It’s 3:00 in the morning. You get a call on your cell phone. On the line is your social worker who has a precious 2-year-old sitting in her office. Your social worker wants to know if you will take this child as a foster placement. And she wants an answer NOW!
Wouldn’t you want to know a few things first before making a commitment that could last for a few years? That is the plight of every foster parent. Deciding this in a split second will impact not only the child, but also your family! And you must make that decision while being woken out of a dead sleep.
From the social worker’s point of view, your name is next on the list; you signed up for this; you’re trained; you have an open bed, so what’s the hesitation? TAKE THE KID! From her point of view, there may not be many other options. From her point of view, having the child sleep in her office is not the best option. Also, she may have other families in crisis that she needs to attend to… yes, at 3:00 am! From the social worker’s point of view, she may not know a lot about the child or her parents; she may not have a lot of answers. So, answering your questions may not be a priority right now. She may also feel that some of your questions are a bit rude and beside the point. This kid needs a bed to sleep in, and she needs it now. I bet a lot of workers are thinking, “Just take the kid, and we’ll figure it out in the morning.”
From your point of view, as a foster parent, you are torn. On the one hand, you hate saying no because it is not in your nature. It is counter-intuitive to say no to something that you have trained so hard for. This is what you have been waiting for. All the paperwork, training, interviews, and preparation has led to this moment. Or has it? On the other hand, you may be thinking, “This child may disrupt the family dynamics.” Or, “I really want a foster child, but I may not be ready for this child’s needs.” Planning like this can be stressful and nerve-wracking, but a decision needs to be made, nonetheless. What do you do?
You ask questions.
Why ask questions in the first place? Gender reveal parties are a big thing nowadays for couples who are expecting a child the natural way. But think about this: prior to the advent of the ultrasound, people had to guess their baby’s gender and didn’t know until the baby was born. Imagine if there was a device with which you could know your baby’s eye color, hair color, personality, and future disposition. That would be great! Foster care is not quite like that, but in a way, you do have a chance to prepare for a child that is coming from another home. That’s why questions are beneficial, not only for the parent, but also the child.
Questions are a good way to get more information and be more prepared for the child that is coming into your home. By asking questions, you can make a more educated decision and possibly say “no.” Saying no is not necessarily a bad thing. You may be sick, getting ready to go on a long vacation, or you may think that the child is just not a good match for your family. That’s okay. In the long run, you want to do what is best for the child. And if you say no, you are giving another family the opportunity to make a difference for a child.
Who, what, where, when, and how? A good, objective news report can succinctly summarize an event in under 15 seconds by simply answering those five questions about the event: who, what, where, when, and how? The same should be said of social workers who call for foster placements in the middle of the night. They may not know everything about the child, but they should be able to answer those five basic questions. If your social worker doesn’t know anything else, they should have the answers to these five questions.
1. What happened? What was the original reason for child protective services to remove this child? Was she physically abused? Sexually abused? Was she left in a hotel room alone? Was dad driving drunk and got arrested for a DUI? The social worker should know this, and it should not be a violation of confidentiality to disclose it. This is important because it will go a long way in determining the level of trauma the child has suffered.
2. Who is the child? You don’t need a full biography, but you do need to know the age and gender of the child. This will go a long way in determining sleeping arrangements, clothing, schooling, etc.
3. Where is the child coming from? This is important because if the child is in a school or daycare in your neighborhood, you would want to keep that child in that school or daycare. It’s called providing the least restrictive environment for the child. Does the child need to be picked up? If so, from where? Also, did the parents have custody or did the grandparents?
4. When will the child be placed? This is important because if the child is going to be placed in the next 15 minutes, you need to prepare his sleeping arrangements. If its tomorrow, you have a bit more breathing room. If it’s not for a couple of days, then it’s not an emergency, and more questions can be asked.
5. How is the child doing? What is the child’s level of functioning? Is he hurt? Does he need to go to the doctor? Is he verbal? Does he have any disabilities? Has he eaten? Does he have any clothes?
