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Abuse, Family Separation And Foster Care Link To Mental Illness In Black Children

By Dr. Peter Sealy
PRIDE Guest Columnist 

When Black children are removed from their parents’ homes, even though the parents might be neglectful and abusive, it is still traumatic for them. This type of trauma, like other forms, can have long-lasting mental health effects.

According to the Toronto Star, 41 percent of the children who are wards of the Children’s Aid Society are Black. This high number should be great cause for concern, especially in light of the mental health consequences associated with abuse, separation from family and the foster care system.

Black children are normally placed with foster parents and into a system with people who know little about their culture. Cultural competent mental health services for Black children in foster homes are inadequate.

Nigel, not his real name, dislikes Black women, which stems from issues relating to his Black mother. Nigel’s depression is driven by the issues he faced with his mother. Nigel is now in foster care and receives therapy from a female therapist, who is not Black.

The root of his problem is never addressed, even though he makes negative comments about Black women in his therapy sessions. Nigel’s therapist stated that she feels uncomfortable addressing his issues with Black women.

Current approaches are doing little to keep Black children away from the foster care system. Sandra, not her real name, said that she experienced feelings of anxiety as she watched the Child Protective Services come to take her away. She was taken to a foster home, where she stayed with people who were not of her culture.

Sandra said that when she saw the perogies on the table for supper, she told her foster parents that she would not eat it. The foster mother told her to pretend that it is Jerk Chicken. Sandra said that she lived with foster parents who did not respect her.

She asked for her biological mother and was told that if her mother cared about her she would be at home with her.

Whenever Sandra cried uncontrollably, because of the separation from her mother and other family members, she was sent to her room. The punishment was staying in a dark room and racial name-calling. Whilst in her dark room alone, she created some imaginary characters to keep her company.

Today, Sandra is diagnosed with personality disorder, which manifested when she reached adolescence. As a result of entrance into the foster care system, Sandra experienced psychological and social factors like neglect, abuse and separation from family.

Forming relationships with people is filled with difficulties for Sandra and she has little sense of self-identity. Sandra questioned, why she was not allowed to live with her aunt or even her biological father, whom she had a strong connection with.

In Sandra’s case, there was an entry plan to foster care but no timely exit plan. In addition, it seemed that resources were focused on upholding the foster care process, rather than towards making Sandra’s home safer for her return.

David, not his real name, noted that when he entered foster care it proved to be too much for him. It felt strange said David, coming from an extended family and attending an all Black church, to suddenly being taken to an unknown location. His new location was a neighbourhood where his foster parents, teachers and community were not Black.

David said he felt out of place, lonely and sad amongst strangers. He wasn’t allowed to ask any questions about his mother, father and other family members. David stated that he was heart-broken and would cry almost daily.

Today, David is diagnosed with depression. David said that he had a close bond with his biological father and uncle and would have preferred to live with them.

When a person is culturally displaced, as in the case of David and the others, it is not only separation from family but also a loss of cultural traditions and personhood. Both cultural displacement and the loss of personhood can leave a person feeling angry and disoriented from society. Indeed these are recipes for mental health problems.

Black people have a history of cultural displacement. The soul cries from the intra-psychic pain of the displacement from Africa to the horrific atrocities of enslavement. The heart bleeds for the Black child who has been abused and is being abused at this very moment.

Safeguarding the immediate physical safety of Black children is one thing. But understanding the importance of Black cultural attachment in a society that invalidates blackness is another. The Black child, who grows up to self-hate, will not only do a lot of damage to their mental health but also to others who looks like him or her.

Joan, not her real name, is a young Black woman dealing with depression. She fears that her baby will be taken away from her, due to an unexpected request to visit a child protection office.

With the likely suggestion of her worker and the eventual agreement from other staff present, Joan is allowed to stay with her stepmother and biological father. This arrangement involved Joan undergoing treatment for her depression.

