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Dr. Chris Downs
The Downs Group LLC

As a developmental psychologist, I have worked in child welfare for over 20 years. Most of that time I focused on older, foster youth outcomes. I have not been involved in direct services. But I have worked with thousands of child welfare professionals, administrators, foster parents and youth.

In light of suicide prevention month, I thought long and hard about the foster youth suicides or suicide attempts I could remember. I recalled exactly two of them. That bothered me. If the recent data on suicides among foster youth were right, I should know about many more, right? But I didn’t.

The next question of course was why. Why did I not know of many more foster youth who had tried suicide, with many succeeding? As I could not easily come up with an answer, I interviewed 8 child welfare professionals (from various levels of child welfare work) and I came up with 5 reasons.

  1. Child Welfare Professionals Receive only Basic Suicide Prevention Training. For many child welfare systems, youth suicide prevention is kept to a small portion of a larger, multi-day orientation training. In-depth suicide prevention training is unheard of in most child welfare systems. Deep dives on risks, warning signs, and triggers of youth suicide don’t happen in most places.
  2. Foster Parents Rarely Receive Basic Suicide Prevention Training. Two of the professionals I interviewed were long-time foster parents. They couldn’t recall any meaningful suicide prevention training lasting more than 5 – 10 minutes during the time they had cared for young people.
  3. Child Welfare Professionals Rarely Receive Effective Training on Especially Vulnerable Youth. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth are higher risk for suicidal ideation, especially after rejection. Youth who are ridiculed for being differently abled or learning disabled are similarly at risk. Suicide rates among Native American and Alaska Native teens in foster care are also high. Yet training on LGBTQ youth, Native America/Alaska Native and Differently Abled Youth is rare. By the way, “effective training” here almost always requires bringing in highly skilled trainers who are thoroughly knowledgeable on these vulnerable groups, not in-house trainers.
  4. Child Welfare Systems Isolate and Insulate after Suicide. Apparently when a foster youth in care commits suicide, the system closes up quickly. Directors and top administrators scramble to control the information; memos are distributed telling mid-level managers and line workers what to say and how to say it; and virtually everyone is asked to prevent the news from reaching other teens in care. Apparently the thinking is that if the system is very quiet it will prevent copycat suicide attempts. Silence also tends to circumvent media reporters snooping around asking difficult questions.
  5. Child Welfare Systems Have No “Aftermath” Training or Plan. Many administrators would love to have a road map on how to help guide the system through the aftermath of a foster youth suicide. Such road maps exist, but are rarely accessed or adapted to child welfare systems.

Recommendations:

  • Child welfare professionals (from line staff to Directors) should receive thorough suicide prevention training which includes emphases on risks, warning signs, triggers, and what to do when a youth might be suicidal.
  • Foster parents and comparable caregivers should receive thorough suicide prevention training similar to that provided for child welfare professionals.
  • Child welfare professionals should receive effective training, from qualified outside training professionals on vulnerable populations including LGBTQ youth, Native American/Alaska Native, and differently abled youth.
  • Child welfare administrators should have protocols in place that provide protection for the system but openness about tragic events like suicide.
  • Child welfare administrators should have protocols in place for the aftermath of a foster youth suicide that includes care for caregivers, child welfare providers and youth in care.
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Dr. Chris Downs has devoted much of his professional career to improving services and outcomes for older, at-risk youth. Chris is President of The Downs Group LLC, based in Seattle and has the pleasure of working with many talented professionals in child welfare and allied areas including his company Associates.