Batman had Robin. Robin was a trusty sidekick who helped Batman in times of trouble. Batman even had his butler Alfred help him out every once in a while. Every superhero had a sidekick—a ward or simply someone who he mentored who supported him in every way and did things when he couldn’t be everywhere at once. Here is the lesson about superheroes: even the best need someone to assist them every now and again!
Foster parents are my superheroes. They take the risk of allowing strangers into their homes to care for them as long as they need it. They make these children a part of their family and home in order to show them unconditional love, even when it is difficult to do so. But even superheroes need a break; they need time to heal their wounds. They need time to “recharge their batteries.” They need to receive counsel. They need to step away from chaos. They need time to strategize and to plan their next move. That’s what respite is.
WHAT IS RESPITE?
Respite is a time of planned or unplanned time away from foster children in order for parents to recharge their batteries. Respite is a time to refill your cup. Think of it this way: the beginning of every airplane flight, the attendant demonstrates what to do in an emergency. They always insist on adults placing the oxygen on their mouths before assisting their children. Why? Because you cannot help your child if you pass out from a lack of oxygen. Respite is the time that foster parents need to get their oxygen.
WHY DON’T MORE FOSTER PARENTS TAKE ADVANTAGE OF RESPITE?
Surprisingly enough, many foster parents reject respite. Why? Read on.
- I’m Wonder Woman. Yes, I consider many foster moms to be Wonder Women. They can do it all! They can cook, clean, drive the carpool, sit on the women’s auxiliary, and care for a foster child all at the same time. That’s what is expected of them, and that’s what they expect from themselves. Take a break? Ha! Did Wonder Woman ever take a break? Respite? Ha! Respite is for mere mortals. (Of course, I’m being facetious). But foster moms are mortal. They do need eight hours of sleep. They do need time to get away. Foster moms can get burnt out. Feelings of inadequacy pop up every once in a while. Foster moms were never meant to be superheroes; they were meant to be moms who advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves.
- I’m The Lone Ranger. Even the Lone Ranger had a sidekick. He wasn’t ever alone. Foster parents sometimes can get isolated. Foster parents need community. They need someone to rely on to bounce ideas off of, get advice from, or just to help carry the burden. Oftentimes, they do not reach out for help because that would destroy the persona of a superhero. Some foster parents may think it will show weakness, and word would get out that they are not a good parent. But requesting respite does not show weakness; it shows humanity. Foster parents were never meant to be a Lone Ranger. Foster parents need community.
WHY IS RESPITE IMPORTANT TO FOSTER PARENTS?
- Unexpected circumstances. Hey, life happens. We cannot always prevent untimely events from occurring, but when they do occur, we need to make sure we have a respite plan in place. Foster children have experienced enough trauma in their lives; we don’t need to compound it. Here are some circumstances that may warrant a trip to respite.
- Funerals. Foster children have been traumatized through abuse, neglect, or abandonment. It may further traumatize them by bringing them to a funeral. Remember, foster children are already feeling like they have suffered a tremendous loss in being separated from their parents. We don’t need to be placing more of a burden upon them by dragging them to a funeral. This would be a good time to place your child in respite.
- Illnesses. Hooray for moms who get sick but keep going. No one ever foresees getting sick. There is the feeling that “someone has to care for the kids.” But no foster parents should feel that they have to. Even a few hours, here and there, can make a world of difference, especially if that foster mom has young foster children. In the event of long-term illnesses or even hospitalizations, respite could come in handy. Respite in this case could prevent disruptions or a change in placement. And again, it could give the child the consistency and continuity of care she or he needs.
- Trainings. Receiving ongoing training or in-services are invaluable. Keeping up on the latest trends in child welfare is important. Getting respite to get that needed training is time worth spent. And nowadays, there are many online resources, so leaving the comfort of your home may not even be necessary. Take advantage of as much training as time will allow.
- Weddings. Marriage! Weddings are a happy occasion. Depending on the level of functioning, this may be the perfect occasion to bring your foster child to, or not. If you are in the wedding and have no one to babysit your foster child, respite may be a good idea. Perhaps you have to travel and have already bought your airline tickets or if you have fears of your child destroying the wedding cake or having a meltdown at the reading of the vows. All of this may be the time for respite.
- Just because. Foster parents need a break. No one is expected to work seven days a week, 24/7, 365 days a year. We shouldn’t expect that of foster parents either. There is nothing wrong with taking a break. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about that and don’t wait. Take regular, planned breaks. You deserve it.
FOSTER CHILDREN NEED A BREAK
Hey, kids need a vacation, too. Sometimes, a change in scenery works wonders in the life of a foster child. No, respite is not exactly Disneyland or Six Flags. But it could be more like going to grandma’s house or going to visit a cousin. What foster children need is consistency, and they need to know what to expect. That’s exactly what respite offers, and that’s why they thrive in that environment.
