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Family separation doesn’t end at the border. The child human rights crisis is everywhere.

With the eyes of the nation riveted on terrified immigrant children along the Mexican border, another child welfare crisis lurks in a town near you—one that plagues hundreds of thousands of youth across America.  

There are more than 437,000 foster children in the United States, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Because of a severe shortage of proper foster homes, 23 percent of those children are living in institutions, and in Florida, Tennessee, and Texas, some are sleeping on couches and air mattresses in state office buildings.

“This is the single biggest human rights crisis facing this country,” said Elise Dallimore, an associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern who leads a national research project on how to improve the recruitment and retention of foster parents. She is also a foster parent herself.

When she became a foster parent 10 years ago, there were only 42 foster families for nearly 500 foster children in her own region north of Boston.  

“And that was before the opioid crisis,” she added.

Today, parental drug abuse is listed as the cause of one-third of all the children placed in foster care, according to the Department of Human Services. The department also says there is a strong correlation between the opioid crisis and the dramatic increase in foster care.

Research consistently shows that early childhood trauma leads to dramatic increases in incarceration, anxiety, depression, drug abuse, and poor anger management.

In the face of these grim statistics, Dallimore is deeply troubled by one more: 50 percent of all foster parents drop out of the program within a year, which compounds the chaos and abandonment the children experienced in their original home.

Dallimore reads with Franklin, her biological son, and Olivia, her adopted daughter. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Dallimore has seen the impact of this chaos on her most recent foster child, a girl she eventually adopted.

“She was removed from her mother at 14 months and passed around for two years,” said Dallimore. “She was moved between families six or seven times and then sent back to her biological mother, where she lived with the same neglect and abuse that caused her removal in the first place.”

“Can you imagine what that does to a child?”

In the case of her adopted daughter, it resulted in three active psychological diagnoses, including post-traumatic stress disorder.  

She’s not alone. The rate of PTSD among foster children is twice that of Iraq War veterans, according to a 2005 study by Harvard Medical School, the University of Michigan, and the Seattle-based foundation Casey Family Programs.

The big picture

Soon after becoming a foster parent, Dallimore earned her license to train foster parents in Massachusetts.

But she still didn’t feel like she was doing enough. So, in 2015, she used her sabbatical to develop a research protocol for the National Council For Adoption. The project, which she now leads, is being conducted in Mississippi, Missouri, and Utah, with plans to replicate it in states across the country.

“This has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done—harder than my PhD—but it’s hands down the most meaningful.”

Elise Dallimore foster parent

The goal is to identify the factors that cause so many foster parents to leave the program, as well as the characteristics shared by those who persist. She hopes this insight will help agencies attract and retain sufficient numbers of foster parents.

“I can change one life as a foster parent, but I can also use my skills on a larger scale to determine how to fix this broken system,” she said. “This is the most important work I will ever do academically.”

In for the long haul

The family’s first foster experience was heartbreaking. The child lived with them for a year and when the agency decided to terminate the biological mother’s parental rights, Dallimore and her husband agreed to adopt the girl.

But things quickly got complicated. The biological father—a man the child had never met—showed up at the state Department of Children and Families with a paternity test, saying he wanted to meet his daughter. That was the end of the adoption.

“She came to us at age 3 and left when she was 4,” said Dallimore. “Our biological son was in kindergarten at the time, and he was devastated. We had bonded. We were a family. When she left, we found our son in his room crying into his hands.”

In spite of the trauma,  Dallimore and her husband felt a duty to continue as foster parents. Both had grown up in religious households where public service was seen as an essential part of being a good human being.

Over the next decade, they took in more than a dozen foster children, and recently adopted the 5-year-old girl who had bounced between six homes in two years before returning to her neglectful and abusive biological mother.

“She came to us the way most of the others had—I received a call on a Friday asking if I could take an emergency case for the weekend.”

Dallimore said that being a foster parent is the “hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

She arrived with clear signs of extreme distress— 10 cavities, a stench that caused former classmates to shun her, and three psychiatric diagnoses, including PTSD.

“Imagine a 5-year-old sitting at your table, and when she spills her milk, she retreats in sheer terror saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, don’t hurt me.’ I am astounded by the residual trauma she has to live with every day,” Dallimore said.

Even in the face of these harsh realities—the regressions, sudden rages, and inability to focus—Dallimore said foster parenting is rewarding for everyone in the family. Her voice choked with emotion as she described her adopted daughter’s elementary school graduation as “a moment of incredible love, and joy, and pride.”

At the same time, the experience has given her biological son a “moral compass and level of empathy” she believes is rare for a boy in middle school.

“He’s learned she didn’t do anything to deserve that level of abuse, and that with a different roll of the dice he could have been her,” she said. “This has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done—harder than my PhD—but it’s hands down the most meaningful.”