If you are a new foster parent, you may be feeling both excited and nervous. If you haven’t had a placement yet, you may be wondering what to expect. Or if you are currently experiencing your first placement, you are being introduced to some new routines and new experiences.
What are some tips a new foster parent should know in order to make their time fostering as successful as possible?
One thing I would tell foster parents is that you will get attached, and you will love these kids. Some placements may be nearer and dearer than others. I definitely think that the length of the placement can play a part in how strong the bond is, although it isn’t always a factor. I have had some kids that were with me a short time, but I loved them dearly; other kids may have been with me longer and we hadn’t quite bonded fully.
Because you will love many children who enter your home, it means you will feel loss when they return to their family. You will mourn. It will be a trauma for you to lose the child(ren) you have grown to love and cared for when they needed you most. You will wonder how they are for years to come. They will always be a part of you, and thoughts of them may sneak up out of nowhere to pull at your heartstrings.
Even though loving the children may cause you trauma when they leave, do not put up walls with them. They need your love desperately. If you are too scared to love the children and experience the emotional journey, you may want to reconsider your path.
As you begin your fostering journey, you will realize that kids often come with very little. They often don’t have many toys or changes of clothing with them. I found it helpful to stock up on clothing and toys for the age groups I was fostering. For me, that meant having bins of both boy’s and girl’s clothing, from newborn to juniors sizes. I acquired these bins gradually as I had placements. As I began fostering and realizing how much I may need, I began buying things at thrift stores, yard sales, and clearance items. I found the end of season clearance racks to be a good place to purchase items that may be needed in the future. For instance, a warmer coat for cooler weather, when purchased at the end of the season, costs only $5 compared to the regular price of $45! That savings felt like it was worth storing these things in bins for unlimited amounts of time. I also began maintaining bins of age-appropriate toys for infants, toddlers, and older kids.
A good thing to remember is if you buy something specifically for a child, that item ought to go with them if or when they leave your home. However, if you have items in the home that are shared items, those should remain in the home.
For instance, if you take the child to a store and buy them a plush toy that they wanted, that toy is theirs to keep. However, if you pull out a bin of toys that you have in your home and let them play with the Legos, you are not required to send those Legos with them when they leave your home. Unless, of course, you want to.
In addition to clothing and toys, I found we had a stock of mattresses, beds, and cribs in storage. We also had items like high chairs, car seats, and boosters on hand.
Another tip for new foster parents is that you should know your county’s rules on pets. If you become licensed to foster and add a pet to your home afterward, you must let your foster care coordinator know about the new addition. Some areas have strict rules on pets. Some may even have rules regarding certain breeds or different types of animals (especially “exotic” pets). You may not be able to foster if you have certain animals.
If you are thinking of potentially adopting from foster care, you will want to discuss this with your worker and become a pre-adoptive home by completing a home study for adoption. This will allow you to take placement of children who are at legal risk or who may have an adoption plan. If you do not have yourself listed as a known pre-adoptive resource, you may be overlooked for these types of placements.
Another thing new foster parents need to know is that all communication with social workers is documented. Any communication that is in writing becomes a permanent part of the case record. This means that if you send an email to your social worker, that email is part of the permanent record. It is important to be sure that what you write is acceptable to be read in court. Refrain from criticizing or complaining. Instead, offer facts and ask for direction from the social workers involved in the case.
For instance, if you have a case where the parents have visits with the child over a mealtime and the kids are returned to you unfed, do not email the caseworker with a furious tone of, “These parents aren’t even feeding their children during their 4-hour visit! They come back to us hungry and we end up putting them to bed much later than usual because we have to make them food when they return. This is unacceptable. Why aren’t they being fed?”
Instead, send an email stating the facts: “The children have not received a meal during their visits that stretch from after school to near bedtime. It has been hard to keep them on their routine as they are hungry when they return, and we are making them meals when it is typically their bedtime. Should I send a meal with them to their visits to help keep with the routine?”
The way you communicate matters, especially when in written form. It can be difficult to remember this at times, especially when you are frustrated with something.
