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The Shocking Depths of Unknown Trauma in Foster Kids

It’s no secret that most kids who’ve come into foster care have experienced trauma. In fact, most states have revamped their training manuals to say that being pulled from your natural family and placed into foster care is enough to be considered a child of trauma.

And I agree with that completely.

What I didn’t really know when I started fostering was that the trauma kids would come into my home with would be MUCH deeper than even their parents/caseworkers/teachers knew. So many of these kids have secrets of what they’ve gone through that no one knows until it explodes out of them. And some of them will never, ever tell until they’re adults.

Their trauma is often rooted further down into these kids’ hearts than what we first realize when they come into care.

When our daughter first came into our care (about 5 weeks ago), we knew right away that there were some underlying issues there. We knew she was anxious, that she felt the need to parent her younger brother, and that she often worried about the safety of her parents.

We didn’t know until about a week ago, however, that she has also experienced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of an adult. As far as we know, no one on the team knew she’d experienced that, even if we might have all guessed it.

These are the kinds of things you often don’t find out until your kid is hiding under the table, crying, terrified that her foster dad will beat her.

She’s only been in our care for 40 days. Who knows what else will come out as time goes on?

When my husband and I were the house parents of a group home in Omaha, Nebraska, a couple years ago, we found out that kids who have severe “behaviors” have usually experienced trauma, too. Sometimes, their counselors and caseworkers know about it. Sometimes, they’ve never told a soul.

During our time at the group home, we had 15 teenage boys come in and out of our care.

Eight of those boys were placed with us because of violence against others. Four of them were placed with us because of violence against themselves. The rest were placed for either truancy or drug use.

When you think about those statistics, it seems obvious that those kids must have experienced trauma at some point in their lives to have ended up in that situation. Doesn’t it? Even if that trauma is serious neglect, there’s something there.

Healthy kids don’t hurt others.
Healthy kids don’t hurt themselves.
Healthy kids don’t use substances.
Healthy kids don’t struggle with truancy.

And kids who are unhealthy don’t usually become that way by random chance. It’s almost always because of their environment or harm that’s been done to them.

Of the 15 boys who came through our home:
– At least 4 were sexually abused by another male
– At least 5 had been raised by (or around) gang members
– 4 had been adopted (by either strangers or family members)
– At least 10 of them had psychiatric disorders that are associated with trauma
– 1 had permanent physical damage due to abuse his mother had experienced while she was pregnant
– At least 3 were physically abused by family members

Do you know how much of that trauma info we were given before each of them came into our home? Less than half of it.

I specifically remember sitting with one young man on Thanksgiving day while he cried on his bedroom floor because his dad wouldn’t be coming to our meal. His father had almost never followed through with his promises, had told his son he was a disappointment multiple times, and had turned his head when his son told him he was depressed.

This boy was addicted to Methamphetamine before he came into our care and returned to it shortly after he left us.

One of the boys who lived with us tried to commit suicide several times while he lived with us.

One of our boys disappeared from his home in Nebraska a couple weeks ago and hasn’t been seen since. He also tried to kill himself about a week after we left the group home.

One boy came into our care because he’d tried to take his own life by swallowing 13 Hydrocodone pills. He’d been sexually abused by a step-sibling.

Two boys, who came from the same neighborhood, had more friends and family members dead from gang violence than they had alive. They’d also both been beaten with extension cords by their own fathers.

I could go on and on. Their trauma extended so much further than what their “cases” told us, but it didn’t come out for so long. And it often came out in non-verbal ways, such as crying, yelling, throwing things, running away, or shutting down completely.

When you meet a foster child in the future, remember that their real life might have been worse than some of your worst nightmares. Maybe not … but maybe.

Be patient with them. Be kind to them. And don’t take their behaviors personally.

The Shocking Depths of Unknown Trauma in Foster Kids

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2018). The Shocking Depths of Unknown Trauma in Foster Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 18, 2019, from


Last updated: 21 Nov 2018
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