Picture a little boy who endured multiple traumas in his early childhood including testing positive for drugs at birth and beaten severely at the age of 2. Now picture this same child as a well-spoken, outgoing preteen having the resiliency to overcome adversity plus the cognitive ability to successfully advocate for his desired future to live with his foster family permanently. According to the National Institute of Health in a 2016 article “The Importance of Early Bonding on the Long-term Mental Health and Resilience of Children,” the brain development of infants (as well as their social, emotional and cognitive development) during the first 2 years of life depends on a loving bond or attachment relationship with a primary caregiver.
Many foster children who experienced trauma in early childhood have no sense of hope or purpose and these negative expectations preclude the opportunity to make a difference in their own lives reports the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. The young man described above, who is named JD for purposes of this story, continues to take an active role in securing the life he wants for himself. His desire to live with his foster family does not mean he wants to severe ties with his biological family. On the contrary, he continues to arrange visits with his siblings and his foster family supports him in staying connected with his biological family.
The strong bond between JD and his foster parents is no accident but the result of their nurturing care and meeting his needs consistently. Placed with them at 2 days old, Valerie Burkett recalls rocking him to sleep, singing songs to him, making up stories in which he was one of the main characters and including him in family activities all of which served to instill self-worth in him and a confidence that he mattered. Scientists believe the most important factor in creating attachment is positive physical contact such as hugging, holding, and rocking infants and small children. The Burkett family farm also provides many opportunities for their foster children to enjoy the benefits of nature, including therapeutic time with animals.
After DFCS determined his biological mother was ready to parent him, JD returned home after being in foster care for 28 months. Tragically about a month later his mother beat him so severely that DFCS removed him a second time. However, JD was placed with an extended relative instead of the Burketts. When Lamar and Valerie learned of the abuse, they contacted his new caregiver and offered to help whenever she needed. Developing trust took a long time and it was almost a year later before they were allowed a visit with him. Even though he had not seen them since he left, little JD ran to Valerie and Lamar calling out Mommy and Daddy and immediately asked if they still had his rabbit.
Over the course of the next few years, the relationship between JD’s new caregiver and the Burketts grew stronger. When he was in the Head Start program at school, she asked if he could stay with the Burketts during the school week since she wasn’t physically able to walk to meet him at the school bus stop. JD’s older siblings also came over for visits on the Burkett’s farm. Two of his older siblings have extensive medical needs and the Burketts helped the family with items needed to assist one who is a quadriplegic and the other needing multiple surgeries. The families got together for meals and exchanged home cooked items like collards and pound cake. Soon his family gave JD permission to live with the Burketts full time.
Unfortunately a few years later a misunderstanding resulted in the new caregiver forcing JD to leave the Burketts and move back with his family. Neither JD nor the Burketts had any legal authority that would allow JD to stay. However, DFCS soon stepped in and petitioned the Juvenile Court who granted temporary custody to the Burketts. This is when 12 year old JD took the initiative to secure his desired permanent placement with the Burkett family. Not only did JD make sure he communicated his wishes to the DFCS caseworker, his Guardian ad Litem and Juvenile Court Judge he also requested his teachers and coaches write letters to the Juvenile Court in support of him staying with the Burketts. JD acted on his sense of hope and purpose believing his actions could make a difference in his future. He was also reassured by the Burketts that if necessary they would sell the family farm to pay for legal fees so that he could stay with them if that is what he wanted.
According to Bruce Perry, an expert in children’s mental health and neuroscience, “Without predictable, responsive, nurturing and sensory-enriched caregiving, the infant’s potential for normal bonding and attachments will be unrealized. The brain systems responsible for healthy emotional relationships will not develop in an optimal way without the right kinds of experiences at the right times in life.” Both Valerie and Lamar comment they believe JD was born with a good disposition however science instead indicates it was their care for him early in life. Bruce Perry explains, “Therefore, despite the genetic potential for bonding and attachment, it is the nature, quantity, pattern and intensity of early life experiences that express that genetic potential.”
In December 2018, the Colquitt County Juvenile Court placed JD in the permanent guardianship of Lamar and Valerie Burkett. Currently, JD is an all-star football player for the 5th year in a row and enjoys weight lifting and basketball. He helps out with work around the farm and this past year earned his own pig to raise and show in local and statewide livestock competitions. “He is well respected by his teachers and peers,” say both Valerie and Lamar. When asked about the recent court decision, JD confidently answers he is glad because “it feels good to know I’m secure and loved.”