Experiences of maltreatment, caregiver transitions, and other forms of chronic stress in early childhood have been related to an increased likelihood of health and mental health disorders. Despite having a number of well-developed and validated therapeutic options for fostered and adopted children, families are often overwhelmed by their child’s multiple health needs and have a difficult time accessing care. This case report describes a 2-year old female child in foster care who took part in a multidisciplinary program for fostered and adopted children ages 0 to 5 years old. This family’s experience highlights that patients can receive streamlined evaluations, short-term therapeutic interventions, and long-term service recommendations by providing families with a single point of contact in an integrated care setting. This approach decreases the time burden placed on parents, increases the effectiveness in understanding and addressing a child’s needs, and improves family and provider collaboration. Further, models of integrated care reduce the likelihood of misdiagnosis. Many symptoms of early childhood adversity and attachment disorders can present like other common mental (i.e., Autism Spectrum Disorder) and physical disorders (i.e., motor delays). Misdiagnosis can lead to recommendations that are ineffective or ultimately harmful to children with experiences of trauma. Given the range of general and mental health effects of multiple housing transitions, maltreatment, and/or neglect, this case underscores how a team approach is invaluable for promoting at-risk young children’s wellbeing and development.
Keywords: Foster Care; Adoption; Mental Health; Early Childhood; Integrated Care
Over 443,000 children were involved in the foster care system in the United States during 2017 (Child Trends Databank, 2019). Children under the age of five are the largest group within foster care (~41%, N = 183,959; Child Trends Databank, 2019). Almost all children involved in these systems have experienced multiple transitions, maltreatment, and/or neglect. Many have also experienced malnourishment, pre-and post-natal substance exposure, premature birth, and exposure to infectious diseases. Environmental stress, bodily harm, and illness in early childhood can carry consequences for physical and mental health functioning across the lifespan (Cicchetti & Handley, 2019; Malionsky-Rummel & Hansen, 1993; Smith & Thornberry, 1995; Vachon, Krueger, Rogosch, & Cicchetti, 2015; Anda et al., 2006). Given the medical complexity of foster children, multi-disciplinary care models, including medical providers, mental health specialists, public health nurses, social workers, and occupational therapists (OT), are essential.
The purpose of this paper is to highlight the experience of a 2-year old female in foster care with a program that integrates early childhood mental health therapeutic consultation with a unique multidisciplinary medicine program for fostered and adopted children. We will, 1) illuminate the need for new ways for fostered and adoptive children under five to engage with health, mental health and other services, and 2) highlight an early mental health therapeutic consultation protocol within a pediatric setting. Ultimately we aim to motivate the development of this and similar programs across the United States to better serve young children facing threats to their life long trajectories of mental and physical illness due to early experiences of adversity.
Early Childhood Mental Health Evaluation in an Interdisciplinary Pediatric Team
Multiple housing transitions, maltreatment and/or neglect can be related to a range of medical, developmental, and emotional symptoms, with treatments located outside of the sphere of early childhood psychological intervention. Early childhood experiences of abuse and neglect have been linked to cardiovascular concerns, sensory processing disorders, failure to thrive, and chronic infections associate with immune system dysfunction (Anda et al., 2006; Felitti et al., 1998). Malnutrition, often associated with experiences of neglect, can have a detrimental impact on a child’s development trajectory if left unaddressed – including an increased risk for cardiovascular and metabolic disease in adulthood (Campbell et al., 2014), lower IQ scores in early adolescents (Liu et al., 2003), and micronutrient deficiencies that cause irreversible alterations to brain development (Monk et al., 2013).
While physicians in the United States are typically underprepared to address mental health ramifications of early childhood trauma, mental health providers similarly lack the training to fully conceptualize a child’s necessary medical interventions for their physical health needs. Due to this increased medical complexity for children who have faced early adverse experiences, it is invaluable to have a team approach that addresses concerns and efficiently rules out multiple etiologies for symptoms.
