I try to avoid giving unsolicited advice (hey – I said try), especially since “new” is such a subjective word. Heck, I’m new to foster care compared to someone who has been doing it twenty years. However, I’m coming up on three years, and I’ve noticed a few things that seem to be reoccurring themes. And I think anyone who is starting out, or who is considering starting the journey, should try their best to avoid a few things. Sometimes it isn’t easy to identify we’re heading down a bad path, if the path doesn’t seem all that horrible in the moment. But just like with most things, these pitfalls will make foster care harder than it needs to be, and I think we should do our best to stay off these roads altogether.
1. Don’t let someone else guilt you into taking more children than you can parent well. Decide ahead of time that it is okay to say, “No.”
This would seem obvious, but I’m not so sure it is. Once you get all your foster care placements, the calls don’t stop, and at the end of every single call is a child who needs your home and you. These calls don’t stop until you’ve said no enough to not be on the list of people to call. That takes a while. But the thing is, every single time you get a call, your heart tells you that of course you COULD take another child in. There’s certainly a space where you could put a bed in some corner somewhere. And every story is horrible. One time we got a call about a sweet little four year old who spoke no English and needed a home where at least one person spoke Spanish. He had just been discarded by his illegal immigrant mother because she preferred to stay with an abusive man over keeping her child. And by that I mean the state had literally told her that they would provide her a safe place to stay so she could keep her child, instead she sent her child away. If we hadn’t been on our way out of town at that moment, I’m not sure we would’ve stood firm on our one child at a time policy. But you can’t say yes to every child. And you have to tell yourself ahead of time that you have a responsibility to the child or children you have already said yes to. I’m tired of seeing and hearing stories about foster children who lived in places with so many kids that they got sloppy parenting instead of the kind of parenting they needed to be successful. Part of the reason we went into foster care was to provide strong parenting to help turn kids from statistics into successes. And I’d rather see a foster home provide stellar parenting to a few kids over the years, than to turn out forty kids that don’t look any different than they would’ve if they’d stayed in their dysfunctional homes. If you don’t think you can parent them well for the long haul, then please say no. Focus on the one(s) you already have.
2. Don’t develop a martyr/hero syndrome. The foster care journey isn’t about you.
I honestly think this one feeds into the first one. We get the call and we think, “I must take this child or no one else will. It’s me against the world!” No, it isn’t. They will call the next person on the list. When we approach foster care from the vantage point that we are offering ourselves on the altar of the cause, all we’re doing is turning our home into one of the stereotypical foster homes people like to point out as what’s wrong with the system. Foster parents don’t need to suffer for the cause. Foster parents need to provide a stable, loving environment to the kids in their homes. If a foster parent needs the attention and adoration of the masses for “giving themselves to the point of affliction for so many children,” then I’d argue they should get out of fostering. Immediately. Fostering isn’t about getting an award at the end of the line for having taken care of the most children ever. Don’t get me wrong, it is WONDERFUL when people are equipped to do a good job with lots of children. I’ve heard incredible stories of outstanding people who changed the lives of countless children. But you know what I’m also positive of? Those aren’t the people who were doing it for attention or an award. They were the people who fostered day after day, year after year, and got to the end of the journey with a long list of kids who loved them because they did their job WELL. What about the other kids who were funneled through homes with too many children because the parents took on the martyr role instead of the parenting role? Foster parents are not heroes or saints. They’re normal people stepping in to care for a child that needs a home. The least we can do is make sure that the home we provide is parented by healthy adults doing it for the right reasons.
3. Don’t start approaching other people in the system as the enemy. Foster care is a team effort, and every single person on the team is mandatory.
I have been so blessed to have had excellent case workers, guardians ad litem, and overall really positive experiences with most agency people I’ve encountered. I’ve developed good relationships with bio-parents/family. In some ways, this has been good luck. In some ways, I’m just going to say it, it is because I approach it with a good attitude. I take the time to listen to the case workers, who are often underpaid and over worked. I offer my home to them as a place to relax and enjoy the child they are checking in on. I am not overly needy. I don’t complain over every single thing that goes wrong. I LIKE them as people, and respect them as the people with the most control over what happens to the child I love. I try to keep the guardian ad litem in the loop if the case worker doesn’t have time. I listen to them, as well. They are volunteering their time to care for the child in my home. They have to spend endless hours in court, they have to deal with the bio-parents, who don’t always appreciate them. They just want to help children. I give them information about what is going on between the child and their bio-parents, I help them in whatever way I can. I try, in the beginning and when reasonable, to keep the child and their bio-parent as connected as possible. I treat the parents with respect and dignity. I don’t automatically assume they are horrible people, just because they’ve made horrible mistakes. I go out of my way to give them as much time as possible with their children, because odds are pretty good that the child will be returning to their home. How have I helped the child if I haven’t helped the parents become better parents? The children in our homes have a team of people dedicated to doing what’s right for them, the team needs to work in harmony in order to have the best outcome possible. Foster parents can’t work on a team where they view everyone else as the enemy.
4. Don’t forget that each little individual that comes to you has a story. How you interact with them and their story determines who they will be as future adults.
Your approach to each little one informs how they feel about themselves and the place they come from. It molds them. Even the little ones, who are often seen as clean slates, no matter their past. I was talking to a foster mom the other day who has a sweet little eight or nine month old. That sweet baby has been in THREE foster homes in his short little life. Imagine how hard it is for him to learn trust and feel stable. Every person he’s developed relationship with has, for one reason or another, been removed from his life. The most important thing she can do is teach this little guy how to bond. His brain needs rewiring. But how will she remember what’s important if she glosses over his story? Learning as much as we can, and using that information to educate ourselves on every single aspect of parenting that child is vital. I’ll never forget our first, sweet foster daughter. She desperately needed to learn that it was okay to feel things. And to communicate those feelings. It took hours of talking to her with very little response to get her to open up. It took sharing my own feelings about things, even negative feelings, to show her that feelings are okay, as long as you deal with them appropriately. Of course, by the time she left, she had well learned that lesson and was pretty hard to shut up. Haha. Taylor your parenting to each child and spend whatever time is necessary to ensure they get what they need, even if they’re only with you for a short time.
5. Take care of yourself. Find small breaks when you can.
This is good advice for all parents, not just foster parents, but all the more for foster parents. Fostering is often draining, stressful, and frustrating for reasons that go way beyond parenting. Sometimes you just have to step away for a second. Last night, after a weird week of hurricanes and football games, the baby was EXTREMELY frustrating at bed time. I felt myself getting annoyed. So I made a handoff to the hubby. And when the little booger had overstayed his welcome with dad, I tagged back in. Sometimes, you just have to step back and breathe. The better you feel, the better parent you’ll be. Don’t try to take on everything, even when you know you’re at your limit. It’s not helping you, and it’s not helping the kids in your care. Again, avoid trying to be a martyr. Ask for help when you need it. Sometimes, even a ten minute break is enough to reset your mind and you can dig back in with the right frame of mind.
Fostering is a wonderful undertaking, but I think everyone who does it should always be evaluating and re-evaluating. With traumatized children, it’s imperative that we provide healthy homes with healthy adults. Let’s at the very least avoid the obvious pitfalls. Let’s make fostering as easy as possible so more people will see it as something they, too, can do!