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Why It’s Hard to Teach Foster Kids About Stranger Danger

Stranger Danger is a basic concept that parents teach their kids in order to keep them safe. Unfortunately, the concept of stranger danger, like many things, is much more complicated for children in foster care. Not only are foster children taken from everyone familiar and placed in a family with total strangers, they also have a large number of people coming in and out of their lives, many of whom are basically strangers.

Parent hugging child

Our little guy is the friendliest child I have ever met. Though this is good in many ways, it makes it naturally harder to instill the notion of stranger danger when some of his favorite things to do are meeting new people and greeting everyone he sees. My husband and I are doing our best, and trying to help him understand what is and isn’t OK in interactions with people he doesn’t know. Because he is almost always with one of us, we can usually help guide him in appropriate interactions with strangers in everyday life. We want him to still be himself and be friendly, but not be over-familiar with and trusting of strangers.

One thing we definitely don’t want him to learn is that it is OK to go places with strangers. Unfortunately, his visitation is teaching him just that. The person who supervises his visits is supposed to be consistent, but because of vacations, court dates, and schedule conflicts, he has had at least seven different people in the past month.

When we get to the visit location, the visitation supervisor meets him in the waiting room and takes him to another room. Our little guy has picked up on this routine. Unfortunately, since the person supervising visits hasn’t been consistent, he runs up to the first woman who enters the waiting room (all the visitation workers have happened to be women) and lifts his arms up to have her carry him.

Every time I see him run up to a stranger and motion to be picked up, it makes me cringe. Sadly, he has approached the correct person every time but one, so he has ended up going up to a stranger without me first introducing her to him and goes off with her with little reference to me (they usually just make sure it’s the right child, get his things, then leave). It’s definitely not healthy, but there’s nothing I can do to prevent him from learning the empirical lesson that it’s OK to run up to a stranger and then go off with her. I can try to tell him not to go places with strangers, but in the end, I allow him to do it twice a week.

Sadly, children and youth involved in the child welfare system are more at risk for trafficking and exploitation than children who are not, so they need to learn about safe interactions with people they don’t know more than anyone. The reality is, foster children are conditioned to accept strangers having authority over them and taking them places.

When children are bounced from home to home, and there’s a national crisis of foster parent and caseworker burnout and turnover, it’s really hard to prevent children in foster care from learning negative lessons about how to interact with people they don’t know. As foster parents, we need to help them distinguish between safe and unsafe strangers and how to spot red flags. In the end, we are still left with an uphill battle to teach our children appropriate behavior around strangers and counteract the unhealthy lessons instilled in them by the system.

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