Further, many mental health symptoms related to trauma or attachment disorders can present like other common early childhood disorders. This may be difficult for providers without specialized training in early childhood trauma and attachment disorders to accurately determine the appropriate diagnosis. Misdiagnosis can lead to recommendations that are ineffective or ultimately harmful to children with experiences of trauma. For example, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), trauma-related disorders, and attachment disorders have a similar profile of symptoms in early childhood. This includes delayed speech, delayed social cueing, difficulties with attention, and self-harm behaviors. However, for children with experiences of neglect, clinicians would recommend trauma-informed treatments focused on building attachment relationships and stability. For children with ASD, more behavioral oriented approaches would be recommended to target the growth of specific social skills. An ASD diagnosis for children with a trauma-related or attachment disorder could further disturb the child’s developmental trajectory by delaying appropriate services that focus on bolstering the child’s relational needs.
Access to Care and Therapeutic Consultation
Early childhood interventions that address parent-child attachment for children who have experienced early trauma have shown efficacy in reducing children’s negative behavioral and emotional outcomes (Reyes et al., 2017; Dozier et al., 2017; Cohen et al., 2000). However, a large number of children facing adversity do not ever receive the benefits of early interventions (Hartinger-Saunders et al., 2019). Specialty pediatric care settings that work with early mental health providers and their state’s department of human services have the unique opportunity to dramatically increase the likelihood that children who are at risk are identified and receive evidence-based interventions. However, to our knowledge, there are no standardized protocols, on how to incorporate early mental health and relationship-based evaluations into pediatric specialty care. This paper aims to highlight the benefits of a cross-systems integrated care model for addressing mental health concerns among young children in foster and adoptive care.
In the United States, foster care and adoption legislation is determined by the State. In Minnesota, children in foster care have a case review hearing 90 days after a child’s removal from parental care. After the court reviews the parent’s progress on their case plan, there may be a 6-month extension on the child’s foster care placement. Once a child has been in foster care for 12 months, the court will file a petition to decide on a permanency plan. Children in foster care can be adopted when their birth parents sign a voluntary consent, after which they have a ten-day period to change their mind. Children may also be made available for adoption through a court procedure to end parent rights. Birth parents have 20 days to appeal the court’s order.
The Adoption Medicine Clinic (AMC) at the University of Minnesota has been evaluating internationally adopted children since 1986 and in the past decade has focused on providing more services for children who have been domestically adopted or are in foster care. Funded by a grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services the clinic has incorporated specialists into pediatrician visits, including psychology, OT, pediatric/public health nurses, and genetic counseling to address the far-reaching effects of early childhood adversity on physical and psychological functioning.
In 2019, approximately 48% (N = 188) of the population seen by AMC were children 5 years old or younger and were noted to have high rates of behavioral and emotional difficulties. Throughout 2019 and the beginning of 2020, the program spent large amounts of time doing community outreach to create partnerships and referral pathways. The program encouraged social workers across the state to refer young children and their foster families to the AMC for integrated care. All data and the case review were collected via chart review and approved by the University of Minnesota Institutional Review Board. At the onset of visits to the AMC, foster parents were provided with consents by check-in staff to choose to include their clinical information in research.
Early Childhood Mental Health Therapeutic Consultation Program Description
The over-arching goal of integrating the Early Childhood Mental Health Evaluation Protocol into AMC was to identify young children who are at high risk for long term mental health difficulties and displacement from their current foster or adoptive home. The mental health portion of the evaluation protocol consists of three components by which children are screened for (1) prenatal and postnatal experiences of trauma, (2) current behavioral, social, cognitive, and emotional concerns, as well as (3) current service access. In addition to the evaluation, the service includes referrals and a tailored psychoeducational intervention.
