Have you decided to take the leap into foster care? Are you worried about being a new foster parent? Are you nervous, excited, and not sure what to expect? Are you wondering what things you should know that you maybe didn’t learn in class?
Here are 10 things I wish I had known when I started my foster care journey:
- All written correspondence is part of the permanent record.
- Things purchased for the household and kept for use by various children are yours to keep. Things purchased for a specific child while in your home become the property of that child.
- Dangerous situations can happen. Know your limits and when to say no.
- Keep house rules simple to start.
- These kids have experienced trauma; be patient with them.
- Friends who are not involved in fostering will not understand what you are doing.
- You will genuinely love these children. Letting go of them is difficult.
- You do not always get a voice in decisions made regarding these children.
- You will sometimes feel overwhelmed.
- Taking time for your family and children apart from foster kids is healthy, even if it makes you feel guilty.
Let’s expand on each of these things a bit.
All correspondence is part of the permanent record.
This is likely something you will be told during your training to become new foster parents, but it may not stand out as important. Trust me, it is. No matter how friendly you may be with a social worker, when you are communicating in writing or via email everything you say becomes a part of the record. That means if the case goes to court then all of your emails will be looked at by all attorneys involved and be subject to scrutiny. Can something you write in a light-hearted way be perceived differently? I once typed in an email that I felt like I was “going to lose it.” That did NOT go over well in court. I was cross-examined about what that meant, if I had any mental health diagnoses and if I meant it violently. I was shocked. I had a good relationship with the worker I sent the email to, and I know she understood what I meant. It is just a figure of speech with nothing really meant by it other than that something was making me upset. Me “losing it” might result in less than professional language during a discussion, but that is about it.
Another thing to consider when putting things in writing is that you cannot refer to these children as “yours.” It is very frowned upon, and you will get a reminder that you are, in fact, “just” a foster parent. These reminders can hurt, especially when you have formed bonds with children, or they have been a part of your family for long periods of time.
Documenting things in writing is extremely important to the case. If you want to be sure something remains on the record, then send it in writing to the caseworker. Just be sure to do it in a professional manner. For instance, if you want to document that a parent is not providing appropriate care or items during visitation, then put it in writing in an email. “I noticed that baby returned from the visit in a size 1 diaper. Could you please let mom know she wears a size 3, and a 1 is not a good fit nor absorbent enough for baby since she has grown. Thank you so much.” An email is also a place to praise a parent on the record if you wish. “Child returned very happy after visit. He really enjoyed going to the park with mom and said she played with him the whole time and pushed him on the swings a lot. A truly happy visit and I look forward to more happy times between them.”
Things purchased for the household stay with the household, but things purchased for a specific child become their property.
The proper ownership of things can be blurry. If a child uses something in your home, do they get to keep it? No. For instance, if you have purchased baby furniture to accommodate infants in your home, the crib does not go with the baby when he/she returns home. You will want to keep and store it for any future children who may need it. However, if you purchased a specific outfit for that child that outfit should be sent home with them.
That doesn’t mean all clothing and accessories are to be given to the children. When I fostered I had bins of clothing for all ages that way I would never be running to a store for clothes when a child entered our home. I was always prepared with a few outfits in every size. If you don’t have any on hand, this will lead to a shopping trip that can sometimes get pricey. Here is where the line blurs a bit…if you shop for that specific child, then the items should then be theirs. So, stocking up and keeping some things in storage can be an important part of fostering.
Older children can be hard when it comes to belongings. The first teen I had got to take home a lot of things that I bought just for him in his years with us. Electronics, bicycles, clothing, shoes—all things that were purchased just for him. Later I realized I needed to have some of these things on hand if I planned to take in older kids. We began adding extra bikes to our storage, as well as older phones and video games. This meant the items were ours to allow kids to use and not their property.
Also, any gifts given for birthdays and holidays are the property of the child and ought to stay with them.
Dangerous things can happen, so know when to say no.
I once got a call for a placement that would be escorted to our home by an officer. All paperwork that would normally have our names and addresses on it were kept confidential or blacked out when being given to the child’s family. Police patrolled our street more often as a precaution. There was fear of violence from a family member of the child placed with us. It was imperative that her placement remained unknown to her family for her safety and ours.
If this is too much for you to handle do not feel guilty if you need to say no! Not all children are a good match for your family. It is important to know your limits.
In another situation, a parent began sending threatening letters to us regarding our role. He insisted that once he got out of prison he would be coming to take the child. We actually were able to adopt this child and considered whether or not to get a restraining order.
In a situation like this, we weren’t asked if we minded our address being given to the biological family who was incarcerated. Had we been asked first then we could have asked that communication be sent to the DHS office and passed on from there. This may be something you want to address before taking placements of any children with incarcerated parents. We were unaware that we could ask that our address be kept confidential.
In addition to potentially threatening biological parents, it is also important to consider a foster child’s behavior when taking a placement. Some children may pose a threat to you or your children and pets. Know your limits in regards to behavior, and don’t be afraid to say no to a placement if things make you feel uncomfortable. Some children who experienced abuse may act out their abuse on others. Whether it is being physically abusive to others or acting out sexually, these kids still need a safe space. You may need to say no to the placement if your children will be put at risk by having these kids in your home.