- Usually no behavior issues. When a foster child is placed into a foster home, there is usually a “honeymoon period.” It can last anywhere from two days, two weeks, or two months. In other words, a period of time when there is relative calm, peace, and harmony. This is because children are trying to please their foster parents. But with respite, the honeymoon period never ends, generally speaking. Because the respite period is so short, there usually are no behavior issues.
- 1:1 attention. Ah, the joys of uninterrupted attention. Lots of time, foster children are masters of gaining negative attention, especially in a large family. Their logic may be, “If I didn’t get negative attention, I wouldn’t get any attention at all!” Therefore, they crave negative attention. But in a respite home, foster kids are the focus of attention! Being the “new kids” may not be intimidating to them; they’ve been down this road before.
THE ARIZONA MODEL
The state of Arizona is an excellent example of, if properly used, how respite can be a win-win for all involved.
- Agency Respite. Foster families are licensed by the state of Arizona’s Department of Child Safety. However, each licensed family is supervised and monitored by a state foster care agency, which subcontracts with the state of Arizona. Each licensed foster family earns 144 hours of respite per year, per family. That means if a foster family wants to use respite, they can use another foster family, who will care for their foster child for a designated period of time. About 144 hours is a good, round number—equaling about six days or about three weekends per year.
- Behavioral Health Respite. Each foster child in Arizona has the right to be enrolled in behavioral health services for counseling, mentoring, or direct support. There are multiple behavioral health agencies around the state. If a child is enrolled in behavioral health, she is entitled to behavioral health respite hours. In many cases, this could be as many as 560 hours per year in addition to the 144 agency respite hours the family receives. Some of these hours may be overnight; some may not be. Check with your behavioral health agency.
- Personal Respite. In addition to agency and behavioral health respite, Arizona foster parents also have a flexible respite option. This means that foster parents can secure a respite provider of their own choosing for a few hours for emergency purposes. Of course, they need to use reasonable and prudent judgment in choosing a respite provider from the community.
RESPITE TIPS AND SUGGESTIONS
Foster children have undergone enormous trauma. Whether it is abuse, neglect, or abandonment, what they have experienced at a young age no child should have to experience. Therefore, they may present behaviors that are unusual and may actually cause emotional trauma to the foster family. Therefore, the foster family will need respite.
- Use the same respite provider. The one thing that foster children need is consistency. Foster kids who have experienced trauma have a tough time with attachment. They need consistency! To use a different set of respite providers each time you need respite is hard for a foster kid to adjust to. Using the same provider means the child will be familiar with the family, their food, their rules, the family dynamics, and their values. And the bottom line is that foster children have the opportunity to learn to trust one respite provider rather than starting over again and again. For the respite provider, she or he also has the opportunity to get familiar with the child’s behaviors, fears, and triggers. Consistency is king.
- Trainings. Take virtual or online training from the comfort of your home if you have trouble securing babysitting. Zoom meetings are the norm in today’s world and are user-friendly. Another possibility is to ask the training agency to provide babysitting services on-site if it is an in-person training. Lastly, seek training on self-care. You can’t care for others if you can’t care for yourself.
- Networking. Build a network of foster parents in your community with whom you can “swap” kids. In other words is there another foster family who can provide respite for you for free and then you can return the favor for free? This can be an invaluable resource.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE FOSTER FAMILY DOES NOT TAKE RESPITE?
Every foster parent has different strengths and needs. Every foster child has different strengths and needs. Every case is different, but this is generally what happens when a foster family does not get the respite they have earned and so desperately need:
- Burnout. This is generally the feeling that the risks of foster care have vastly outweighed the rewards. The foster parent has nothing left to give physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. Therefore, the child gets the bare minimum as a result.
- Allegations of abuse. A foster parent who has not received needed respite may be at greater risk of receiving an allegation of abuse. Foster parents may feel overwhelmed and forget their training. Whether it’s false or not, allegations can not only jeopardize your foster care credentials, but also put your own family at risk. Get help before it’s too late!
- Disruptions. A foster care disruption is an unplanned move of a foster child from one home to another. This occurs much more than people realize. When a foster child is disrupted, he or she can be set back emotionally for about six months. Respite helps to preserve the placement and is a good alternative to disruption.
- Turnover. One of the main reasons foster parents quit is due to the behavior of the child—the parent felt unprepared or unable to care for a child with extreme behaviors. Not only have the foster parents considered disruption, but they may have also considered resigning from being foster parents for good. This is understandable. You can’t be a foster parent forever. But the more parents step away from fostering, the greater the strain is on the system as a whole. Not having enough foster homes means that other homes may have more children, or more kids will have to travel further to be placed in a good home, or more kids will have to spend the night in a government office building. None of those are good choices. We need more good homes.
If you are currently a foster parent, use your respite hours. No one is going to think less of you. If you are thinking about becoming a foster parent, consider starting off as a respite provider. You will be more valuable than you know!
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.