The first component of the evaluation consists of collecting information on pre and post-natal experiences of adversity. Prenatal risk factors can include the biological parent’s level of stress, access to prenatal care, prenatal substance use, and genetic liability for psychopathology. Postnatal risk factors for this population often include neglect, abuse, chronic mobility, food insecurity, and multiple separations or transitions from primary caregivers. We identify the duration and age of these experiences in order to integrate a developmental framework that considers how the developmental timing and duration of these experiences could affect functioning. The clinician utilizes a standardized traumatic event screening form to identify risk for post-traumatic stress disorder as well as the Disturbances of Attachment Interview (Smyke & Zeenah, 1999) which inquiries about symptoms of Reactive Attachment Disorder and Disinhibited Social Approach Disorder (DC:0-5; Klaehn, 2018).
The second component of the evaluation is collecting information on the child’s mental and behavioral health difficulties. Information is gathered via medical chart review, foster parent interview, and behavioral observations in the clinical setting. Providers review the child’s previous psychological evaluations and diagnoses. Clinicians complete a foster parent interview assessing the child’s developmental trajectory and the formation of their current attachment relationship using the Disturbances of Attachment Interview (Smyke & Zeanahm, 1999).
Mental health providers then observe child behavior in the context of a medical and occupational therapy exam. The observation protocol is designed to help mental health providers identify children’s difficulties in cueing distress elicited by the exam, using foster or adoptive parents for emotion regulation and support, as well as indiscriminate friendliness with unfamiliar medical staff. Mental health providers observe the parent-child relationship (Crowell, 2003; Cooper, Hoffman, Powell, & Marvin, 2011). The observation protocol captures a snapshot of how foster and/or adoptive parents attend to children’s distress and how, they provide structure, guidance and direction to their children. Children lacking a caregiver with these skills are the most likely to experience high levels of maladjustment related to early experiences of risk. Consistent and responsive caregiving has been shown to act as a buffer between young children and their environment, preventing the negative consequences of stress on mental and physical health (Johnson et al., 2018; Measelle & Albow, 2018; Liberman et al., 2004).
At the end of the exam, mental health providers review the foster parent and/or adoptive parents’ concerns and goals for the child’s mental health, and evaluate if there are any risks for these foster/adoptive parents requesting the child be removed from their current placements. Child placement instability has been related to a host of emotional, behavioral and developmental difficulties in children (Fisher et al., 2016). Unfortunately, many states have a high rate of foster care placement instability (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2014). Foster parents who are at risk for requesting that children be moved to a different placement often have young children with high medical, behavioral, and emotional needs. Research suggests that children with more trauma symptoms are at an increased risk for foster care displacement (Clark et al., 2020). During the interview, foster/adoptive parents at risk often highlighted feeling exhausted by the child’s needs, feeling as if they do not have the skill set to help the child, and feeling like they don’t have the resources to identify those skills. Through our work, we have found it to be really important and impactful to have a candid discussion with foster parents about any of these concerns. Many foster parents were very grateful to have a space to talk through these concerns without judgement.
The third component of the evaluation consists of reviewing the child and their foster/adoptive family’s current service utilization and needs. This involves reviewing if full developmental assessments using the DC:0–5™ Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood have been completed as well as what mental health services the families may be using. In evaluating current mental health services, we review families’ satisfaction with those services as well as provide recommendations for evidence-based interventions and providers with whom those interventions can be accessed. Families then receive a brief educational therapeutic consultation, based on our conceptualization of the child’s current functioning and history. Foster/adoptive parents are provided with information on how to best emotionally and behaviorally support children’s development in the context of their early adverse experiences. Most foster/adoptive parents receive educational information based on the Circle of Security (Zanetti et al., 2011) as well as in the moment feedback during the end of the session based on the Attachment Biobehavioral Catch-Up protocol (Dozier et al., 2017). We also discuss ways young children signal distress and ways foster/adoptive can help buffer those responses.
Young children who are identified as high-risk for placement disruption or long-term mental health difficulties are referred for a full mental health evaluation (using the DC:0–5™) and trauma-informed as well as relationship-centered evidence-based treatment. Children that need immediate intervention and care because their current level of dysfunction is a risk for their wellbeing receive rapid access to a one to three session brief intervention while they wait for longer-term therapeutic options to become available.
