My son brought home his school report card, threw it at me, offered an expletive about f…ing teachers before he ran upstairs, slammed the door and started throwing things around his room.

I know the report contains comments about his disrupting the class and bullying other kids and that I will have to talk to him about this.

I understand that school is difficult for him because I know that the changes he has to manage each day remind him of the four foster homes he lived in before he came home to me.

Although his attitude is one of anger and unconcern I know he will be ashamed of his report and feel it confirms what a failure he is; I don’t want to increase his feelings of failure.

My heart is thumping.  I realise I’m listening for signs of anger as I prepare dinner and try to work out how and when it would be best to talk to him in a way that will minimise the possibility that he will get angry and punch me.

I dread going into school tomorrow knowing that other parents have complained about my son bullying their children.

I long for my husband to come home but he’s working late, as he often is these days.

Then I remember the day I got a bad report when I was a child.

I worried about how and when I should share it with my parents to reduce their upset and annoyance and listened hard to my mum preparing dinner to ‘suss’ whether she was in a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mood.

I was embarrassed by my report but knew I could do better.

I wonder how life has got so crazy and feel a failure as a parent, as a person and as a wife.

It is an accepted truth that children deserve to be parented in safe, secure and healthy environments. It’s also widely accepted that not all children experience safe care and that there are occasions when the state has to intervene to protect children from abuse and neglect by removing them from their family of origin and placing them with substitute carers, be that foster carers, adopters or other birth family members.

Alongside recognising the damage done to children as a result of early abuse and neglect is the recognition that working with and parenting these children can be challenging. What is, perhaps, less well recognised is the depth and breadth of these challenges or the long-term impact on both the children and the families in which they live; there continues to be a belief that children will recover from neglect and/or abuse once they are placed in loving, secure and safe families.

The aim of this article is to challenge this belief by exploring the impact of abandonment abuse and neglect, not only on children but, centrally, on the foster carers, adopters and kinship carers who parent children where it has been deemed that a return home to birth parents is not in their interests. (For purposes of simplicity we will refer to these carers as ‘parenting figures’.) In doing this we aim to provide parenting figures with support and understanding as well as reducing the feelings of isolation that is often integral to parenting ‘looked after’ children.

We also aim to help professionals develop a deeper understanding of the pressures that caring for abandoned abused and neglected children can have on families. We believe that this will go some way towards helping parents and professionals join together in mutual understanding and support in the vital work they do in caring for some of the most vulnerable and needy children in our society today. In this article we consider the definitions of trauma: primary, secondary, vicarious and trans-generational that are involved in parenting ‘looked after’ children; definitions that are exemplified in the above quote.

We explore what trauma means for children who are, or have been in the care system, and who have suffered the trauma of neglect, abuse and/or abandonment at the hands of the people who should have cared and protected them; i.e. their birth parents. We focus on the impact on the parenting figures who are caring for these children and offer suggestions to support parents and children as they move beyond the traumas of the past along the path towards healthy and secure attachments.