Helping to foster better parents

By Catherine Masters

Glen Cooper is an American expert on foster care and has helped set up the Circle of Security programme. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Glen Cooper is an American expert on foster care and has helped set up the Circle of Security programme. Photo / Paul Estcourt

"Well, it's a bit like Supernanny" muses the tall, bearded American, "but without the woman's eye-rolling."

Glen Cooper's talking about parents who have been videotaped interacting with their child, or foster child, only to be shocked at their own behaviour when they view the footage.

Supernanny - Jo Frost of the television show fame - hands out stern parenting advice, with a fair amount of reality TV disapproval thrown in, to usually overwhelmed middle class American parents with lovely homes and unruly offspring.

That's about where the comparison ends, though.

Cooper mostly deals with a different clientele through his Circle of Security programme, which, at least in Otahuhu in Auckland, is having positive results.

Those participating are parents who have often come through the foster care system themselves - some lived in a dozen different homes as children - or who have suffered their own childhood abuse and simply don't know how to parent.

The Anglican Trust for Women and Children has adopted the Circle of Security early intervention programme in a more comprehensive fashion than just about anywhere else in the world, says Cooper, who is thrilled by this but wishes such a simple system could be instigated far and wide around the country and the world.

The system applies to any parent-child relationship of any nationality and any country, but he thinks if foster parents, for example, were trained in the method, New Zealand's worrying foster care statistics would likely be vastly improved.

Figures from the Ministry of Social Development show more than 4500 children and young people are in foster homes in New Zealand - but those aged between 0 to 13 have been moved around an average of seven homes.

Some have been moved a lot more, and some a lot less, but Cooper explains that if parents could understand a child's attachment issues early on, the placement would be far more likely to be stable from the start and the country would save huge amounts of money through a much decreased load on our prison and welfare systems.

Continual moving around can cause "disorganised attachment," one of the biggest precursors to psychopathology in adulthood, which includes mental disorders and criminal behaviour, he says.

About 80 per cent of Americans in the prison system have disorganised attachment, and Michelle Ball, the clinical director of the Anglican trust thinks the statistics would be similar for New Zealand.

But disorganised attachment can be prevented, the pair say, through a simple enough, though intensive method.

Ball says the trust has noticed big turnarounds in young mothers in a residential programme at the Otahuhu site in the year the Circle of Security programme has been up and running.

We couldn't see any of the video footage from the trust's mothers for privacy reasons, but Cooper sets up in Ball's office and explains what it's all about, using video footage of American parents.

Cooper and some colleagues pioneered the Circle of Security system, integrating more than 50 years of childhood attachment research into this video-based intervention system which is represented by a kind of road map they call the Circle of Security.

This is literally a map, depicted as a circle beginning and ending with a pair of nurturing hands (representing the primary caregiver).

Children run along the circle to and from the hands, asking to be supported in their various needs.

From a secure base they need to run and explore and be supported in the exploration, watched over and delighted in, and when their batteries run down or they fall over they need to be able to run back to the hands which represent the need of a safe haven.

And that's about it. Easy - but hard, especially for those caring for children with so many needs.

These children have learnt what Cooper calls "miscues", contradictory signals from parents who for their own reasons think they are protecting or helping the child.

The video part is obtained by setting up a situation in which careful observation can take place.

A child is put in a room with the parent, the parent leaves, a stranger is sent in, the stranger leaves and the child is alone and the parent finally returns, all in the space of 20 minutes.

This is enough to get a good handle on the attachment dynamics, Cooper says, and the scenario has become one of the most profound procedures in analysing early childhood development worldwide.

Videotaping the encounters and having parents watch them back makes it even more profound.

"The nice thing about it is the parent may try to make it look better than it is but the child doesn't lie.

"The child does what the child does so you can really track what's going on."

First up we see a little girl in a room with a stranger. The child is crying pitifully and ignoring the stranger and when the mother comes back in the child toddles straight to her.

The mother comforts the child and suddenly the child is interested in the stranger.

This is all good. You can see the exploratory part of the road map kicking in, Cooper says. The child feels safe and supported and ready to explore.

In the next footage a child is alone in the room and howling. When the mother comes back in the child stops crying but turns away and goes to the toys.

In the past it was thought children who reacted like this were so secure all they needed was for the mother to come back into the room, but when they started looking at heart and cortisol rates, they found the children were still very distressed.

But why? Well, there have been miscues going on, Cooper says.

The child is exhibiting avoidance attachment and this is problematic.

It turned out in the case above, the mother had grown up in an abusive situation and was uncomfortable with any kind of emotional closeness.

In fact, she had learned closeness was dangerous so had been trying to teach her child not to be upset, because for her getting upset meant getting hurt.

Without intervention, this child would have grown up thinking there was something very wrong with closeness without knowing why, says Cooper. After the mother watched the footage she began to realise she almost never picked her child up and comforted her.

In another scene a child is crying and crying and the mother returns to the room. The child keeps howling, nearly walks to the mother but then turns back, falls on the floor still crying then crawls behind the mother.

The child is clearly not secure and is displaying disorganised attachment.

What the child is doing is saying "I need you but you're so frightened, or frightening, that I have no one to turn to and I don't know what to do," says Cooper.

"This leaves kids feeling chronically afraid, on the verge of losing control and they don't see adults as a resource. These kiddos are the ones who are really in trouble."

In another video, a woman comes into the room to a very distressed toddler.

Cut to the woman, who is adopting the child, her niece, because her sister was involved in drugs.

She has just watched the tape and she is upset because she thinks the child was glaring at her.

It's clear from the tape, the girl wasn't glaring, she was just miserable.

But the woman saw glaring. Cooper explains this woman had lived in 17 different foster homes. Her own thinking went like this: if someone was angry they were probably angry at her and she was probably going to be moved to the next foster home.

"So when her (adoptive) child is upset she immediately thinks it's anger and the way she's going to respond is she's not going to meet the child's needs - if you're crying and need help and I think you're mad at me, this is not going to go smoothly."

We next see the woman when she has been in group therapy and has watched the video footage.

She couldn't believe she had thought the child was glaring at her and was shocked to see how much pain the child was in.

"The shift from 'I'm feeling rejected and she doesn't like me and she's glaring at me, to she's really hurting and she needs me and wants me to soothe her, ' was dramatic," says Cooper.

That's the difference between a dozen different foster homes, he says, or just the one.

THE NUMBERS

* 4500 Children and teenagers in foster homes in New Zealand, including one fifth in whanau or family placements

* 45 per cent Children placed in foster homes in the two years up to 30 June 2009 moved at least twice.

* 7 The average number of homes in which young children lived if they spent more than five years in foster care

Source: Ministry of Social Development

- NZ Herald

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