Did you know that May is Foster Care Awareness month? As I am entering my 6th year of being a foster parent, I have been asked to speak at the annual foster care awareness training/celebration here which also serves as the introduction of a new class of certified foster parents (meaning they have now graduated from their 10 week training, completed their background checks, home studies, etc and are now ready to open their homes to children in need.) I remember that week and eagerness very clearly AND then I remember the year of waiting I had until my first placement. Oh, the agony.
So I thought I would create a list of things I have learned as a foster parent over the years. To make it easy, I’m calling them my STAND tips…because isn’t that what we are doing, STANDing in for someone to raise up and protect these children for as short respite or for a life time?
- Stand Right Behind Them – This comes from a saying in our home. Foster kids have lots of people in their lives: parents, siblings, social workers, judges, guardian at litems, CASA workers to name a few. It can become overwhelming to an adult, let alone a child. I’ve always told the kids, I will always be right behind you. From behind them I can see everything that is going on without being in the way, but even more important I can catch them if they fall and carry them when needed. Obviously, depending on the age of your child there will be a limit to their independence, but in general these children need to be empowered and safe. The combination is key. Let me start making age appropriate decisions for themselves quickly, you be the guidelines, not the ruler.
- You Can Never have Too Many – You can never have too many people who love you and care about you, and in our house, you can never have too many siblings. We started fostering when Princess and Little Gymnast were young. I waited until they were old enough to speak and tell me what was happening as I felt that was important before I brought an unknown in our home, but nonetheless, they were young. So I had to explain them to what foster kids were and how they would fit into our lives. We called them “pretend” brothers and sisters. And that has stuck. Every placement we have had has become a brother/sister to my children, albeit “pretend” sometimes. They play with them like siblings, do chores with them, fight with them and celebrate with them. When foster kids have then been taken away, that relationships stands, it’s not lost and it does not change.
- Put on Your Listening Ears – It’s only in the quiet that the truth can be heard. No one knows our children’s stories better than them. But they also only know it from a child’s perspective. Foster kids are kind of like puzzles where some of the pieces are missing the image, like the paper is torn off. We have a hard time seeing the big picture because while we see the results, we don’t always know the cause. It is our job has parents not necessarily to jump in a starting “fixing” but rather to listen. Children are resilient, I firmly believe that they will tell us what they need if we just pay attention.
- You Can Say No – But do it early! If once the placement is described to you, if you are not comfortable, say No. If there is an appointment or visit made that you can’t get to or you already have something else scheduled, say No. This gives the workers times to find an alternate placement and/or time to reschedule things. I made it very clear during training that I would old take older kids, our county has always supported that preference, but even if there is some other reason why you don’t feel you can take a placement, say it up front. Also, visits get to be time consuming – you’ll have social workers coming to your house, guardian at litems making appointments with the kids, CASA workers, their parents and the list goes on and on based on the needs of your child. You can say “no, that doesn’t work for me.” You can say “no, I can’t get them to that appointment.” The workers are there to support you, they will help. Just breathe and take one step at a time.
- Don’t Rush! Be Patient and Flexible – I have to be honest, I was sad I didn’t have a long term placement quickly or even with those first few respite placements, but in the end, it turned out to be a blessing, it gave us a chance to really learn the process before we did have our first long term placement. And then you have to start all over with being patient with your new child, letting them learn their path and let you in, working with the system of people in place to support you and the child. Just breathe, you will get through it.
Bonus: Last night I sat down with my twins who were fostered with me at the age of 12, adopted right before their 15th birthday and now we are staring down the last two years of high school and beyond together. I asked them to tell me what I could have done better or that I did well. (Yes, I was totally fishing for a compliment.) And they surprised me with their suggestions.
Be the Parent and Be Consistent – Foster or not, a child needs a parent not another “friend.” When the twins came to me, they had more “friends” than they have hairs on their heads. Between Facebook “friend” and Instagram “friend” and Twitter “follower” and then those kids at school that they had seen once or twice who were their “best friends.” As a parent it is our job to set boundaries, set consequences for breaching those boundaries, model good adult behavior and let it be forgotten reward for good behavior and celebrate achievements. In Sea Cadet’s own words, “don’t tell me I did something wrong and then turn around and say ‘that’s okay, just don’t do it again.'” Out of the mouth of my 16 year old, almost grown son, he in a back handed way said “thank you for the boundaries and consequences.” Wow!
Make it Fun, or at least Less Stressful – Put yourself in their shoes…taken from the home, parents they know whether it be a good or bad place and then shoved into a stranger’s house with their stuff swiftly packed in something. They have not a clue what they are going too. My twins were an emergency removal from their 2nd foster care placement of the year…their stuff was shoved into garbage bags and most of it was wet. They got here right at dinner time, but the workers had already fed them. I was told at drop off they would stay home the next day (switching school districts) so what did I do, more on a whim than planned…we went to the movies. It was awesome! And by the time we left the movie after having popcorn and candy, we had something cool to talk about other than the weirdness that is a foster care placement. It was History Buff who brought this one up. He was so glad for that introduction to the family, and this is my son who would be happy talking to a wall. He said he would have felt so weird if we hadn’t done that, just “sitting down and talking” was a scary thought. So while the movies may not be everyone’s plan, it certainly worked for us.