Foreclosure takes toll on increasing number of children

By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010; 11:48 PM

Three years into the mortgage crisis, the public debate over how to stem the unprecedented tide of foreclosures and the damage they are doing to the housing market has largely overshadowed any discussion of the human toll. But researchers have begun to examine what happens to people after they lose their homes and are becoming especially concerned about the harm to children.

The number of children displaced has climbed steadily in recent years, with nearly 40 percent of U.S. school districts surveyed citing foreclosure as the top reason for the surge in homeless students, according to a report this summer by First Focus and the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Children who are forcibly uprooted from their homes and schools tend to suffer emotionally, socially and academically, studies preceding the mortgage meltdown show. Researchers suspect the same might be happening with children who have been dragged through foreclosures and they are urgently exploring the consequences.

"This foreclosure crisis is the largest forced relocation event we've had in this country since the Great Depression. In the modern educational environment, we've never seen anything come close to this," said Dan Immergluck, a housing policy professor at the Georgia Tech.

Susan Brooking never imagined her family would get tangled up in a mortgage crisis when she and her husband, Robert Brooking Jr., started building a home just north of Charlottesville nine years ago.

But the family's finances collapsed after her husband was laid off from his job working for a home builder in early 2008. In August, the couple received a foreclosure notice and moved out a few weeks later, soon after their 5-year-old son, Connor, began kindergarten.

Susan Brooking settled in at her sister's house with Connor and his 19-month-old brother. Her husband lives nearby with his parents. Neither home was large enough to accommodate the family, but they were able to stay close to Connor's school.

"My son keeps asking why, why, why at every step," Susan Brooking said. Why did they have to move? Why can't he visit his bedroom at the old house? Why are his toys in storage? Why do they have to live apart? Why did he have to leave behind the playground that he and his father had just started building?

"Now he's acting up in class," she said. "All we think about is renting a house in the same school district so we can get some normalcy back into our lives. We don't want to deal with another school and another transition."

Mindy Thiel, a private therapist in Rockville, said she's seen more and more families in the same situation over the past two years. Their kids often express a "feeling of powerlessness," she said. "Even 5-year-olds conceptually get the idea of loss, and they get extremely sad and frustrated that they can't do anything to change the situation."

The longer the foreclosure process drags on, for years in some cases, the more likely children are to lapse into hopelessness and internalize feelings of insecurity that can linger into adulthood, she said.

"They're wondering where their next home, their next school, their next set of friends are going to be," Thiel said. "A poignant issue that's often overlooked is: 'Where will my dog go? What will happen to my fish or my rabbit?' . . . It changes their world view."

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