Let’s face it: being a foster parent is tough! Not everyone is cut out to be a foster parent. The uncertainty, the late-night hours, the temper tantrums, unreturned phone calls, the unstable birth parents, and the lack of recognition as an expert is enough to make people stay away! As a matter of fact, the average amount of time a person remains as a foster parent is only one year. The average amount of time a child spends in foster care is 18 months! Do you see a problem, here? It is imperative that people pursuing foster care are prepared to navigate through these turbulent waters. So, how can a person avoid having their foster care experience shipwrecked?
What is foster care?
There are nearly a half-million children in foster care in the U.S. at any one time. Each one of them needs a foster home. The first step of knowing whether foster care is right for you is to understand what foster care is: a temporary place to serve children who are removed from their primary caregiver due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Foster children are in foster care, through no fault of their own and most of them are reunited with their parents after about a year and a half. Therefore, the job of a foster parent is twofold: 1) help a child recover from trauma and 2) to support the reunification between the child and their biological parents.
What are some of the traumatic things foster children have experienced?
Some have experienced physical abuse and sexual abuse, but most have experienced neglect. When parents choose drugs over caring for their children, it is considered neglect. When a mom continues to abuse substances while she is pregnant, it is considered neglect. When a dad drives drunk with the child in the back seat of the car, it is considered neglect. When a mom leaves her young children in a hotel room while she goes out and parties, it is considered neglect and possibly abandonment. All of these things can cause a parent to lose custody of their child.
Think of it from the biological parents’ point of view: wouldn’t you want to have your child back as soon as possible if he were removed from your care, for whatever reason? As scary as it is to lose a child to the foster care system, every parent has the right to be reunited with their child, under most circumstances. Therefore, social services and the court system oversee this process to ensure that a child is being returned to a safe environment. A foster parent is a large part of that system.
The reason why it is important to know if foster care is right for you is to avoid disruptions. A disruption is an unplanned move of a foster child from one foster home to another. The move may be at the request of the foster parent or of the social worker. Somewhere along the line, someone realizes that the match between the foster child and the foster parent is just not a good one. And the child is removed. It has been said that with every move a foster child makes, it sets him back developmentally by six months.
Older foster children and youth sometimes make multiple moves in their lives—sometimes they stay in eight, nine, or even 10 different foster homes! That means with every move a foster child makes, they have to learn new family traditions, new family rules, new family food, new family values, principles, and religion. We expect a child to do this with ease. The human brain was not created to be that resilient! It is one thing for an adult to choose to live somewhere else; it is wholly another to force a child, who has no control over his situation, to do so. Therefore, it is imperative that you know whether foster care is right for you before you proceed. We need to make the next move of a child his last move.
Can I care for a child on a temporary basis?
One of the questions you need to ask yourself to see if foster parenting is right for you is to ask if you can care for a child for a day, a month, or a year… whatever it takes. It is a balancing act between making a child a part of your family, while at the same time realizing that they can leave your family at any time. That is an emotional roller coaster that some parents are ill-equipped for.
Can I care for a special needs’ child?
Most, if not all, foster children have special needs of some sort. First of all, they may have developmental disabilities. This means they have special needs that they were born with including autism, sensory processing delays, attention deficit disorder, or Down syndrome. Some infants may be substance-exposed newborns, which means many sleepless nights and many trips to the doctor. These types of children will need extra attention and time. They may need therapies such as speech therapy or occupational therapy. They may also need special educational accommodations such as an Individual Educational Plan if they have academic delays.
Secondly, it should be a foregone conclusion that most foster children have experienced some sort of trauma. Whether abuse, neglect, or abandonment, these kids have experienced things that no adult should have to experience, let alone a child. Therefore, many foster children have behaviors associated with this trauma. Behaviors such as head banging, temper tantrums, food hoarding, night terrors, and sexualized behaviors, just to name a few. The question is, do you have the intestinal fortitude to handle these kids? Of course, there is a lot of training to prepare you, but no amount of training can substitute for experience.
Can I support the biological parents?
Many new foster parents view the birth parents as enemies. As such, it is an “us vs. them” mentality. However, there is nothing more pleasing for a foster child than to see his biological mom and foster mom working together for his best interest.
