If you are a foster parent or if you are thinking of becoming one, you have likely heard some negative ideas about children in foster care.
“They will steal from you.”
“Those kids will abuse your children.”
“Foster children have lice.”
“Kids in foster care are always in trouble and have police records.”
“That kid is going to burn your house down.”
“There must be a reason they are in foster care…what is wrong with them?”
“That kid is going to bring drugs into your house.”
The list of nonsense goes on and on.
While most people may have your best interest at heart, they clearly have no idea what foster care is about or the ways that children enter foster care. Their comments continue to spread myths about children who are in foster care and scare people from helping these children.
Children typically enter foster care through no fault of their own. This includes teens and tweens.
While many of these children may have some behavioral or emotional issues, it is likely due to trauma they have experienced. No child wants to endure trauma or separation from her or his family. It is terribly frightening.
What are the reasons children are placed in foster care?
Most foster care placements are due to child abuse, neglect, or the incarceration of biological parents. Very rarely is a child voluntarily placed into foster care by parents who feel they cannot handle the child’s behavior. If this does occur, it is usually done because the child has had so much developmental trauma that they need significant and expensive therapies that the parents are unable to obtain on their own. Sadly, some parents must place their children in foster care in order to help them receive treatment, and therefore, face criminal charges of neglect or abandonment.
In my experience as a foster parent, all of my placements, from infants to teens, were a result of abuse, neglect, or parents being incarcerated. I have never experienced a case in which a child was placed because the family could not manage the behavior of that child.
It surprises me to hear that many people think the child, especially teens, may have caused their own placement into foster care.
It may be true that some children in foster care have some behavioral and developmental issues, but that is to be expected. If a child from a traumatic past had no issues, that would be far more shocking. However, when dealing with children in the foster care system, it is important to acknowledge that the trauma they have experienced is the source of the problems and not the child’s choosing.
When I have had children who steal, it is usually food. Why are they stealing food when I have a kitchen full of food to eat? They have learned in the past that food isn’t always available; therefore, they try to hide it away to feel sure they will not starve. These kids are not stealing food because they are “bad” children who want to take things. They are taking food because they are terrified they will not have food to eat each day.
In all my time of fostering, I did have a few children who hoarded food. In my home, I don’t allow food in the bedrooms. But these children were taking the food in fear of being hungry and not to break my household rules. So, because I understood their motivation, I could compromise and allow them to keep a snack nearby at all times.
Many people assume older kids in foster care have a criminal history. I have fostered many teens, and I know this is not the case. I would be lying if I said it was never true, because some kids have had some charges or court cases, but this is not true of all foster teens.
While teens in care can display some hard to deal with behavior, this is the type of thing they have seen prior to placement. If you have been a part of a family that suffers domestic violence, or when breaking the law is common, it makes sense that a child would react in those ways. In some families, violence and criminal behavior is a way of life. When a teen is placed into a home that is safe, it can be difficult to break the cycle of abuse they have been shown. Some of the kids you meet have never lived in a safe environment before, and it takes some adjusting for everyone involved.
That said, many teens are just as pleasant as younger kids. Some, even more so! Teens can have many endearing qualities. They are able to feed and dress themselves for example (sometimes you need a break from diapers!). Teen placements often are far less demanding of your time. And, you may actually learn something from them if you pay attention! Maybe it is a new word you haven’t heard yet, or a new photo filter, or website. Teens do have positives to offer.
Being able to sit at a table and play board games for a fun family night is not always possible if you have toddlers. Fostering teens can be quite fun.
When children have parents that are addicts or incarcerated, their placement in foster care is not their fault. These children have likely grown up with a lot of trauma and fear. They need support and help rather than judgement for the mistakes of their parents. However, they are often judged negatively based on their status as a child in “foster care.” We need to do better for these already traumatized children and not place negative stereotypes on them.
People tend to fulfill others’ expectations. If a child is seen negatively, he will likely begin to behave negatively. We need to recognize that foster care is not the fault of the child and be supportive of the children who are separated from their families due to no fault of their own.
