Adam McCormick, now assistant professor of Social Work, counseled children as a therapist in the Texas foster-care system and then directed Presbyterian Children’s Home and Services in Austin before teaching his first class at St. Edward’s nearly eight years ago. Energized by the experience, he turned his expertise toward training the next generation of social workers on how the system works, when it fails and what can be done to help the kids who need it most.

How common is trauma among children in foster care?

Most child-welfare professionals like myself would argue that the majority of children in care have had exposure to some form of trauma. It’s likely they have had multiple exposures to different forms of trauma, both acute (physical or sexual abuse, or domestic violence) and chronic (poverty and community violence). The trauma-informed movement that has swept our field in recent years attributes many of the behaviors often exhibited by children in foster care (violence, inattention, running away, defiance, self injury, placement sabotage) to the traumatic stress that they experience.

What strategies are most useful in helping children within the system?

The single most important factor in reducing the symptomology associated with traumatic stress is to ensure that children are in safe and structured placements. In Texas, the high rates of placement disruption and over-reliance on congregate and group-home settings — other states don’t really do much congregate care anymore — only serves to heighten the fear and lack of control that these children experience. Traditional family-based foster-care settings with trauma-informed caretakers who are committed and equipped to deal with the challenging behaviors of traumatized children would help to alleviate many of the problems.

Your research indicates that LGBTQ children are uniquely underserved by the foster-care system. What are some of the challenges they face?

The issue of acknowledgment is one of the largest barriers facing LGBTQ youth in foster care. Many kids live with caretakers who are very uncomfortable addressing issues pertaining to sexual orientation or gender identity — so important conversations are not had, assumptions are often made, and barriers expand. Foster parents need to be made aware of the negative consequences that rejection can have on LGBTQ youth, as well as the positive effects of acceptance. A recent study suggests that when compared to those with rejecting parents, LGBTQ youth who have accepting caretakers are eight times less likely to attempt suicide, six times less likely to have depression, three times less likely to abuse substances, and three times less likely to engage in HIV-related sexual behaviors.

The key is to teach foster parents to create a culture in the home where dialogue around sensitive topics such as relationships, sexuality and expression is encouraged. Foster parents should respond to these conversations with sensitivity, competence and affirmation to ensure that youth feel comfortable coming forward with intimate and delicate information in the future.

How do you make sure your students understand the traumas and challenges faced by children in the foster-care system?

A huge component of my classes is simulation. I create cases and role-play as the child who has experienced trauma or the parent who is trying to cope with a child’s negative behaviors, and have my students counsel me or a colleague. They get to experience what it’s like — and they get to make mistakes and receive feedback in the safety of the classroom rather than in a potentially stressful or critical clinical setting. It’s one thing to sit in class and listen to me lecture on effective clinical skills. It’s a whole other learning experience entirely when they have to practice themselves or watch and critique their peers. 

McCormick’s research on LGBTQ foster children was recently featured in the Texas Standard. He teaches primarily Social Work, Psychology and Sociology majors in the School of Behavioral and Social Sciences and is leading courses in Marriage & Family and Human Behavior in Social Environments this fall.

Stacia Hernstrom MLA ’05 is a special projects writer for St. Edward’s University.