Has this happened to you? You’re sound asleep and you get a phone call. It’s your foster care agency. The police raided a house and found a group of three little kids who need a foster care placement immediately. The caseworker has no information besides a guessed age. It pulls at your heartstrings, doesn’t it? 

The caseworkers sometimes embellish the truth knowing that if they fail to find a placement these needy little people will have to stay in a hotel room or their office on a cot. They might promise the world. “This case will be over quickly and they’ll be available to adopt.” “They are so calm and happy, they should be easy to manage.” “You’re such a good foster parent, I wanted to call you first.” 

The caseworker may be desperate. They just know they need someone, anyone who passes a background check and has a free bed, practically, to take these kids. It isn’t their fault. Not really. There are fewer and fewer people willing to be foster parents anymore. The need hasn’t gone down with it though. 

I want you to understand if you decided you’re not taking placements right now, or the kids are out of the age range you agreed to, or something feels off about the situation, you can and should say no. You will actually be doing both the caseworker and the children a disservice if you take the placement and immediately regret it. 

Furthermore, I don’t think you owe the caseworker anything besides a firm “no, I can’t do that right now.” You don’t owe them an explanation. You don’t need to justify your reasoning. I know it feels like you do, but honestly, you don’t. 

Now that’s foster care: the middle-of-the-night calls and the rushed need for placement. What happens, though, when you’re waiting for an adoptive placement? Again, a caseworker’s call may cause you to feel pressure about a placement you’re not comfortable with. Saying no does not make you a bad person. It makes you an honest person. Adoption is supposed to be forever. So many adoptions begin with the dream of forever and end with the adoption being dissolved. The emotional trauma from the failed adoption will follow that child for the rest of their life. 

There is a placement I desperately wish I had said no to at the beginning. A little boy lived in my house for two months and managed to upend our entire lives in his wake. He struggled to fit in, he struggled to obey, and he hurt the younger kids. I should have asked for help so much sooner. I wish I had just said, “no, he’s not a good fit” when I read his in-depth profile and learned of his history. It would have hurt me in the beginning, but it wouldn’t have hurt him to be placed with us and then removed when he escalated to violent behavior.

How do you know when to say no? Here’s a quick guide to making that decision.

  • Did you set an age range and is the child out of that age range? 
  • Does the child exhibit behavior you said you would not be able to handle? 
  • Are there siblings you might need to transport the child to? How does that affect your family’s current dynamic?
  • Why is the child in care? Are you the first foster/adoptive placement? If not, what happened at the other homes? Is kinship care an option? 
  • Do you feel like you should say no for a reason you can’t put your finger on? 
  • Is adding the child to your household going to infringe on your personal boundaries? 

If you said yes to any of those, you may need to say no. At the very least, you may need to ask qualifying questions. Also, be aware that sometimes agencies don’t know a child’s real age. Some children are severely malnourished and will look much younger than they are. When our boys came to us, they were the size of 4-year-olds. They were 8 and 9 years old at the time. My perception of kids’ ages will forever be skewed by those tiny boys I first met. 

There have been stories of a family adopting internationally thinking they’ve adopted an infant, but when the child comes to live with them, they discover the baby is actually 5. Sometimes paperwork doesn’t get updated as quickly as we’d like. 

This is really the tip of the iceberg on the issue. I think my main point on the subject is this: It’s better to say no and have regrets than to say yes and have regrets. I still think about what could have been with that little boy. He was a sweet thing with huge behavioral issues. I hope he’s doing alright. 

It’s also important that if your agency is pressuring you into taking a placement you’re uncomfortable with, it may be time to find a new agency. Caseworkers have a difficult job. If you feel uncomfortable with the practices you are seeing, you may consider other options. 

Christina Gochnauer is a foster and adoptive mom of 5. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Letourneau University. She currently resides in Texas with her husband of 16 years, her children ages 3, 3.5, 4.5, 11, and 12, and her three dogs. She is passionate about using her voice to speak out for children from “hard places” in her church and community.