Joan completed her treatment for depression and is now doing fine living on her own again with baby. There was no foster care involvement in this arrangement. Joan tells me that her worker who is also Black has been a mentor to her. We need to intervene and attempt to rectify the problem before putting Black children into foster care.

During enslavement, family members, family friends and other Black folks would assist when child and parent were separated. So we know that in the immediate and broader Black family, there is a strong cultural source of support.

I would like people in the Black community, to call and or visit family and friends with young children to see how they are doing. Take the children for a day or a weekend, to give the parents a break and help out if you can with any needed resources.

In addition, let us try to identify any problems facing parents and help them to get the help they need. We have to put aside any petty differences and start loving and caring for each other more as a Black community. Let us also as Black people not ignore any incidents of child abuse or neglect in our community.

It goes without saying that no Black child should remain in a neglectful and abusive home. We also cannot deny the fact that child abuse occurs in some Black families.

In fact, child abuse occurs among children from families of all cultural backgrounds, with some incidents being tragic. So we know that child protective services have a crucial role to play. I am concerned though, about the policies, practices and procedures that have a disproportionate negative effect on Black children and youth consistent with institutional racism.

Institutional racism, although subtle, is extremely destructive to Black children and youth mental health.  There is also the issue of systemic racism and biases of child protective workers. Changes are needed to institutional and systemic racism in the foster care system, to ensure the healthy mental health of Black children and to preserve Black families for generations to come.

There is a pounding pain felt all across Black Canada, as a result of a foster care system that disproportionately dislocates Black children. Future changes to the foster care system, should include cultural sensitivity and the return of worth and dignity to Black people.

There is also a need for better public education, regarding what is deemed to be abuse and the different ways in which abuse and neglect can occur. Sadly though, there is a persistent, unremorseful arrogance and disrespect, when it comes to dealing with Black people.

Abuse and child separation from family to foster care, is linked to mental illness. Some years ago, I worked with a group of Black male and female teenagers that had experienced abuse, separation from family and lived in foster homes.

These teens were also dealing with mental health issues and anger. Many of them experienced multiple placements consistent with being moved to more than one foster home. Abuse, separation from family and living in foster homes contributed to their behavioural and mental health issues. Some of these Black male and female teens, had experienced physical, verbal and sexual abuse as children that left them with emotional and physical reminders.

Physical, verbal and sexual abuse, that left emotional and physical reminders, took place in the foster homes as well as the family homes. As children, they had shut out the memories of the abuse, to cope as children tend to do.

But things changed in their teenaged years, when the trauma manifested into behavioural and mental health problems. Some acted out without understanding why they were behaving in such a negative manner. They were labeled in their community as bad behaved and problem teens.

These Black teenagers hated themselves and felt that they should have done something to stop what they went through.

I observed the various symptoms of mental illnesses in these teenagers that included depression, anxiety and PTSD. The teenagers also experienced feelings of shame and worthlessness. The problem with feeling worthless is that you believe you should show your worst behaviour or stay away from others.

A few of the Black teenagers wanted to return to Africa and the Caribbean, whilst others felt like they did not belong anywhere.

My professional intervention with these Black teenagers was timely, as some were contemplating suicide because they felt disoriented from reality. I was able to help them change their thoughts of committing suicide.

Some of the teens talked about wetting their beds due to abuse caused by authority figures who were not bloodline and from parents and other family members. I had to do some intensive work with these Black teenagers because they were telling their stories of trauma for the first time. Many engaged in harmful behaviours to stay numb.

But today I have helped them to face the world in a real way. It is important to note, that mental illness amongst foster care children is an international issue. A study  led  by research fellow and psychologist Stine Lehmannm, found that half of all foster kids in Norway have multiple mental disorders.

Black children need love and support. There are too many facing childhood abuse, family separation and foster care living that underpin mental illness in adulthood.

If I had magical powers, I would simply say the word and the problem would be solved. I do not have magical powers. What I do have, is the knowledge that Black children desperately need our help at this very moment.

Let us help them now, rather than trying to correct their problems when they become adults. We can do better for Black Children.

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