Barbara Tantrum on Foster Care and Adoption
Barbara Trantrum is the NWFL Director of Foster Care and Adoption. She is one of the founders of Northwest Trauma Counseling and has been a NWFL affiliate therapist for the last 6 years. She works with both children and adults, often around issues of foster care, adoption and attachment.
You have 7 kids, tell us about the makeup of your family.
Our kids range in age from 9 to 23 and include 2 bio kids and 5 non-traditional kids. Of our non-traditional kids, we have one sibling group of three and two non-related kids. We have children from DR Congo, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. We received one child through a private agreement with her family whom we are friends with. We foster international refugee children through a UN program. Most of our kids have been with us for either 10 or 12 years, but we have one newer one of less than a year. We are about to adopt our 18-year-old.
How can identifying emotions be difficult for kids with trauma?
Emotional identification is something that often has to be taught, even for typical kids, but for kids with trauma it is much more difficult. Kids with trauma are more easily triggered – making access to those emotions more difficult. For children with trauma, emotional expression can often feel unsafe – for many kids the only thing they can express is anger. Other emotions feel too vulnerable, so any strong emotion that they feel ends up coming out as anger.
How/why do you incorporate art and music into therapy?
Music and art access emotions and feelings in ways that talk alone cannot do. I try to use music and art in fun ways in therapy like playing musical chairs, drumming, playing emotions pictionary, and painting together. I have created books with clients with their art, and done countless art and craft projects.
Tell us about how attachment is formed through mirroring.
We try to help attachment form in many of the ways that attachment forms organically with an infant and child. The attachment cycle of an infant expressing a need and the need being met and that cycle happening a million times over is the basis for healthy attachment.
Mirroring is a normal part of attachment with a baby and a parent during the early stages of development – a mom sticks out her tongue and the baby follows suit. This is the activation of the mirror neurons in the baby’s brain and the beginning of empathy. For children that come from abuse and neglect where there has been an interruption in attachment, it can often really help to activate these mirror neurons. This works best for younger kids, but we encourage parents to do mirroring activities with kids of all ages – things like having kids and parents repeat a pattern on a drum that one person makes, singing songs together, playing games that involve mirroring, etc.
Tell us about working with kids and parents as a unit.
For kids with attachment challenges, they often get into a pattern of what we call “parent shopping,” which is when they aren’t sure of the security of their placement and are always scouting out the next place to go. A sympathetic therapist can make a very tempting target, and that can cause a lot of very tricky dynamics. I want the child to attach to the parent, not to me.
Also, kids often come into therapy thinking that they’re the problem, and the kids are never just the problem – any solution involves the whole family. So I work almost exclusively with kids and parents together. The model of dropping a child off to talk with a therapist for an hour with little contact with the parents just doesn’t work to solve attachment problems for those in foster care and adoption and reinforces that the kid is the problem.
You’ve said that when you parent a kid with trauma, it really brings up your own trauma. Can you expand on why and how to navigate this?
A soldier with childhood trauma is far more likely to get PTSD on the battlefield, and the same is true for a parent. If you have childhood trauma, when your child dysregulates and has a PTSD reaction that could very well set off your own PTSD reaction. Often I work with parents who mostly know what they need to do in parenting, but being able to keep control of their own reactions is tough. For parents with childhood trauma, I recommend that they be in therapy to help them. In my own life when I have sought therapy when my secondary trauma reactions were more than I could handle, and it was enormously helpful. In the interest of the whole family, I also talk a lot about self-care and emotional regulation for everyone in the family.
Talk to us about interracial and international adoption.
International adoption is on a decline currently, as overseas orphan care is shifting to building up foster care and adoption programs in the countries of origin. There still is international adoption happening, especially for special needs children, and for situations like refugees and such.
Interracial adoption is becoming the new norm. In 1996 the federal government legally mandated that race cannot be a factor in adoptive placements, and currently about 40% of adoptions are transracial. Although we often think of transracial adoption as being white parents adopting children of color, I work with parents and children of all combinations.
The most important thing with transracial foster care and adoption is respect and conversation – you never want to adopt from a people group that you don’t respect and enjoy. When you adopt from another ethnic group your family becomes multiethnic, and how your family functions needs to reflect that reality.
The other key is to talk about racial issues, don’t just pretend the child is the same race as the parents and go with that. Studies show that children raised in transracial adoptions do basically the same as same-race adoptions if the parents talk to them about racial issues.
Can you talk about the places where domestic violence and foster care intersect?
It is rare to have a child adopted from foster care at an older age that hasn’t experienced domestic violence. Domestic violence is one of the main reasons that kids are in foster care and need new families. Many of the dynamics of domestic violence continue in the dynamics of sibling relationships when parents adopt sibling groups, and we have to talk a lot about power dynamics and control issues. For a child, witnessing domestic violence is just as traumatic as experiencing it done to them.
WA State is experiencing a massive shortage of foster parents, with 1,000 less foster homes available now than 10 years ago, and more kids than ever in the system. What are some ways people might help?
Treehouse is a great place to donate or help, it’s a local organization that helps foster kids in King County. You can also become a CASA voulunteer, or help at the many churches that support foster care ministry. If you are considering foster care and are not quite ready to take the full plunge, you can do something called respite care, which is having foster kids short term to give their regular foster parents a break.
If you are ready to take the plunge, I recommend working with a private foster care agency rather than just with the state, and there are several great ones. Some organizations in the Seattle area that I recommend are Amara, Bethany Christian Services, Olive Crest, and Antioch. If you are interested in fostering refugee foster children, check out Lutheran Community Services. Before committing to an agency, make sure you talk to some people who have used that agency before and ask them about their experiences.
What are some recommendations or resources you have for people who are interested in become foster parents?
Talk to some current foster parents and look into what is involved. But don’t get too intimidated, you don’t have to be a superhero to be a foster parent – just be open to learning and growing.
Find a support group – either through your agency or through your church or community. The time to do this is when you are getting licensed – you will need support when kids hit your house.
The Refresh Conference is a fantastic conference put on every year by Overlake Christian Church, and it is a wealth of information. You can go even if you’re just checking it out! There are also a lot of different agencies there so it can be a great way to get a feel for different agencies all at once.
The movie Instant Family is also a pretty accurate representation of what it’s like to become a foster parent.
Barbara has a book called: The Adoptive Parents’ Handbook: A Guide to
Healing Trauma and Thriving with Your Foster or Adopted Child,
coming out in September 2020. You can connect with her via