Children who have extreme behavioral needs due to their childhood trauma are often placed in specialized therapeutic homes or treatment centers. A nontherapeutic home is not trained to deal with these children. Often, stories we hear that involve severe behavior are cases that belong in the therapeutic category.
Another myth is that foster care placements come to your home with lice. Not all children in foster care have lice. Does it happen? Yes. However, it is important to note that anyone, anywhere can get lice, regardless of cleanliness or socioeconomic status. These tiny insects do not care who is hosting them as long as they find a host. The good news is lice is treatable and can be prevented from spreading throughout the household.
While it is true that families struggling with financial situations tend to have higher numbers of foster care placements, abuse and neglect of children is not just a problem of poverty.
There is also a myth that all kids in foster care are adoptable. This is definitely a myth as the truth is that most kids will return to their parents or family caregivers. While some children do become adoptable, the first goal is reunification.
Many people believe that these childrens’ parents must be bad people who are unable to properly raise their children. They believe that it is okay to talk badly of the childrens’ parents to them since the children must despise the parents who lost custody of them to the state. Talking badly about a child’s family is never an appropriate response when finding out a child is placed in foster care. It is also inappropriate for others to ask for details of a child’s situation either from you as the foster parent or from them as the child in foster care. Their story is not for public sharing.
This is far from the truth. Some parents are struggling and are able to pull themselves up with the help of social services and foster care. These parents are able to take classes, get help with addiction, and sometimes even find better housing. Some of these parents just need some support while they are going through a hard time. This is why many children are able to return home to their families. Once their parents get some help with the things that are overwhelming them, they are able to be more focused on parenting safely and effectively.
Talking badly about parents to a child in care is one of the worst things you can do. No matter what the child says, you should never engage in negativity toward her parents. No matter what happened, a child will always seek the approval of her parents. It is human nature for a child to always love and seek love from his family. If a child is placed in foster care, this does not change.
There are also myths about younger kids in care. Some believe that younger kids will not be affected by the childhood trauma they may have endured. They believe that if a child is an infant or toddler and is removed at a young age, the child will never remember what he or she went through.
While it may be true that children may not consciously remember their trauma, their bodies and brains have been affected. A neglected child will still have some behaviors even she doesn’t understand due to her early childhood trauma. A child who lived in a home with constant chaos as a small child may flinch at loud noises or seclude himself when he is overwhelmed so as not to draw attention to himself. On the flip side, a child may scream for hours for no apparent reason. Children truly may not understand why they behave the way they do. However, early childhood trauma changes brain development. Even babies who are removed from their birth parents immediately after birth can have effects from trauma they endured in utero. This can include (but is not limited to) improper nutrition, drug exposure, and trauma from the removal from their birth parents.
The myth that you can “love” away trauma and cure it with “consistent” parenting is just not true. Trauma is not something that can be loved away. However, you can teach coping skills, and you can help a child feel comfortable and manage her subconscious trauma-based behaviors. Some children are able to thrive with some help, and you may not even know they came from a foster care background and traumatic past. Others will never overcome their trauma-based behavior and could develop attachment disorders or other challenges. This doesn’t mean you didn’t give them enough love or that you have failed them as a parent. It is difficult to realize that the effect of past trauma is not a direct reflection of your efforts, even if a significant time has passed. Again, brain development is actually changed by early childhood trauma. There is a lot of research regarding how abuse, neglect, and separation from caregivers affect the development of a child’s brain in the early years of life.
Lastly, the myth that fostering these kids is not worth it is totally false. Some children are definitely more challenging than others. I have had many foster care placements during my years of fostering. Each and every placement taught me something. Each placement was worth it. It is worth the struggle. It is worth the ups and downs and the emotions that go with fostering children. It is worth falling in love with a child that you know you will someday have to let go. Some kids will make you feel like you won’t be able to live without them. Some kids will test your parenting in so many ways that you feel a bit of relief when they move on. It is worth meeting a child that will challenge you and test every bit of patience you have. And while you may be okay when some placements move on, you will have made an impact on them and them on you. It may not always be easy, but it is worth it. Children in foster care are worth it.
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.