Highlighting Students

Amy Moore - Exploring the effects of family separation

Relaxing between consultations in her office, Amy Moore describes the exact moment when she decided on her dissertation subject.

Female Graduate Student at desk“I treated a child for some months who really made an impression on me,” recalls the Couple and Family Therapy PhD student. “Let’s call him ‘Jimmy.’ “Jimmy was brought to my office by his foster father. He’d been lying, stealing, skipping school and running away from home. He was defiant, noncompliant, and disruptive.”

Not for the first time, Moore saw a child’s placement in jeopardy due to poor behavioral functioning. His foster father had begun to doubt that Jimmy had a future in the home. “I could see that Jimmy also suffered severe anxiety and worry. It turns out he was concerned mostly for his brothers and sisters. He was permitted almost no contact with them, and he often didn’t even know where they were.”

Consumed by worry for the welfare of his siblings, Jimmy would chronically act out in order to manipulate his placements— hoping to land somewhere in placement together with them. “I came across stories like Jimmy’s time and again. The details would vary, but so many cases shared this kind of complication. I feel like there must be hundreds of foster children, all with their own unique stories of separation and loss. Each child suffers from emotional, behavioral, and relational dysfunction. I want to help change a foster care system that I see failing children.”

Amy Moore’s family practice has sparked an interest in improving the foster care system.

Moore’s dissertation study concerns 83 children in the foster care system. Only 17 had regular contact with their siblings, and 34 had no contact with them at all. “Since family members are most often still alive when a child is placed into out-of-home care, we refer to the resulting loss as ambiguous, as distinguished distinguished from the feeling of loss resulting from the death of a family member. Her research is particularly significant because other studies addressing children’s sense of loss in foster care focus on separation from the parents.

“It appears to me that children have a more significant experience of loss of siblings than parents. Separation from siblings ranks about ten percent higher. All the children in my study score high on the Ambiguous Loss measure. “I think it’s clear that children in foster care really do experience placement as ambiguous loss.

“The effect of the frequency of contact on behavioral problems and ambiguous loss is still being analyzed. And there’s still a lot we don’t know about the relationship between ambiguous loss and behavioral problems.”

Moore believes that the implications of this research can inform clinical practice with foster children, and guide states in the placement process. As a clinician, she’s particularly interested in leading changes in legislation regarding family preservation services. Her research is particularly significant because other studies addressing children’s sense of loss in foster care focus on separation from the parents. “I’d like to see this study lead to future research with ambiguous loss as a lens for understanding differences among children in placement, as well as those in kinship care settings and adoptive families.

Diana Kochan - Working at a Practicum site

“Working at my practicum site has sharpened my focus on giving voice to people who are silenced and ignored in our society.”Diana Kochan has no difficulty citing the kind of experience that fuels her commitment to the voices of those who have been unheard. “One clinical experience that will always stick with me is working with a young girl who had been separated from her biological family and was living in foster care. She experienced traumatic situations that affected her ability to be trusting and open.

therapy student and teddy bear“When her biological family sought to regain custody, they made an effort to meet the expectations of the girl’s foster parents and others in the reunification process. But I could see they began to feel their point of view wasn’t getting the attention it deserved.

“But however silenced they felt, they continued to show support and love for the young girl. The experience was enlightening—it showed the crucial role hope plays. I think it’s this hope that drives families to work together despite the obstacles and hardships they encounter.” “I talk about the power of hope because I’ve seen it work. A change happens when people feel that you’re really listening, and that their struggle is significant to someone.”

A second-year student in the Master’s program in Couple and Family Therapy, Diana Kochan is completing her practicum assignment in the City of Philadelphia’s Family Therapy Treatment Program. She provides therapy to Community Behavioral Health clients as well as those involved with the criminal justice system and clients referred by family court. The experience has enriched Diana’s appreciation for the need for collaboration. “Working with families who have relationships with a number of systems including DHS and foster care, I’ve learned how vital it is that all these providers work in concert.” The environment has also provided insights into the day-to-day process of healing familial fractures.

Diana Kochan’s internship at the Family Treatment Program in Philadelphia provides hands-on experience that she calls “essential” for a therapist.

“Despite the despair and disappointment that many people face, it seems that hope in change is crucial to making it through the difficult times. My training has made me more aware of how necessary it is to ask my clients what needs to happen to make them feel hopeful. “In helping a family heal with past wounds, a therapist needs to be flexible. You have to meet the family and their needs at the right point.”

Diana works 20 hours a week in the program, conducting therapy sessions including home and office visits. Carrying about a dozen cases, she’s gaining experience with toddlers, adolescents and adults. It may seem a hefty portfolio, but Diana’s passion for the underserved keeps her motivated. “My experiences working as a case manager in Boston and inner city Baltimore for mentally ill individuals prior to entering Drexel’s CFT program opened my eyes to the ignored voices in our society.

“In inner-city Baltimore, I saw firsthand how lack of familial support can impair someone’s functioning, and I realized that I wanted to help families build closer relationships.” Diana’s interest in relationships extends to her role as therapist. The Drexel program’s holistic approach influenced her decision to attend.
“Drexel’s program not only spoke about the importance of diversity, but implements it. And I was impressed that students enter into their internships immediately. I wanted a real world education.
“The program also offers a Person of the Therapist class, where we learn to work with our own issues. I believe part of being a therapist is understanding yourself, so your own issues don’t hinder the alliance between therapist and client. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my experience at Drexel—it has pushed me to think outside of the box, and it has solidified my belief that you can help families find hope in change.”