Are you on the fence about foster care? Are you trying to figure out the pros and cons? Or have you been a faithful veteran who needs a word of encouragement and a valid reason for continuing? While there are many reasons not to pursue foster care and many negatives surrounding the child welfare system, there are also many positive reasons to pursue foster care, probably more than are contained in this article.
Did you know that, here in the U.S., there are over 400,000 children and youth in the foster care system? They are there through no fault of their own, but rather due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment. They are not bad kids. They don’t deserve to be in foster care. They are victims.
Victims of what, you may ask? Foster children can be victims of any of the following:
Physical abuse, which could be hitting, kicking, burning, slapping, punching, shaking, or disciplining with an object that leaves a bruise, scar, or broken bone. Child welfare workers have heard horror stories of parents who have burned their children with cigarettes, who have thrown babies against a wall, who have punched a 6-year-old in the face, or who have simply shaken a baby in order to get her to stop crying. All of this is abuse and one of the main reasons why Child Protective Services (CPS) removes the child from the parent’s custody.
Sexual abuse also falls within the abuse category. Sexual assault, sexual contact between an adult and a child, forcing a child to perform sex acts, forcing a child to view sex acts, or forcing a child to view pornography are all within this category. Not only will CPS remove the child from the parent’s custody, but criminal charges may be pending as well.
Neglect is a broad term which is defined as the inability to keep a child safe from harm. This can include a lack of supervision, lack of shelter, withholding food, withholding medical needs, and exposure to drugs or alcohol. It can also include observing abuse occurring without intervening or contacting the authorities. Most neglect involves drugs or alcohol. Some examples are smoking marijuana in the presence of a child, driving drunk while a child is a passenger in the car, or abusing substances while pregnant.
Abandonment is when a parent leaves a child alone, without supervision, for a long period of time without the ability to be reached. This can be dangerous, especially for small or developmentally disabled children, and can lead to the child hurting themselves. It also can lead to abuse since the child is unsupervised. Some examples of abandonment are children being left in a hotel room alone while the mom “parties” with her friends, leaving young teens at home for days at a time without contact, or leaving newborn infants to die alone immediately after birth. All of these things warrant Child Protective Services involvement.
With this perspective, a foster parent’s job is hard, but not impossible. These are not bad kids, just kids who have seen and experienced things that no child should ever have to. With all these negatives, is there anything positive about foster care?
Here are the positives of foster care:
Opportunity to be a positive influence in a child’s life
It has often been said that we can’t change the world, but that we can change the life of one child at a time. Your home may be the only safe haven that child has ever had. You have the power to teach that child things he has never been taught before, to give him three square meals a day, and to be a positive role model in his life. Take a chance!
Opportunity to serve your community
Every community has foster children. Whether they are placed in a traditional family setting, a group home, a juvenile detention center, or a residential treatment facility, foster children are all around you! Research shows that the healthiest environment for a child who has been separated from her family is in another family.
When you become a foster parent, you are helping your community to be a better place. The alternatives to not being able to find a proper foster home are that these children may have to spend the night in a government office, be placed in another home very far from where they live, or be split up from their siblings. None of those options are ideal. Having many different options of many different foster homes in the area is the best option.
Opportunity for your family to serve others
This may be an opportunity for your family to have a short term or long-term service project, in the comfort of your own home! If there are nearly half a million foster children across the U.S., how difficult would it be to serve just one of those children?
Opportunity to serve your family
This may be an opportunity to give your family a different perspective on the world other than the one that just exists in front of their television. Many young Americans have no idea what it is to be homeless, hungry, or in trouble with the law. Caring for a foster child gives your child the opportunity to be thankful for the life he has. It gives your child an opportunity to realize that helping someone else not so fortunate can be a good thing.
Opportunity to serve God
You don’t have to be religious to be a foster parent. But if you are, consider this: God tells us to help the orphan and the widow, to help those who are weakest among us, and to help strangers and foreigners. What better way to do this than by becoming a foster parent? You would move closer to God by obeying Him and by helping someone less fortunate than yourself.
Opportunity to help a child recover from trauma
As stated above, foster children have endured much abuse. Whether it is physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, or abandonment, these kiddos have gone through things that most children have not. Becoming a foster parent gives you the opportunity to help that child.
