Thanks to Dr. Mel Schneiderman for this contribution to our blog!
Dr. Schneiderman is the Senior Vice President for Mental Health at The Foundling. He attended City College of New York and has a doctorate in Clinical-School Psychology from Hofstra. Dr. Schneiderman has worked for the Foundling since 1977 and co-founded The Foundling’s Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection. Prior to his work here, he was a school psychologist and worked in private practice.
Foster children are a vulnerable population. Born into unstable and/or dangerous homes, they are often the victims of multiple forms of neglect and abuse – emotional, sexual and physical.
We estimate that up to 80% of the children served by The New York Foundling have significant mental health problems. From infancy through age 21, when they ultimately age out of the foster care system, they suffer from a wide range of emotional and psychological problems including feelings of abandonment, separation anxiety, trauma/PTSD, depression, externalizing behavior problems, and in the most serious of instances, psychiatric problems that can require hospitalizations.
The consequences of these problems are far-reaching – foster children are generally two to four years below the normal grade level, and less than 25% of aging out foster care children attend two or four year colleges and most do not graduate from college. Homelessness, drug abuse and criminality are often problems they contend with as adults after they’ve aged out.
It’s unfathomable to imagine the pain, fright, sorrow and trauma that an innocent young child experiences at the hands of an abuser. Overcoming this abuse seems insurmountable to most of us.
The Foundling provides comprehensive mental health services to all foster children in our care. Our therapists, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists have developed and implemented holistic, evidence-based treatment plans that help entire families and address the special needs of this fragile population.
There are five important components to our therapeutic work with children. The first is to build a “therapeutic alliance” with the child in a safe, non-threatening environment. Only then can a therapist begin to develop trust with our patients. Creating this trust is crucial because most child abuse victims suffer at the hands of someone they know and trust.
Victims of trauma are generally not able to talk about their abuse without re-experiencing the overwhelming pain associated with it. A key rule at this second stage of treatment is to avoid first-person discussion of what happened. Our therapists often use books or third person narratives to help the child talk about abuse in general– helping them to learn to eventually tolerate it from a safe psychological distance.
The third and fourth steps in therapy involve helping children to develop coping skills that will allow them to discuss their abuse experience without re-traumatization. Abused children often believe that they are to blame or develop other maladaptive thoughts. They see themselves as “damaged goods” and may be filled with guilt and shame. Correcting this maladaptive thinking and working through the issues is the fourth component of an effective therapy plan.
The fact is, child abusers victimize vulnerable kids. So, in this last stage of therapy, we try to teach children self-protective skills. Saying, “No!” or “I will tell on you” helps to restore a sense of power and control to the child and is critical to the healing process.
Parallel to the work we do with children, our mental health team also works to stabilize the foster home and help repair the attachment bond with birth parents by providing parents with important coping and parenting skills.
When The Foundling’s beloved Dr. Vincent J. Fontana died, almost eight years ago, I got a call out of the blue from a woman who I had treated decades ago when she was a teen. She read about Dr. Fontana’s passing and felt compelled to call.
She said, “Dr. Mel, I am now 35 years old and I want you to know that you saved my life…You were the only person who understood me and was nice to me.” Sometimes therapists do not how much they have helped children to overcome their trauma and begin to heal from their abusive experiences.
I have a firm belief in the healing process and statements like the one from this young lady confirm that despite their almost indescribable hurt, children are resilient and with help from competent and trained clinicians, they can recover and become well-functioning members of society.
Judith Herman, a noted expert in trauma wrote, “To study psychological trauma is to come face to face with both human vulnerability in the natural world and with the capacity for evil in human nature.” Parents who abuse and neglect their children are not evil, yet the consequences of their behavior results in human suffering. Mental health services at the Foundling utilizing evidence-based intervention models have made a difference in the lives of children and families and reflects our hope, faith and commitment to the recovery and healing of child victims of abuse and neglect.
This is what has helped me come back to work here at The Foundling, day after day, for 35 years.