapist. And lo and behold…eventually our sweet baby no longer needed his G-tube.

Point being:  what I realized quickly, is that we don’t always need to know the “why” or “how” something happened in order to know the “what” to do to try to make it better.

And honestly, that’s a whole lot of what foster care is all about: loving these babies wherever they are in their journeys and coming alongside them to help guide them in their next steps. Putting aside the “why” and focusing on the “help” is a much healthier and happier place to be.

Will it still be hard at times? Absolutely. Will your child, more than likely, need therapy to help work through delays, issues, etc.? For sure. But being able to take a step back and know that you’re not responsible for filling in all the history gaps can give both you, and your child, the ability to move forward, however that may look.

Hopefully that helps give you a little peace of mind about the fact that you WILL be missing data on your kiddos…but in the long run, it’s not always going to be a huge deal; they can still receive love and healing.