Traumatized children don’t always verbalize their feelings; rather their hopes, fears, anger, and joy come out in their behaviors. It is the foster parent who must be patient, cutting through all the noise, inappropriate actions, and mean words to get at the heart of what is really going on in that kiddo’s life: that he misses his mom. The kiddo doesn’t hate his parents; he just wishes things were different and that they could be like a “normal” family. A foster parent bridges that gap, sets a child up for success, and promises to be that cheerleader in that child’s life, regardless of what the future may hold.
Opportunity to give a child a new perspective on life
Remember that old children’s story, City Mouse, Country Mouse? It is the story of two mice who experience each other’s living environment and get a taste of how the other lives. That is a microcosm of a foster child’s life, on a much smaller scale, of course.
A foster child has the opportunity to relate to his peers and to adults on a much different level. He has the opportunity to learn things he has never learned before, to meet new people, and to live without fear of being hurt, going hungry, or moving around from place to place. Foster parents give that opportunity to the foster child. In a transracial foster situation, there is the opportunity to share different cultures as well.
Opportunity to give a biological parent time to recover from addiction
Most people don’t want anything to do with those who are drug-addicted. We’d rather stay as far away as possible. “I don’t want to get involved” is the mantra. We just want to care for kids, not adults. Consider this: many children who grow up in foster care often have children of their own who also grow up in foster care. It’s a vicious cycle and family tradition. What if someone were to intervene and stop the cycle of abuse? That would be life-changing to have a legacy of hope rather than a legacy of despair. You could be that person!
Opportunity to mentor a young, inexperienced parent
There are many teen moms out there in foster care. You have the opportunity to mentor a foster youth and her infant. Simple things such as changing a diaper, nursing, shopping on a budget, time management, and anger management, etc. If someone were to be a non-judgmental mentor, two lives might be changed instead of just one.
Opportunity to help a teen cross from childhood to adulthood
Some statistics indicate that 26,000 teens “age out” of (or exit) the foster care system every year at age 18. Of those who age out, one in five will become homeless after age 18, 50% will be unemployed by age 24, many will have higher rates of jail time, and 71% of young women will become pregnant by age 21, increasing the possibility of starting the cycle all over again. Foster parents have the opportunity to be the stabilizing factor in a teen’s life.
Foster parents of teens, of course, need to teach independent living skills such as filling out a job application, searching for a job, searching for their first apartment, opening up a bank account, or applying for college. But even more than that, a foster parent of a foster youth needs to provide consistency, guidance, and an example of strength under pressure. Foster parents can help bridge the gap between a foster youth and an independent adult. That can be a troublesome bridge to cross, but with the right foster parent, success is right around the corner. A former foster youth, Josh Shipp, says, “Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.”
Opportunity to adopt a child who becomes free for adoption
Lastly, if a biological parent does not recover from the ravages of drug addiction, is incarcerated, or does not comply with CPS’s or the courts’ requirements, his or her parental rights may be severed. At this point, the foster child becomes free for adoption. If there are no other appropriate relatives available, the child’s current foster parents may be the next logical choice to adopt that child.
Think about it, who knows the child better than the foster parents? They know the child’s history, personality, special needs, learning disabilities, habits, behaviors, and most of all, what her favorite cereal is. Foster care adoption is one less move that a child has to make, one less home that he has to adjust to, and one less set of adults that she has to call “mom” or “dad”. This time, when her foster parents adopt her, she can call them “mom” or “dad” with the full confidence that this is legally and emotionally true! The foster child has found a forever home in what used to be her temporary home! It is truly a win-win situation!
Think about it this way, if there is no foster home is no available for a child in need, what are the alternatives for placement? Remaining in an unsafe environment? Sleeping overnight in a government office? Spending the night in an overcrowded foster home? Being transported to another foster home dozens, sometimes hundreds of miles away from where he was removed? The consequences are dire! Giving CPS an additional option takes the stress off child welfare workers and gives them the option of placing a child in the least restrictive environment. If you are considering foster care, take a chance! If you are a veteran foster parent on the edge of burnout, take a break, get support and come back with a fresh perspective. Bottom line is that kids need you! Are you prepared to make a difference in that child’s life?
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 8 children: 6 of which are adopted. His adoption 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 is a passion and calling for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.