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The Role of Play Therapists Addressing the Needs of Children in Foster Care: Treatment and Advocacy

September 30, 2012

Virginia’s statistics for children in foster care for August 2012 indicate that a little over 5,000 children are currently in foster care with almost half the children placed between the ages of 13 – 18 years of age (2,273 adolescents). The major reasons for removal from the home were sited as neglect (51.31%) and Child Behavior Problem (21.16%). Parent’s drug abuse (16.72%), physical abuse (15.29%) and inadequate housing (14.22%) were the other highest reasons for removing a child from their home. The majority of children were reunified with their parents (35.36%), adopted (24.81) or placed in long-term foster care (12.44%). These statistics indicate that the experiences of these children are severe and only about a third of children are returned to their homes.

Children removed from their homes are at-risk of experiencing significant attachment problems that compound their trauma issues. This is a vulnerable population that has complex issues and treatment needs often not understood by the professionals and families caring for them. The social welfare system of professional making decisions about the care and planning for these children are often unaware of the clinical issues associated with trauma and attachment. Foster parents are often ill equipped to manage the behavioral manifestations of trauma and attachment symptoms. In Virginia, the majority of children experience more than one foster care placement, which is evidence of the trauma and attachment problems experienced by these children and the lack of understanding by caregivers of these issues. To further compound the problem facing these children, very few mental health providers are trained to provide the kind of specialized care needed by these children and their caregivers. The result is that our most vulnerable population of children are not getting the appropriate services needed to change the long-term negative impact of trauma and attachment problems.

Play therapy professionals are in the specific role of providing treatment to children and adolescents with a special emphasis on ensuring that the services providers meet the unique social, emotional, cognitive, and physical needs for this population. As play therapists, we understand the benefits of play and expressive arts when working with children and adolescents. The Virginia Association for Play Therapy has led the charge in Virginia to help play therapists develop trauma-informed play therapy skills with an emphasis on attachment by partnering with the Mary Ainsworth Clinic at the University of Virginia to teach the Circle of Security Model, National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children and the Child Trauma Academy to understand the neurobiology of trauma and attachment.

How can play therapist help make a difference? Help educate parents, caregivers and social welfare professionals about the impact of trauma and attachment for this population. The federal Administration for Children and Families has recognized the need to integrate trauma-informed systems of care at the state and local child welfare agency levels. Now is the time to advocate for the needs of these children and increase awareness of using play therapy to heal the wounds of trauma. Educate your self about effective models of treatment for this population that are trauma-informed and attachment based to increase awareness of the need to improve the quality of services provided to these children.
By Cathi Spooner

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