He was 2 years old and had the saddest face I’d ever seen. A mop of blonde curls littered his head, but his face was drawn, and his eyes were sad. He smiled quickly and it faded just as quickly. In his short life, we were to become his third home. Thankfully, we would also be his last. We adopted him a mere nine months later, but not without a lot of tears, a lot of heartache, and a long and difficult list of mistakes.
I had no intention of adopting from foster care. When we chose to adopt, it was quickly crossed off the list of options and we moved forward. We adopted our first son through domestic infant adoption. It was nearly seamless, and the multiple year wait was a mere six months. We met our son’s biological mom, she gave birth a few weeks before, and we brought him home from the hospital. A few months later, we officially adopted him and really thought we had this adoption thing down pat.
Nearly four years later, we had gone through a loss with a failed placement. It was so hard. After that, we just sat in neutral and didn’t know how to proceed. I was working in health and human services in our county and was asked daily if we would consider foster care. No. That was always my answer. Until one day I was talking with a friend, a Child Protection Services investigator and she told me that there was a shortage of homes for children, and she asked again if we would please consider becoming a foster parent.
A couple days later, after speaking with my husband, my superiors at work regarding nepotism and conflict of interest, we decided to license with an outside agency. Seeing that the focus for our family was adoption, it was the best fit for everyone. Then, the real work began.
First, you will start with mountains and mountains of paperwork. Just put your head down and push through it. It is the only means through which they must get to know you quickly and intimately, protect innocent children, and keep the process uniform across the county and the country. It’s not that bad, and if you can’t get past the paperwork, you might want to rethink this whole parenting gig.
The process may vary per state and county but the general process of licensing for foster care is straight forward. First and foremost, you’ll need to pass a background check. You’ll have your fingerprints taken and run, along with a Department of Motor Vehicle report. Don’t shy away from becoming a foster parent just because you have marks on your background or motor vehicle report. Be sure to check with your licensor. They will be able to direct you as to the likelihood of obtaining your license with a marred record.
You’ll be required to complete a certain amount of class hours. In these classes, you will learn about sudden unexpected infant death syndrome, car seat safety, trauma, reactive attachment disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, and the list goes on and on. It will seem overwhelming and frightening, but it is essential and remarkable how much of the information stays with you. You will be required to attend all-day training where hopefully, you will also be able to listen to real parents, with real-life experience, and ask them any and all questions that you can think of.
You will be excited, overwhelmed and at any moment, scared senseless. If you aren’t scared, you’re just not doing it right. There is so much to learn. Too much. But you can and will do it. You’ll be required to get certified in CPR and First Aid. Make it fun and enjoyable by lining up a class with your family and friends. It can sometimes feel tedious, so make it as fun as possible.
Join a support group. It can feel awkward and just plain old weird to join a support group before you’re fully licensed and accept your first placement. However, having that relationship already in place, hearing what real-life foster parents are faced with daily, and learning who and how to resolve the issues that may pop in this crazy life is lifesaving. There is no knowledge like first-hand, in the mud, real-life parenting. Every child is different. They will respond differently to trauma, to being moved, to being loved. You will quickly learn the best services available in your area and who to contact should you need services. When it’s the dead of night and something happens, you will need that lifeline to make it through.
In some instances, like ours, you will write a home study. It’s the story of your life. Your family. It makes you a person and not just a name. It shares your life with the social workers and helps them decipher if you are the right fit for a child. Be sure to include all the information they are asking for, even if it seems redundant and silly. And include pictures. Pictures of yourself, your home, the space you have set aside for the child/children you’re looking to bring home, and most importantly, your pets. I’m always surprised, and amused, by the number of children looking for pets. It can also help you discern if a child is not a good match for your family due to history with animals.
After the paperwork is completed, you will be required to have several home visits. In some areas, you are only required to have one, in others, it will be more. This will be dependent on the state you live in. Your licensor will be able to provide this information for you, so you’ll be able to prepare. There is no need to deep clean the closets, however, you will want to double-check your water temperature, lock up any weapons and medications you have in the home, and learn about unknown dangers you had no idea existed. In some areas, you’ll be required to provide a water sample and fire marshal visit as well.
