Time in care can leave a foster youth feeling helpless, empty, isolated,lost and alone. For some, suicide seems like the only answer.
In 1962, under a bridge, in the back seat of a neighbor's car, a tiny, feisty baby girl came into this world. A fragile little baby so tiny, that she was kept in a shoe box. By the time this little girl was 5 years old she had suffer more pain, more loss, more devastation, and more trauma than most people endure over a life time. By the time this little girl was 10 years old, her childhood had been so traumatic that she was on the verge of a total and complete mental breakdown.
At 17, I found myself on the edge of my bed with a handful of sleeping pills. I sat crying, saying to myself, "No one wants me, no one loves me and I can't trust anyone. God hates me, man hates me and my entire life has been nothing but pain and devastation. So why even go on?" It was three weeks before I was to age out of a system that had forgotten about me. I tried for many years to overcome my past, and I thought I had by focusing forward 24/7 and never looking back. However, in my adult life, I found this wasn’t the case, and I had no choice but to finally face the monster head on.
To my amazement, it has been in sharing my pain that I have experienced the greatest healing. I have come to realize, that although I thought I had dealt with my pain by pretending it didn’t exist, it was quietly controlling everything about me. And thus, I would find myself contemplating suicide on more than one occasion.
My older sister, now passed, spoke of contemplating suicide, my other sister took a handful of pills while in care, and my brother has tried to commit suicide several times already. I hear children in care talk about having suicidal thoughts on more than one occasion.
Mark Anthony Garrett, a former foster child, speaks openly about contemplating suicide at age 19. Then he says “Something miraculous happened.” Today he too shares his story and finds healing in helping others overcome the pain and tragedy in their lives.
I have read story after story of foster children who have either contemplated, tried to commit suicide, or has successfully committed suicide. When you combine trauma and tragedy, a darkness looms that cannot be ignored. We must understand life in that 'dark place' and what abuse & foster care truly does to children whose minds and bodies are not yet equipped to handle the magnitude of devastation they must face in their EVERYDAY lives.
These children are expected to accept, without question, a life that most adults cannot begin to accept, or live through. Therefore, we must always prepare society with the tools to equip children of this population with every opportunity to help them overcome the devastating circumstances of their lives before they become desperate.
By educating and equipping our communities, our churches and our schools with the tools to help children from abuse and foster care feel loved, valued and wanted, we can create a community of care where children from this population can thrive. It all begins by talking about it. I speak from experience.
When we don’t talk about foster care and abuse openly, it often causes our children to feel different, dirty, unlovable, unwanted and unimportant. It tends to minimize the devastation they have been through and as if they can’t talk about it. We must talk about it before we can overcome it. And, it needs to be talked about outside of a therapeutic environment as well as within one. As if it’s just part of everyday conversation, with every day people, within normal every day environments.
I desperately wanted and needed to talk about it, but it seemed as if it were a secret and when I tried to talk about it, no one wanted to hear the gloom and doom. Even today, when I speak of it, outside of child welfare venues, people tend to immediately ‘shut it down’. Or, lend a deaf ear until I change the subject, or just stop the conversation all together.
The National Center for the Prevention of Youth Suicide states; if a youth can be engaged to talk about his/her thoughts of suicide, adults can intervene so that problems can be addressed and escalation to suicide attempts or deaths can be prevented.
- Adolescents who had been in foster care were nearly two and a half times more likely to seriously consider suicide than other youth.
- Adolescents who had been in foster care were nearly four times more likely to have attempted suicide than other youth.
- Experiencing childhood abuse or trauma increased the risk of attempted suicide 2- to 5-fold.
- Among 8-year-olds who were maltreated or at risk for maltreatment, nearly 10% reported wanting to kill themselves.
- Adverse childhood experiences play a major role in suicide attempts. One study found that approximately two thirds of suicide attempts may be attributable to abusive or traumatic childhood experiences.
The statistics do not break down child suicides in foster care vs. child suicide outside of care, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it happens. Or, that this type of environment often increases the thoughts that may already be in an abused child’s mind when they come into care.
Suicide is a real issue in foster care and one we should not dismiss lightly. This is not a matter we are willing to discuss until we read stories of foster children taking their lives, such as the case in Florida were a 7 year old boy hung himself in his foster parent’s house.
Foster children often benefit from programs that bring together other like-minded children where they can share their pain, share their stories and heal from the inside out. If such programs existed, and was led by foster alumni, this would aid them even more of ridding themselves of turmoil that can often become debilitating. There are few, if any programs encouraging the foster child to rid themselves of the pain and darkness that often consumes their lives outside of a therapeutic setting.
As a child who grew up in a brutally abusive home who was suicidal before care, never having a venue to talk about it in care, made me even more suicidal. I think we will find better emotional outcomes when we give our foster children a safe place to talk about their abuse, their foster care lives, and other issues facing them as children in care, in addition to the typical therapy setting.
This has lead me to create a program where I share my deepest pain with the children. Then I have them write their greatest pain on a rock and I plant it in my ‘Garden of Pain’. When they give me their rock, I give them a blanket made by a blanket ministry at my church and we replace their pain with a ‘Blanket of Hugs’.
I go outside every day and I tend to my garden. The children are encouraged to know someone is always thinking about them and when they need a hug, they cuddle with their blanket.
Give them a safe venue to talk, someone who’s been through their pain, and other members going through the same pain and watch what happens. Better yet, watch the outcome.
Healing happens here.