Lastega ja lastele

Auhinnaga „Lastega ja lastele“ täname ja tunnustame inimesi ja organisatsioone, kelle uued algatused või pikemaajaline tegevus on positiivselt mõjutanud laste ja perede käekäiku.
Tunnustusauhinna taotluste voor on avatud 15. aprillini.

Esita taotlus

What is wrong with these children?

I know a boy, who was only 6 years old when he was temporarily separated from his family, along with his 4-year-old sister, for the first time. The parents were given a chance to change their habits and way of life. The mother visited the children in the safe house once, but it was also the last time the children ever saw their mother. A few days later, the mother died as a victim of a serious crime.

Every child needs a sense of security, stability and a home in which to grow up. A home where they can find consolation, help and support, even when things are not going the way they should. Above all, a child needs loving parents. Unfortunately, this is merely a dream for many children - there are over a thousand children living in institutions in Estonia.

Most traumatic for children are traumas within the family lasting for an extended period of time. Parents’ alcoholism and divorce; homes where there is direct abuse and violence; loss of close ones and being neglected, to name only a few from the list of sad possibilities.

I know that boy. He had been living in a children’s home for nearly a year when he found a friend whose family he started to visit with his younger sister, from time to time. When they visited the friend’s family for the first time, the sister, who was four years old at the time, said that their father was in prison because he hit their mother in the nose. The girl did not know then that their mother’s death and father’s “career” were connected. It had been a year since their mother’s death, when they visited her grave for the first time and wanted to dig their mother out...

What are the main situations that children living under substitute curatorship have faced? What have this boy and his sister experienced, what kind of impression has this left them? Scientific research about brain development shows that the brain changes due to abuse and neglect. The non-verbal right side of the brain starts to work already before birth and records everything that happens to a child. Trauma within a family affects the development of personality - the mind and body, brain and soul of developing children and their relationships with others.

I know that boy. He is now ten years old and has lived with his younger sister in their new family for three years. Adjustment has been difficult. They have received help from long-term therapy and loving, secure and supportive people at home – a mother and father. Everything is not fine yet, because the survival system acquired in early childhood changes with hardship.

Research helps to explain why consequences of trauma do not fade away merely with the help of love. Traumatic memory is timeless, it does not fade away over time and these experiences are recorded in the brain differently than everyday events. A child’s memories of what he or she has experienced are recorded; these experiences cannot be altered consciously and they are remembered later through traumatic triggers. A feeling of danger is interpreted as actually being in danger, not as a memory of being in danger. Thus the body reacts to danger and also to the possibility that something bad is about to happen, not only to the event itself.

I know that boy. He has found a mother and a father together with his sister, a family where they are loved unconditionally. They move forward by small steps and taking the child’s specific character into account – yesterday, the child was with a psychologist and the day’s routine involved physiotherapy; today, the child is with a speech therapist and there is a tutoring lesson in the evening. This family does not see themselves as rescuers of these children, but they are convinced that these children have given them the opportunity to become better people. These parents have always wished to have a big family and now they have four children - biological and non-biological all mixed together. I believe and I hope that the story of this boy and his little sister has a happy ending.

We know the signs of how to recognise a child in chaos and abuse: he or she is always on his/her guard, reacts impulsively; behaves aggressively towards himself/herself, is physically and verbally violent; has problems with concentration and attention, lower interest towards the world; lacks motivation and energy, thus seeming lazy; does not learn much from the consequences of his/her actions. And all this is a part of the child’s survival system!

Trauma in early childhood has a long-term affect, but science also tells us that the brain is capable of changing, for example, with the help of activation of social coherence and creation of positive inner messages.

Whether and how much of this new knowledge about supporting traumatised children is used in today’s substitute curatorship? Substitute homes - these are institutions that have been recently repainted or the state has even built new family houses where children have stable food and the right room temperature, supervision of educators working in 24-hour shifts. But now that we know so much about the effects of trauma and children’s needs, why have these “specific characteristics” of children not been taken into account in developing the institutional curatorship? Has everything been organised while keeping the children’s interest in mind in the best possible manner?

All of the more than one thousand children in our substitute homes need personal care, therapy and support to cope with their experienced traumas - being separated from their parents is already a traumatic for every child, not to mention prior abusive experiences. We do wish that these children would also become capable adults in the future, who do not depend on the social system, are taxpayers, carry on values and build a family.

There are several examples in the analysis of substitute homes conducted by the ombudsman for children, that the institutions intended for traumatised children do not bear in mind the special needs of the children. How else could the following circumstances be explained? Mobility of children in these institutions is high, thus forming of attachment relationships is impossible - the more children in a family, the more changes and less stability there is. It results in superficial relationships, because the experience shows that attachment relationship is risky. Three to five family teachers/mothers work in shifts and sometimes children do not even manage to adjust to one person when another shift takes over the educating.

Is a place on a mattress a home? The wellbeing of the children depends primarily on the possibilities of the substitute home as an organisation, the activities of which the child cannot influence. Often the educational principle of a substitute home is punishment and expectation of “obedient adhering to rules” that contradicts developmental psychology - the result is that the work of a substitute home will bear fruit. There are umpteen similar examples in the analysis by the ombudsman.

Some time ago, I took part in the supervision organised for the employees in substitute homes and safe houses in Estonia, where the focus was on topics supporting the development of children and the personality and role of teachers in the midst of it all. At the beginning of the group work assignment, one middle-aged teacher working in a substitute home told her colleagues, with tears in her eyes, that she was 4 years old when she was adopted from a children’s home. During a free-format round table in the evening, when we spoke about the children in these institutions and their needs, the same teacher was surprised: “I do not understand, what is wrong with the children in children’s homes today? Nothing is suitable for them. They really have everything: beautiful family homes and not the kind of mills like in the old days; even pretty clothes, and they still do not appreciate it.”

And this is why our “institutional children” fail when they start independent lives and the adults supporting them do not understand what is wrong with these children, since they have everything... Was this teacher aware of what brought tears into her eyes upon being reminded of this adoption story - was it the contact with the private room that was “added” when she moved to her stepparents’ home or was it the relationship and finding unconditional love in the stepparents?

This is only one example of how the professional support, alongside the traumatised child in the substitute curatorship, is troubled with their own losses they have or have not dealt with – these restrict them from understanding the child’s experience and it is impossible to really see the child behind his or her good or bad behaviour. It is simple to blame all problems on being ill-bred and having bad genes. In order to help a child, one must understand where do these children under our substitute curatorship come from – the will to provide love is a great deal, but if the child has experienced only loss and abandonment, then merely love is not enough.It is necessary to know all processes and help the child reach a point where he or she also feels this love.

When the ombudsman for children suggested establishing a minimum standard for substitute home service, then I believe that therapy and psychological assistance must be an indispensable part of this standard. Otherwise, there are dozens of young people stepping out of these institutions every year and beginning their independent lives who have not been noticed and helped at the right time and who copy and replay their own traumatic experiences in different ways during their lives.

Triin Lumi

Participate Thank you, if you have already supported our charity programme or if you are going to do it in the future! Sign a standing payment order contract in SEB Internet Bank for 3 euros a month or support with a single donation.