Another good thing to think about as a new foster parent is educating yourself on things you run into with placements. While you have had some education in order to be licensed, it is helpful to continue learning about different things. For instance, reading research on childhood trauma and the effect it has on brain development is helpful when parenting children who have experienced a lot of trauma. These kids often do not respond to “regular” parenting techniques.
If you are taking the placement of a child who has any diagnosed health condition, physical or mental, research what it is and how you need to deal with it. Speak to pediatricians and try to learn as much as you can. Education is something you can never have too much of, so keep researching!
Another tip for new foster parents is to ask questions. When you get a call about a placement, do not be afraid to ask a lot of questions about the potential placement. You will want to know about any behavioral issues and any health issues. You will want to know a bit about the family history, and what the placement will entail (will there be numerous visits to work into the schedule, or are there no visits allowed because of a court order?). Consider where the child will need to be transported for visits, school, and appointments if applicable. Will you be able to get the child where they need to be with minimal disruption to you and your family? Will the child’s schedule fit in with your family schedule, and will the placement work out for you? Consider what the child has been through and if you are comfortable having the child with you and your other children if there are behavior issues because of their traumatic past.
Remember, if a placement doesn’t seem to be a good fit, you do not have to accept the placement. You are able to tell the social worker that you do not believe you are the right placement option and that you do not wish to take placement of the child. The worker will move on and contact other families until the right fit is found. You will still get calls for other placements. The foster care system is in desperate need of foster families. Do not worry that you will be taken off the list as a potential foster home if you choose to pass on a placement that you don’t feel is right for your family.
The “honeymoon” period with a new placement is real. You may have heard people talking about this and thought it silly. You will experience the honeymoon stage with new placements. This is the time when both you and the child are not quite yourselves. You are adjusting to each other and may be testing boundaries a bit to see how each other reacts. As a foster parent, you may be extra lenient during this time of adjustment, and learning about the new child living in your home. Instead of giving a consequence when the child takes food into the bedroom (after you have told them that your household rule is no food in the bedrooms), you may simply smile and give them a gentle reminder. Other kids in the home may become upset with your tolerance of rule-breaking during the honeymoon phase. They may also begin testing you again. The honeymoon phase may mean that the new placement is following every direction they are given and trying their best not to make any waves. Or, it may mean that they are pushing buttons to see what happens. Typically though, this phase refers to everyone being on their best behavior. After a length of time, it could be days, weeks, or months, when everyone becomes comfortable, their true personality will come out.
It is also important to remember as new foster parents that this is not an easy path. There may be times when you need a break. If you have current placements but need a break, ask for respite care. If you are just coming out of a placement that has you emotionally drained, you can tell the caseworkers that you would like a little time before being asked to take in another child. You can request that you have a bit of time with your family to refocus and heal from the foster journey.
It is also important to know that secondary trauma can occur from being foster parents. The trauma that these children have experienced may cause you to experience trauma from them as well. There is also trauma in having a placement who you love return to their family. Fostering is a journey that is full of trauma. But it is also an experience that will change you as a person and help you grow. Knowing that trauma is part of the journey, be proactive. Do not be afraid to see a counselor or therapist. Because foster parents are bound by confidentiality, it is often hard to find a way to talk to someone about what you are experiencing, or what the child has experienced, and how it is affecting your household. Friends may not understand why you continue to provide a home for a child who may be destructive or disrespectful. They do not know the child’s abusive past, and you are unable to share it with them. Fostering can be very difficult when you need to talk but do not have anyone you can talk to outside of the home. Having a counselor, therapist, or support group is something that can be extremely helpful during the foster care journey. Self-care is extremely important when you are trying to care for others.
When you become a foster parent, you are opening your home to scrutiny. It is important to document the time you have with children. Keep records of behavioral incidents, doctor visits, parent visitations, etc. By documenting these things, you may help find out what triggers behavior changes. Documentation can also help protect you from false allegations, should they occur. You can never document too much, but you can document too little. When doing your documenting, try to keep your personal opinion out of it, as these may become part of the record as well. Feel free to keep a journal of your feelings that is separate from anything you might share with the caseworker if you need that outlet.
Foster parenting is an emotional journey. Good luck!
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.