“Never talk to strangers.” This important lesson in personal safety often involves a period of confusion and anxiety as young children try to understand who is a stranger and why it’s okay to talk to some strangers and not others. From the point of view of a child who has just been admonished not to talk to strangers, parents who casually chat with the person next to them in the grocery line or strike up a conversation with unknown parent at a playground are behaving quite recklessly, indeed. Eventually, by observing their parents’ behavior, children learn that it’s usually acceptable to chat with someone at a store or the playground, but not advisable to leave the premises with that person.
Lessons in personal safety do not come so easily to foster children, who, rather than learning to protect themselves from strangers, learn that their very survival may depend on their interactions with strangers. They must talk with strangers on a routine basis. The person who removes a child from the care of a neglectful or abusive parent is a stranger who then delivers the child into the home and hands of yet another stranger, usually with reassurances that this unknown person will provide food, shelter, and emotional safety.
The chances are good that children will not stay in the first placement, but will be introduced to strangers many times over the course of their stay in foster care. On average, foster children will be in three placements, but many will live in a dozen or more homes.
Rather than having the time and opportunity to assess whether the new people will provide physical and emotional safety, these young children must quickly discover what they have to do in order to have their needs met. Do the new foster parents expect children to speak politely or is this a house in which you need to shout to get what you need? Sometimes other foster children will help them navigate this new emotional landscape, but many times they will have to fall back on their own resources to figure out how to survive.
When we place children in the homes of people they have never met, we give them the message that strangers can provide safety and security. Rather than help them learn to establish protective physical and psychological boundaries, we repeatedly expose them to situations in which instant closeness is the implicit expectation. Families are made up of very intimate relationships. When we drop a child into the midst of family dynamics he has two essential choices—to establish himself as the outsider—the one who doesn’t belong—or to try to become a part of this new group. The possibility of belonging is almost overwhelmingly seductive.
Foster children’s survival depends on learning to talk well and easily to strangers. These well-learned lessons make them vulnerable to those who promise to love and care for them. Because they have had to learn to say “yes” to the demands of so many strangers they have had little education about when they need to say “no” for their own protection.
This subtle but dangerous dynamic sets the stage for foster children’s falling prey to strangers who would use them for their own gain and, in so doing, abuse the minds, bodies, and trust of these children.