Ask Ann:

"Caring for Refugee Children"

(Ann Houck is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience working with at-risk children in the foster care system and in orphanages. Her childcare approach uses Trust-Based Relational Intervention, a framework for parenting children of trauma, developed at Texas Christian University.)

QUESTION: How do we help children who are refugees? How do we make them feel safe?

By Ann Houck • 3 min read

Ann answers:

Refugees. At the moment, we are all faced with them in one way or another. We see the news of what is happening in Ukraine and our hearts are hurt. Perhaps your home has taken in refugees recently.

Wherever we are located, though, the issue of refugees is facing all of us who care for orphans. For, if a refugee by definition is “a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country, as in time of political upheaval, war, etc.”, then surely all of our children in shelters are refugees. Have they not fled some sort of upheaval—war, hunger, violence, abandonment, whether by family wars or political ones? These children have been in fear for their lives.

Refugee—”A person who flees for safety.” The key word here is ‘safety’. No matter what has brought a child into our care, safety is an issue; a huge issue. It is surely impossible to feel safe when one is removed from home, from familiar surroundings, from all we have known in our lives.

One of our primary jobs as caregivers, whether they be Ukrainian refugees or abandoned children in our area, is to create a sense of felt safety. Put yourself into their shoes. Imagine, as well as you can, what it would feel like to have your life turned upside down. Does it matter what caused this upheaval? Well, no. War, pestilence, abusive adults, natural disasters—it all creates intense fear.

And the fear builds with the realization that there is no safe haven. Suddenly, there is no person or place of safety to which the child can turn.

Except for the lucky ones who come to our children’s homes. We know they are safe with us because we have built a strong defense for them. But, do they know that? Does coming into yet another strange place make a child safe?

Not in their minds.

The experience of “felt” safety is paramount in the care of our orphans. It matters little that we are sure we can keep them safe. What matters is whether or not these little ones actually feel that safety.

So, how do we give them that?

It does not happen overnight, but the initial connection is the beginning. Welcome them into your home as a valued and wanted guest. Quickly assess their physical needs. Is medical care required? Is a good meal necessary right now? Is a quiet place indicated? And, always, there is the question of physical contact. Maybe a hug is a good idea, but maybe not. Maybe a coat or blanket to wrap up in is better than a hug at first. Physical contact can be a fearful thing for many traumatized children.

If you would like more advice on the initial welcoming of a child, you can read my article on the issue here.

But you should also assess yourself, and often, to ensure that you are in a healthy place to provide that felt safety. Here are a few reflection questions you can ask yourself—

• Where is my own level of fear? • Is my body tense or relaxed and welcoming? • Does my face register shock and dismay upon seeing a traumatized child? • Am I able to use a calming tone of voice? • Can I be the person I would want others to be?


And lastly, creating a sense of felt safety for these children is a big job. It is one that we cannot do alone. Do you have support to help you keep your equanimity? Are you willing to accept feedback from your fellow caregivers? Do you know when it is time for you to go to a quiet place and pray or meditate?


Accept the help and guidance of others. Find sources of inspiration. If you have access to the internet, watch videos from The Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development, Show Hope and Empowered to Connect. Create a network of caregivers. Access the Orphan Care Collective on Facebook. Be creative and listen to your heart.

The key to felt safety is connection with a safe person. You, dear caregiver, are that person. Every warm, loving look, touch, smile, word is an opportunity for a little bit of healing. It is a chance to say, “You are safe with me. You are going to be OK.” And what better gift could you give to a child whose home has been upended, and fears for their very life.

Ann Houck

Licensed clinical social worker; volunteer social work supervisor for Oak Life interns; experience working with children of trauma in child protective services and school social work settings.

Ann Houck

Ann Houck

Licensed clinical social worker; volunteer social work supervisor for Oak Life interns; experience working with children of trauma in child protective services and school social work settings.

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