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January 2021Vol. 22, No. 1From Trauma to Triumph

Written by Keri Richmond, executive director, FosterStrong, and child welfare reform advocate

How can we ensure young people transition from the trauma of foster care to claiming triumph in their lives?

Six years ago, at a retreat for foster care alumni, I was asked to create a visual of my life story using magazines and a poster board. In the end, I created a collage of photos from the fall, winter, spring, and summer in the shape of a clock. This felt like the most accurate representation of my life story—a series of transitions from one season to the other, some lonely, dark, and difficult and others renewing, abundant, and beautiful.

Isn't that what life is, a series of transitions from one season to the next until eventually our time runs out? Isn't it true that in the dead of winter, when the leaves have fallen from the trees and we are left in the darkness and cold, we can hold on to the truth that "this too shall pass" and there is light on the other side and a promise of growth?

For those who have experienced foster care, transitions are familiar; some transitions are welcomed, some are dreadful, and many are not any choice of our own. We have experienced more traumatic events before our 18th birthdays than most people will in their lifetime. This trauma usually starts before we enter the system and continues after. While we are not solely defined by this trauma, the impact of unhealed trauma is detrimental and can poison our relationships, goals, health, and more.

Unhealed trauma becomes generational trauma.

Generational trauma is like a top-heavy bookshelf that collapses in on itself. If the first person in the family lineage experiences trauma that goes unhealed, this trauma accumulates on the top shelf. As life goes on, this person continually adds the burdens and weight of new trauma. Eventually, this person has children, and as time passes the top shelf gets heavier and heavier until finally it collapses, falling on the generations below. These generations are then left dealing with the consequences of unhealed trauma. Trauma is never fully healed, and we are all works in progress, but it is our responsibility to address it.

One alumnus of foster care and writer said, "Some of us are here to be the change makers in our family system. We're here to end generational trauma and start passing down love instead of pain." This is what generational triumph looks like—the breaking of chains—but for this to be accomplished, we must prioritize healing.

The need for emotional healing is just as critical as our need for oxygen, water, and food. Yet, it seems that when youth are making one of the most crucial transitions in their lives—transitioning from foster care to life on their own—the need for healing and addressing this trauma receives little to no attention. The child welfare system must make this a key priority for our young people.

How can we help young people transition out of care and be equipped to continue to deal with unhealed trauma?

  1. Start a conversation before young people leave the system and help them to identify what approaches would work best for their continued healing. It may be yoga, therapy, art, dance, meditation, or something else, but there should be an exploration of what tools a young person feels is helpful to utilize.
  2. Connect young people with peers who have already transitioned out of foster care and could serve as mentors. This shared experience can offer a young person connection, inspiration, understanding, and hope.

The transition out of foster care looks different for every young person. For some, this transition represents new beginnings, a fresh start, or a sort of "breaking away" from the system's rules and red tape. For others, this transition is isolating, scary, and uncertain. In any instance, what will always stand true is the need for healing. As we move forward, I hope the child welfare system will make it a mission to ensure every transition from foster care to independence is one that leaves a young person supported and equipped to continue healing and embrace triumph after trauma.