I took the placement of a child who began acting aggressively toward my child. I felt tremendous guilt, but I had to ask that she be moved to a new home. Besides hitting my daughter, she also threw heavy objects at her in an attempt to hurt her. Thankfully, no serious injuries occurred but the risk was there. We had to protect our family and ask for a placement change.
I also had a placement of a tween boy who would flip our coffee table and scream when he didn’t get what he wanted. At one point, he attacked me physically too. We had to call and get help with his behavior from the police department. If you are considering taking potentially violent kids, then please find out what your area allows as far as restraining a child for safety. We chose not to try this and instead have officers come to help for fear of any accusations that may result in any restraint attempts. This placement helped us set some limits with regards to behaviors that we hadn’t considered before.
Most foster placements are not violent. If you have concerns, be sure to ask. You cannot ask too many questions. Find out all the information you can to make an informed decision.
Keep home rules simple.
When you are welcoming a new child, try not to overwhelm them with rules. Keeping things simple at first will help all of you cope with the new family member. Place a list of expectations for them somewhere where they can review them (please remove shoes inside, internet use requires permission, bedtime, etc.). You can always add more things as you get to know each other.
These kids have experienced trauma.
All kids placed in foster care have experienced trauma, including, but not limited to, being taken from their parents. They will need extra patience to adjust and thrive. You may not know all of their trauma. However, you will likely see some behavioral effects that trauma caused.
Friends who don’t foster will not understand.
When you have a child with challenging behaviors, friends will not understand why you don’t “send them back.” Because you are bound by confidentiality and cannot disclose a child’s background to your friends you won’t be able to explain why you keep trying in a way that they will understand. When a placement leaves and you are sad, friends will also not understand why you keep fostering. It is okay. Simply ask them to support you even if they don’t understand. Listening without judgment or criticism is how a true friend should respond.
You will genuinely love these kids.
We often hear people say things like, “I don’t know if I could love a child that isn’t mine.” Trust me when I say you will love these children. You will get all “mama bear” to protect them, just as you do your biological children. You will deeply mourn losing them when they go home. The mourning for them will never go away, just as the love is always there. It is hard. It is traumatic. It is worth it.
You will not always get a voice in decisions made regarding foster children.
Some social workers are better at including foster parents than others. However, you will not get to be involved in every decision made for children you are fostering. This can be hard. You are doing the hard work of parenting these kids all day, every day. You will feel like you know what is best. You may be right but it won’t matter. Hopefully, your opinions will carry weight in decision-making, but there will be times you disagree. Even so, you have to do what is required of you, even if you disagree. Remember that you are only seeing the part of the case that affects this child. There may be pieces you are missing. The social workers have to be trusted to be doing everything in their power to keep the children safe and work the case plan accordingly. This involves a lot of documenting for everyone. Documenting is a very important part of fostering children.
You will feel overwhelmed at times.
Life, in general, can be overwhelming sometimes. Now add in an additional family member (or more) to your hectic schedule. These kids often have busy schedules of their own to maintain. There are family visits, therapy appointments, maybe sports or music lessons all added to your current responsibilities. You may feel like you are stretched thin with all you are trying to do. How can you be at your child’s ballgame and drop off your foster child at a family visit all at the same time? It can be overwhelming. It is okay to feel this way. Find a good outlet for your stress and practice self-care. Self-care is vital to surviving being a new foster parent.
Taking time with your family is healthy and necessary.
I felt guilty for a long time if I took time away from foster children placed with us. We were supposed to be making them feel like part of the family, right? So how is leaving them out of an activity doing that? The truth is you will sometimes need a bit of time to regroup as a family. It is challenging for everyone to add foster children to your home. You need to set aside time to connect with your core family and feel that togetherness. It will help when you feel overwhelmed with all the schedule conflicts or challenging behavior.
You need to take time to hear what your children are feeling during these placements. If you never take time apart, then you will likely never really know how they feel. Also, because foster children often have many appointments to maintain sometimes our kids feel left out or set aside. They can feel like the foster children have taken all of your time and attention, and they are no longer your priority. We know that isn’t true, but these types of feelings are valid. Do something special sometimes as a family and utilize respite or a babysitter. Another option is to make sure to get your family together when kids have visitations with their family. You may want to keep some of your family time activities to yourselves, as you don’t want a child to feel left out. For instance, if you went to see a newly-released movie while the foster child had a family visit, you might choose not to mention it so the child doesn’t feel he/she missed out on something fun.
If you are considering becoming a new foster parent, try to connect with others in your area involved in fostering. Ask them questions, and learn what to expect from those fostering in your community. You may also find local support groups that can be helpful in your journey.
Jennifer is a mother to 3 children (one biological, two adopted). She is also a mom to numerous pets. She enjoys volunteering in her children’s classroom, reading, and crafting in her spare time. She has been married for almost 15 years.