Now, let’s move on to more advanced questions. Let’s face it. Your social worker may not have all the answers on the phone. For one reason or another, they may truly not know many of the details. Perhaps this was the first removal of the child, and she didn’t come from another foster home. If that’s the case, information will be limited. But if the child did come from another foster home, there may be a great deal of information. Or, perhaps, the time to ask these questions is when the social worker drops off the child at your home. Or perhaps you need to be speaking to another social worker, like their supervisor. Or perhaps you can obtain this information upon your first team meeting. And lastly, another great source of information is the biological parents, themselves. After the dust has settled, after there has been a relationship established with the biological parents, there may be some trust established to give you some of this information.
Here are more advanced questions you may need to ask your social worker:
1. What are the circumstances of removal? You will need more details about the removal. If the child came from a meth house, her clothes may need to be removed and destroyed. If she was malnourished, she will need to eat. If she witnessed her parents being arrested, there will be a great deal of trauma.
2. Have the children been in care before? If this is the child’s first time in care, you may not have a lot of information to go on. If not, you may be able to go back to the previous placement for more information.
3. What type of trauma have the children suffered? Did the child witness domestic violence? Was the child a victim of physical or sexual abuse? If so, that will help you to prepare for sleeping arrangements. It will also get you prepared to set up counseling for the child. Please don’t expect a child to not have trauma. Every foster child experiences trauma; it is traumatic enough for children to be separated from their parents.
4. What behaviors do the children have? Food hoarding. Self-harm. Headbanging. Night terrors. Feeding issues. Crazy lying. These are all behaviors that every foster parent should be prepared for. If the social worker knows the child, they should know her behaviors. If the social worker says the child has no acting-out behaviors, then ask, “What is the child’s level of emotional functioning? “In other words, is the child scared, angry, withdrawn? If the children are not displaying behaviors now, I guarantee, they will, at some point. So, figuring out how they are emotionally will go a long way in determining how they will act out later.
5. What disabilities do the children have? If the child has developmental disabilities, it should be obvious. Especially with Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. If this is the case, you need to ask if the child is enrolled in your state’s department of developmental disabilities or long-term care. If not, this is something you or your caseworker need to start working on.
6. Does the child have any siblings elsewhere? For the most part, siblings ought to be placed together. But this is not always possible. If there are siblings elsewhere, there should be sibling visits or phone visits of some sort.
7. How often will there be family visits? Supervised visits between children and parents have their place. Visits keep a connection and an emotional bond between mom and child. Visits keep the biological parents motivated. Visits reduce the level of trauma that children feel because they realize their parents are okay and possibly getting better. But sometimes, visits like this are not possible either because the parents are incarcerated, or they are MIA (missing in action).
8. Did the children bring any belongings with them? Many times, a child comes to a foster home with only the clothes on her back. As such, the first order of business will be a shopping excursion to Walmart! While there, you may also need diapers, formula, a car seat, and maybe even a crib!
9. What school did the children attend? Foster children go through lots of changes: a change in parents, change in homes, change in culture, change in neighborhoods, just to mention a few. If there is one thing that is certain in the child welfare system, it is change. To mitigate any further trauma, a foster child ought to remain in his own school. This way he won’t, once again, be the “new kid.”
Questions for the Biological Parents
After a child is placed, it is the best practice to get as much information as possible from the biological parents, if possible. These answers are the ones that only the parents would know and will make the transition as smooth as possible:
- What is her bedtime routine?
- Does she have a favorite blanket?
- What is her favorite food?
- How does she do in school?
- Does she have a favorite stuffed animal?
- Does she have a favorite book?
- Does she have any allergies?
- Is she up-to-date on her immunizations?
It may be awkward, and it may seem like there is never a right time to ask these questions. Also, you may feel comfortable to not have any type of contact with the biological parents. But keep this in mind: these questions are for the child’s benefit, not yours.
Everyone should have the child’s best interest in mind. However, sometimes each person has their own motivations. The social worker wants to get the child into a good home, the foster home wants to make a good decision for the child and their family, and the biological parents are being pulled in different directions of wanting to do want what is best for the child while struggling with feelings of jealousy and inadequacy. It is difficult, but if everyone would keep the child’s well-being in mind, answering these questions should not be so hard. In the end, we all win because the child wins. Isn’t that what we all want?
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 journeys. He and his wife started their own adoption journey in 1993 and have 8 children, 6 of whom are adopted. His adopted children are all different ethnicities, including East Indian, Jamaican, and Native American. He loves traveling with his family 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.