Rationale for a Case Study
We chose to highlight Anna’s* participation in our program as a case study for multiple reasons. First, there is limited knowledge on the feasibility of integrated care consultation models for young children in foster care. We will highlight how a common point of contact can increase high-risk children’s access to appropriate and timely early intervention services. Relatedly, we hope to use this case to highlight the medical complexity of these young foster care children and hope to support program and policy development. Third, many of these children are at risk for experiencing multiple foster-care placements. Multiple placements have been related to increased maladaptive functioning (Lloyd & Barth, 2011). We hope to use this case to highlight how providing consultations services, short term emergency care, and facilitating the prioritization and referrals to community services, integrated care settings like these may decrease the likelihood of multiple placements.
Anna is a 2-year 8-month-old Black female who presented to the AMC. Anna was accompanied by her foster mother Rachel*, who was interested in gaining a better understanding of Anna’s behaviors and wanted to learn additional techniques to help support her development. Rachel described Anna as bold, talkative, active, and loving. Rachel had an initial interest in adopting Anna, but had concerns about her ability to provide long term care due to Anna’s many medical and emotional needs.
Based on a medical record review and foster/adoptive parent interview, Anna was prenatally exposed to marijuana, cocaine, and alcohol. Anna’s biological mother experienced homelessness and engaged in sex work while pregnant. Anna’s biological mother has a history of substance use, an anxiety disorder, and depression. Anna was born at 36 weeks gestation via cesarean section due to maternal preeclampsia. At birth Anna weighed 3 lbs. and spent one week in the neo-natal intensive care unit due to her low birth weight. At birth, she had Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in her system and was potentially exposed to a Sexually Transmitted Disease. As a young infant, Anna was reported to have spent time with various caregivers for extended periods of time while under her biological mother’s care and experienced residential mobility. At 10 months, Anna had a documented emergency room visit after reportedly being dropped by her biological mother. At 11 months, she was removed from her biological mother’s care due to concerns for neglect and placed with her current foster family. At placement, Anna was malnourished – weighing only 11 lbs. – and was diagnosed with failure to thrive. Since being placed with her foster parent, Rachel reported multiple ear infections but otherwise noted that Anna had appeared to be medically healthy. At the time of the AMC visit Anna was living with her two foster parents, her biological sister (1-year-old), and three foster siblings (9, 5, and 2 years old). Anna did not have any contact with her biological mother or father since being in foster care.
At the initial foster care placement, Anna displayed flat affect and was socially uninhibited. At the time of evaluation, Anna displayed extreme difficulties with separating from her foster parents, often refused food, and had no independent self-soothing behaviors. Anna and Rachel had previously engaged with play therapy, but Rachel reported that it seemed to make Anna’s symptoms worse. Rachel noted high levels of intense meltdowns after play therapy sessions as well as regression in her toileting abilities. Due to these symptoms, they ceased services. Over the few months leading up to the appointment, Anna displayed high-intensity distress and anger at home and appeared inconsolable. In order to manage Anna’s emotional and behavior needs, Rachel took 6 months off of work and sent Anna’s 1-year old biological sister and foster siblings to daycare. This was a challenging experience financially and emotionally for Rachel and the other children. Additionally, there were concerns with sensory processing, speech development, and muscle reflex issues. Anna covered her ears during loud noises, displayed freezing behaviors in new or unfamiliar situations, and had a hard time with zippers and putting clothes on.
Implementing the Early Childhood Mental Health Therapeutic Consultation Protocol
Anna and her foster mother spent an hour with our multi-disciplinary team of occupational therapist, nurses, medical doctors and psychologists. All team members were present for the duration of the visit. Results of the medical exam noted generalized muscular weakness, vitamin D insufficiency, iron deficiency, and tonsillar hypertrophy. Anna was prescribed a series of vitamin supplements. The experience of traumatic stress and micro-nutritional deficit prenatally and in early childhood may cause an altered vitamin D metabolism in children (Terock et al., 2020). Further, iron deficiency – also related to micro-nutritional deficits – can worsen for children directly in proportion to the amount of rapid post-placement growth (Fugelstad et al., 2008). Both nutritional issues have been related to numerous long-lasting developmental and cognitive deficits (Doom et al. 2014; Terock et al., 2020).