When you’ve finally been thoroughly groomed, inspected, and visited, you’ll be expected to provide a list of family and friends that they’ll use as references for you. Be sure to include someone you know who is dependable and will return it in a timely manner, but also friends and family that really know you and can attest to your strengths and weaknesses. These are anonymous so you won’t likely see them, but it’s fun to read them if your friends and family happen to share them.
Preparing emotionally and physically will be more difficult. I suggest that you take time to really think about the needs of the children that come your way. Spend time with children with trauma and their parents—foster or adoptive—and listen intently. Parenting children from hard backgrounds will be difficult. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all manual out there to perfectly show you what each child will need, but there are some excellent guidebooks from people who know trauma well. They have lived it, breathed it, and survived it.
You should spend endless amounts of time reading and researching the affects of drugs and alcohol on a child’s developing brain. It will become imperative as you decide if you can handle the needs of the children that they are looking to place into your home. Some children will struggle immensely due to their medical histories and social histories. And the effects stick with them much younger than you would imagine.
We have two children we adopted through foster care. Both children have struggles daily. In perspective, they are small. But they are challenges that they would not have had if they hadn’t experienced trauma, loss, and neglect. It looks different for each, and each recovers at a different rate. My daughter, with a little downtime, can recover quickly and function at a seemingly normal rate. My son, mostly due to his personality and the level of neglect he experienced, has a much, much harder time recovering. He tells us often that he’s not loved. He’s only 5. We tell all of them on constant repeat how much they are loved, we try even harder to make sure that they feel that love, instead of just hear it.
You will have to change the way you parent. It will not look or feel right in any way. Your instincts, especially if you parent neurotypical children, will be to use traditional methods. You’ll learn quickly how damaging and ineffective those ways are.
All this information can seem very overwhelming and sometimes even bleak. But I can say from experience that every single bit of it is worth it. Knowing you had a positive, lasting effect on the life of a child. As with anything, you will write your own story. You will learn quickly the needs and diagnosis that you are capable of handling. You will quickly learn the nuances of reading placement paperwork and understand exactly what the words and descriptions mean.
What you should know is often there is little information known about the beginning of a child’s life. We have pages and pages of summations of medical records, which were the most useful to us, but even in some cases, they don’t get the full story of what really happened. We know now that whatever they know, there is likely a vast amount of information that they don’t know.
Love is not enough. It is a great place to start, but some kids just don’t know how to love or be loved. Some will learn with time, love, and therapy. Learning about diagnoses like reactive attachment disorder and other attachment deficiencies will allow you to decide if you can parent a child with severe attachment issues. Our son showed attachment to other people in his life, including his former foster parents. While his attachment to us took more time, he is a loving, affectionate child. We still struggle on some points, but with continued trust, love, and therapy we will get there.
Do not be afraid. Educating yourself will be the most important thing you can do. There are endless books, articles, information out there about any number of topics you wish to explore. Be open-minded to help from good reliable sources. Spend time with foster families, join support groups, help support friends, family, strangers who are traveling the foster road. Ask questions. You may not always get the answers you desire, but even the smallest bit of information can be groundbreaking at times.
The children we have had in our home have all taught us lessons about life and parenting. They have changed us in every way. Taught us to seek other ways of living and loving. We parent with so much intention, and we have a lot of fun. Do not be afraid, you can and will tackle any situation that arises. The smiles, the laughs, the “thank you, mom’s” are all worth it.
Trauma can and will be hard. Loving may not come instantly. It’s okay. It takes time. Do not set limits on when you, or they, should feel a particular way. It may come instantly, though that’s unlikely. Love and affection will happen. Try to relax and remember that these are little humans with experiences and a lot of life that happened long before you came along. You will likely have to help them learn how a typical family functions. It’s likely that they have never seen a family sit around the dinner table, adjust to help them become comfortable. Imagine what it may be like for them. New sounds, smells, parents, and siblings.
You will find the tools you need with time and experience to help the children who come your way. I know, without doubt, that you will be the parent that child needs. It may be for a moment, or a lifetime, but you can, and will, make a difference.
Karla King is a passionate open adoption advocate, adoptive mom, foster mom, wife, reader, avid creator of food, a stay-at-home mom, and Christian. She loves taking care of her family, supporting others on the adoption journey, and watching the world through her children’s eye.