Being a foster carer for children who have experienced early life trauma – such as emotional and physical violence – can be challenging, complex and confusing. For children, experiencing severe early trauma can manifest in difficult behaviors, resulting in unsuccessful foster care placements

The Treatment and Care for Kids (TrACK) program were developed as an alternative to residential care for children with complex needs. Some children in the program have experienced severe trauma including witnessing the murder by their parents and being subjected to chronic sexual assault (with some being involved in pedophile rings organized by their parents).

Among the 48 children who have been fostered through the program, 19 had come from residential care where they had multiple placements. Fifteen of these children had lived in more than six placements before TrACK and seven had experienced more than ten placements. One child had experienced 18 and another 30 placements within five-and-a-half years.

A review of their case files identified a shift from placement instability to long-term placement stability after joining TrACK. The program showed encouraging results in other domains too, including education, forming peer relationships and emotional regulation. These results show complex trauma can be healed.

Children in care and TrACK

TrACK's approach to treating complex trauma is informed by the science of neurobiology, which suggests trauma develops in a relationship and can also be healed in a relationship. This is also referred to as the neurobiology of love, where love isn't just a simple emotion but a deep sense of care, concern, and connectedness to the child.

We are all wired for connection. However, most children in care have been denied this opportunity. The neurobiology of love, in this case, is about accepting their complexities and vulnerabilities, providing comfort and constantly nurturing the relationship between the carer and the traumatized child.

The success of a placement is mainly based on the carer's capacity to respond to the complexity of the child. TrACK carers are trained in several key areas.

This involves knowing ways to counter some of the negative self-perceptions the child may have; having appropriate expectations of the child and showing them love and acceptance even if their behavior isn't changing; avoiding escalation, and noticing and responding to the child's emotional needs.

TrACK only recruits carers who are prepared to commit to the long-term care of children with significant adversity. In return, they are offered "round the clock" support. This includes specialist training on parenting children with complex needs and individualized coaching.

What we found

Our key finding was a considerable reduction in the number of placements children experienced after joining TrACK. It fell from a median of 6.1 to 1.9 (remember seven children had over ten placements before joining the program).

We also found all children in TrACK at the time of the evaluation were attending school full-time. A 2012 Victorian report showed 49% of children in residential care, and 88% in other home-based care programs were going to school every day.

All children in TrACK experienced enhanced emotional stability and capacity to regulate their own emotions. Although this was hard to measure, carers reported their children were less volatile than when they first arrived in their care.

Our interviews with young people and reports from their carers showed recovery started when the young people felt the foster family would never abandon them, reject them, retraumatize them, hurt them or withdraw their affection, regardless of how slow or complex their healing journey was.

It's critical that locally grown programs do not fall off the agenda as viable and cost-effective strategies for reform. Often, our systems are criticised for what they do not achieve for children; they also need to be acknowledged when they do something well.