Due to prenatal exposure to substances, the medical team assessed Anna for the facial features of prenatal alcohol exposure. Her facial feature measurements were not consistent with those seen in children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. The occupational therapy team noted a speech delay and slight sensory processing difficulties on their developmental screening. They recommended a full assessment with a speech language therapist.
In Visit Observations
The mental health team observed Anna’s interactions with her primary caregiver, Rachel, and her emotional reactivity/regulation during novel situations. During the visit, Anna started by cuddling into her foster mother and was not interested in exploring the toys in the room. Throughout the hour Anna became increasingly more interested in the toys and displayed more positive emotions. Anna looked to her foster mother for support when she was unsure of toys or new people. Her mother provided comfort as well as acknowledged and validated her emotional expressions (both positive and negative). Anna appeared to experience her foster mother as an emergent secure attachment figure. However, Anna appears to have a difficult time relying on Rachel to provide support when she became distressed. At those moments Anna would appear to freeze in the middle of the room. Anna appeared to become particularly distressed and cover her ears if she believed something would make a loud noise. Observations of Anna suggested that she was developmentally delayed in her fine motor movements, and speech. Anna also demonstrated potential delays in social-emotional development.
Mental Health Treatment and Therapeutic Outcomes
At the end of the initial visit, the mental health provider engaged in a short educational intervention, using augmented protocols from the circle of security program (Zanetti et al., 2011). We described the impact of children’s trauma on development and highlighted the ways Anna’s trauma was playing out in her relationship with Rachel. Trained Circle of Security providers (https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/trainings/about-trainings/) introduced the circle and being with Anna on the circle. The provider and Rachel practiced identifying when Anna was on the top or bottom of the circle over the course of the medical exam. The mental health team referred Anna to receive a full DC-0-5 screening from our team and engaged with two brief emergency intervention sessions to build Rachel’s skills on identifying when Anna was experiencing distress and how to help soothe that distress. The team also assisted Rachel in setting up respite caregiving services. Anna was referred to and subsequently engaged in early childhood day-treatment therapy services. Rachel also engaged with a circle of security group through our partner community clinics. Outside of the mental health and medical interventions described above, Anna received OT services for her speech and sensory concerns. At a follow-up appointment approximately one year later with AMC, Anna was still placed with the same foster family. They reported that many of the interventions helped reduce Anna’s symptoms and that they are hoping to move forward with adoption.
Piloting the Early Childhood Mental Health Evaluation Protocol
In the pilot of the evaluation protocol that Anna took part in at the AMC, there were 105 children like Anna seen by the clinic team in the span of ten months. Children ranged from 0.7 to 71 months of age and were 41.38 months on average. They were 43.3% female and 72% (n = 75) of the children were in foster care. There were thirty-one domestically adopted children and twenty children adopted internationally. Of those adopted internationally, fourteen had experiences of institutional care. On average children experienced 2.35 transitions, but this ranged from one transition to seven. Children were 10.61 months old on average at their first primary caregiver transition, and children were 24.49 months at their most recent transition. All children had experienced some form of neglect or abuse, with the most common experience being parental drug use (n = 49 parental drug use; n = 64 prenatal drug exposure; n = 43 prenatal alcohol exposure). Of the children seen at the clinic, 21 experienced physical abuse, 19 witnessed domestic violence, and 36 experienced neglect.
Approximately 68% (n =71) of primary caregivers noted behavioral, social, or emotional concerns for their children at the onset of the visit. Concerns included failure to thrive, broad developmental delays, sleep difficulties, feeding difficulties, high amounts of emotional distress and difficulty soothing. Clinical observations noted that 24% (n = 25) of children exhibited maladaptive stress behaviors. However, the vast majority of children sought and received comfort from their caregivers effectively (n = 82; 79%). There were five children who exhibited significant levels of indiscriminate friendliness by clinician observation.
