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Helping our children to really feel safe: Developing “Felt Safety”


Samantha is ten years old and is entering foster care for the first time. The first ten years of her life have been characterized by abuse, neglect, transience, and homelessness. Samantha and her mother had been living in their car for the better part of the past year after they were evicted from their apartment. Prior to the eviction, Samantha’s life wasn’t much easier. It was often fear-filled as she was witness to a steady parade of her mother’s drug-addicted and drug-dealing boyfriends coming and going to and from their apartment. Tragically for Samantha, some of those “boyfriends” were more interested in Samantha than they were in her mother.


Recently, on a freezing cold December night, a passerby noticed Samantha huddled under some blankets in the back seat of a car. The car was running and Samantha’s mother was passed out at the wheel from an opioid overdose. Child Protective Services was called in, and Samantha was taken into custody. Samantha’s last image of her mother was seeing her put on a stretcher and placed in an ambulance.


The same evening that she was picked up by CPS, Samantha was taken to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jones. The Joneses’ have no birth children and live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. As Samantha enters their home with her caseworker, her jaw drops. She has never seen such a beautiful home. In the first few weeks of her stay, she feels like she has entered Disneyland heaven! There is food everywhere! She eats three meals a day with Mr. & Mrs. Jones and their refrigerator is a cornucopia! She has her own room with a canopy bed! New toys—Barbie Dolls, books, and puzzles galore—and they’re all for Samantha! And then, on her first week with the Joneses’, Mrs. Jones takes her shopping for new clothes in the most beautiful store Samantha has ever been in.


Samantha is now safe. She is no longer cold, hungry, and worried. She has heard that her mom is going to be okay. But does Samantha really feel safe?—not necessarily. Samantha does have what I would call a feeling of “cognitive safety”—she knows that there is enough food, a warm house, and a bed for her and her loving foster parents. However, this does not immediately translate to her inner being. She does not have an inner feeling of “Felt Safety”—a term coined by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross. Living in a world of chaos and fear was Samantha’s norm for the first eight years of her life. It was crazy, but in a crazy way, it was normal for Samantha —plus she was with her mom. Now she is not. How can Mr. and Mrs. Jones help Samantha to develop that inner sense of felt safety? Stay tuned and I will address that in my next blog.

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