As stated earlier, most children in foster care get reunified with their biological parents. This means that somewhere along the line the birth parents received support. Are you willing to be a part of the support system these parents need? This doesn’t mean inviting them over to Sunday dinner every week. However, there is a continuum of contact (or bridge) that each foster parent must be willing to walk along. You must decide how far down the bridge you are willing to meet the parents.
For example, are you willing to write notes back and forth to the parents? Are you willing to facilitate phone visits? Are you willing to allow the parents to attend special school events, extra-curricular activities, or doctor’s appointments? Are you willing to mentor a young parent in things we take for granted, such as diaper changing, feeding, or helping with homework? Or how about assisting the biological mom after the children have returned home, with things such as scheduling doctor’s appointments? Enrolling a child in Women, Infant, and Children Program? Or enrolling a child in Head Start or public school? You are not only assisting the parent, in the long run, you are also assisting the child.
Can I put the child’s needs before my own needs?
Most folks who foster do it for the right reason. Their motivations may vary in different ways like helping the community; finding a way to give back; helping out a member of the family; perhaps they grew up in the foster care system; perhaps they have faith-based motivations. But the bottom line is that they realize the child must come first. If you think you will gain notoriety or earn a little money on the side that is not a good motivation. If you feel pressured to foster or if you are led by guilt; those motivations fall short. Older kids in the system will see right through it and will know your heart is not in it. You will know foster care is right for you when you are able to be flexible, teachable, and are able to have the thick skin that is needed.
Do I have a support system?
In the early days’ comic strips and comic books, every superhero had a sidekick: Batman had Robin, the Green Lantern had Kato, and even the Lone Ranger had Tonto! The point is that you can’t do it alone. Being a foster parent means that you need to reach out to people who are willing to wrap around you to be a support when needed. Of course, there is the professional team that has to support you such as your social worker, your licensing worker, a Guardian ad Litem, a Court Appointed Special Advocate, and behavioral health specialists. Those people are important; however, you need natural supports in place if you are to determine whether fostering is right for you. Family, friends, people in the community, who can all rally around you for the sake of the child, not only for physical support but also emotional and spiritual support. These people can provide things that the professionals cannot, such as respite, meals, housekeeping, lawn work, transportation, and just a good ole’ fashioned shoulder to cry on. They may also be able to supply you with gifts in kind when needed such as car seats, cribs, bunk beds, formula, or other things that either you or the child needs. You need a support system.
Do I have the support of my immediate family?
Here’s a hard truth: Foster care may be right for you, but it may not be right for your family. If your spouse is not fully on board, why would you proceed with the process? It would just frustrate everyone involved and would cause resentment and weaken your relationship. If your children are not on board, it could cause real problems and make the new child in the family a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in the home. You don’t have to be the perfect family but the foster child, who has just undergone the trauma of being separated from his family, needs to feel that he is a part of your family, regardless of his past. If he does not feel like a part of the family, you will see unwanted behaviors and mental health issues more than usual.
Can I wait to foster if now is not the right time?
Maybe foster care is right for you but now is just not the right time. Perhaps you have an ill family member, you are in the middle of a move, or you need a larger house—it may be better if you were to wait. Have you experienced the death of a child recently? The wounds may be too fresh. If that is the case, first seek professional help and proceed when you are ready. Foster care is tough because children come and go. That feeling of grief and loss may rear its ugly head every time a child goes home. Have you had a recent divorce or breakup of a relationship? Those may also be fresh wounds. Recover from that first before becoming involved in foster care, which is supposed to be temporary. In any case, you must be physically and emotionally prepared for the roller coaster ride called foster care.
Can I support foster children another way?
Lastly, if you decide that foster care is not right for you, you can support foster children another way. Perhaps you can become a CASA, a GAL, or a social worker. Perhaps you can become a part of a natural support team. Perhaps you can support companies who support foster care. Perhaps you can recruit foster parents. Whatever you choose to do, it will have a lasting effect and will touch the life of a child! Choose wisely!
Derek Williams is an adoption social worker and has been in the field of child welfare and behavioral health since 2006, where he has assisted families in their adoption journey. He and his wife started their adoption journey in 1993 and have eight children, six of whom are adopted. His adopted children are all different ethnicities including East Indian, Jamaican and Native American. He loves traveling with his family, especially to the East Coast and to the West Coast and is an avid NY Mets fan! Foster care and adoption are his passions and callings for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.