Only 32% (n = 23) of these children were accessing psychological services at the time of their visit, and 29% (n = 30) of all children had seen a neuropsychologist. Three of those receiving neuropsychological evaluations were based in DC:0-5 protocols (2016). DC:0-5 evaluations review the development and functioning of young children in the context of their relationship with caretakers and other environmental inputs such as traumatic events. Of the children who had caregiver reported emotional and behavioral concerns or exhibited difficulties in the clinic, six were referred for an immediate consultation or brief therapeutic interventions with the early childhood mental health team.
At the time of this manuscript, four of those referrals have been fulfilled. Of the two whose referral has not been fulfilled, one lived out of state and the other is unknown. Further, twenty-six individuals were referred for a full mental health assessment with our team and eleven of those have been fulfilled. Many families traveled to the clinic from multiple hours away and either preferred to see a provider closer to them and/or we also recommended they could receive services from a member of the community closer to their homes. We recommended that forty-eight children (46.7%) receive a trauma-informed diagnostic assessment and pursue evidence-based therapeutic treatment.
Conclusions and Clinical Recommendations
We found that social, emotional, and behavioral concerns are highly prevalent and a central concern for foster care and adopted children (Measelle & Ablow, 2018; Shonkoff et al., 2012). These concerns often present in addition to the many medical symptoms’ that foster children are experiencing. Working with an interdisciplinary collaborative team can offer the opportunity for an efficient consideration of other etiologies for behavior and intervention programs to address sensory, physical, genetic, or neurodevelopmental issues. In Anna’s case, she was able to benefit from all aspects of these interventions including medical interventions for micronutrient deficiencies, as well as OT services. Collaborative consultation programs lower the amount of time families spend going to appointments as well as the time demands on providers. This is particularly a positive for families who live in rural communities, who have to travel far distances to receive care. It is essential to not only provide recommendations but also explicitly state how families should prioritize these recommendations. Anna needed help to first address her emerging attachment relationship with Rachel in addition to her immediate medical concerns. Following these services, additional pediatric rehabilitation and sensory-based interventions were effectively introduced.
Collaborative environments should create access points to care while also decreasing the strain of accessing care on families who are balancing the many needs of their children. Potential community mental health referrals should be located in a convenient location for families and operate under a developmental and trauma-informed lens and offer evidence-based treatment. Creating referral lines and professional relationships with community clinics that provide this care was an element central to this program’s success.
However, we also found that for cases like Anna’s it is essential to have opportunities for immediate longer therapeutic sessions with a mental health provider. Many families seeking our care are families currently in crisis where children are facing potential long-term harm to their developmental trajectory. This includes highly distressing child symptoms such as self-harm behaviors or those that are highly challenging for caregivers to manage and who are at risk for placement disruption due to these symptoms.
Integrated care settings that specialize in foster and adoptive care experiences in early childhood could greatly reduce the probability that children will sustain long term consequences of early childhood stress. This case study demonstrated the feasibility and need for these services. Future work should evaluate if access to multiple service providers in one meeting decreased the number of appointments for those children and if it increased knowledge, and access to appropriate therapeutic care for families. Further, studies should evaluate if access to therapeutic care reduces the child’s likelihood of foster care displacement.
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Palmer, Alyssa R.,
Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota
Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota
Eckerle, Judith K.,
Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota
Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota
Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota
Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota
Corresponding author is Maria Kroupina, PhD, LP. Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota, 717 Delaware St SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This work was supported by the Minnesota Department of Human Services [1501MNAIPP-75-1516-1536]; The National Institute of Health [T32 MH015755] and the University of Minnesota Interdisciplinary Fellowship to the first author.
We thank the children and families who participated in our services and the work of Amina Qureshi for data processing.
Ethics Statement: The case study and descriptive pilot data provided were approved by the BLINDED Institutional Review Board. All participants provided consent for their data to be included in scientific research and their related products.
*All names presented in this publication have been changed for privacy.
Data Availability: The data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author. The data are not publicly available due to privacy or ethical restrictions.