Roughly half a million children are in the foster care system in the U.S., according to recent statistics from Child Welfare. About half are eventually reunited with their families while one-fifth are adopted. Many of them entered the foster system as victims of abuse and neglect, but what about the foster parents who step in to care for these vulnerable children when they are in crisis? While there is plenty of data about foster children, information about foster parents can be elusive. I talked to foster parents, not to obtain statistics, but to hear their stories. This is what they want you to know.
1. FOSTER PARENTS AREN’T SUPERHEROES
Most foster parents want to dispel the myth that they’re saints. Foster parent Heather Grimes says she’s accustomed to people telling her, “I could never do that.” Grimes and her husband have one biological child and have fostered two younger children, one of whom they adopted. While she says it took a lot of soul-searching in deciding to become foster parents, their decision wasn’t driven by the conviction that they were superhuman. Rather, they chose to take on the challenge to show their biological daughter the value of helping others. They also felt it was important to be open to the experience, rather than ruling it out based on fear of the unknown.
Dr. John DeGarmo says, foster parents are, in many ways, like all parents. Having fostered over 50 children and as the director of The Foster Care Institute, he understands how vulnerable foster parents are to fatigue, setbacks, and disappointments. “There are times when we succeed, and there are times when we experience failures. We are not the perfect parents. We are simply trying our best to provide a home and family for a child who needs one, and help a child in need.”
2. YES, DEALING WITH LOSS IS HARD (BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE)
Many foster parents mentioned are frequently fielding questions about what happens when the child is taken away from them. Mary and Ken, whose foster child was ultimately reunited with his family, talked about how frequently people express apprehension over the idea of getting “too close” to the child only to have the child reunite with his biological family. She says, “I find that perspective peculiar, considering we rarely, if ever, take this stance on other relationships. We don’t avoid having good friends or a romantic relationship because those engagements might someday come to an end. In fact, many of them do end and we accept that as part of our life experience.”
As an expert in the field, Dr. DeGarmo encounters the question, “Doesn’t it hurt too much to give them back?” several times a week. Of course it hurts, he says; heartache is to be expected. “When the child leaves our home and our family, our hearts should break. We should experience feelings of grief and loss. After all, we have given all of our hearts and love to a child in need.”
Grimes, whose first foster child was eventually reunited with her biological family, says it was extremely challenging–though not impossible–to be separated from the child, who lived with the Grimes family for nearly a year. Two years later, Grimes says, “Her photo is still on our fridge, from her first birthday, in that adorable jumper, sitting on the fake grass outside of Sweet Cow Ice Cream. Her eyes are the most gorgeous shade of blue.” While the Grimes family may have moved on with their lives, that little girl is still in their hearts.
3. FOSTER KIDS ARE NOT BAD KIDS
Many parents said they often receive comments about how hard it must be to deal with difficult, out-of-control kids. In reality, says Emily, another foster parent, most are not bad kids. The foster mom of a two year old and having fostered three children previously, she explains, “They just grew up in chaotic, unhealthy environments without proper adult supervision. They are capable of learning the right way to behave, express their emotions, etc. if you take the time to show/teach them.”
Tammy Hoskins says being trauma-informed is crucial in supporting foster children. Hoskins works for a nonprofit serving the needs of high-risk youth and is the mother of 10 children, 4 of whom are biological children and 6 of whom she adopted through the foster system. Because their brains are still developing, children are especially vulnerable to the deleterious effects of trauma, including difficulty with learning, social-emotional development, brain structure, cognition, physical health, and attachment. Hoskins says, “To understand, to empathize and to work with them in collaborative ways to solve problems is crucial to their healing.” The work of Daniel Siegel, Karen Purvis, and webinars available through the Center for Adoption Support and Education (CASE) are among the many resources she recommends foster parents take advantage of.
4. THE FOSTER SYSTEM ISN’T JUST A COLD BUREAUCRACY
While the foster system can be impersonal and frustrating, known for its many rules and regulations, it has its upsides, too. Dr. DeGarmo points out that foster parents are helping not just the children, but the whole family. He notes that many biological parents of foster children were in the foster system themselves, and for lack of resources, are stuck in this cycle. ”Part of being a foster parent is helping the parents of the children living with us; helping our fellow human beings.”
Grimes was surprised to find how much she appreciated being part of the foster system. “I appreciated interacting with the parents of [our first foster child], with the social workers, medical professionals, everyone. I felt like I was supporting a bigger cause. I felt such a sense of pride that my family chose to go to such great lengths for others.”
From talking to foster parents, I learned that being a foster parent doesn’t require a superhero cape, sainthood, or limitless patience. It does take commitment, compassion and a desire to help others, including both the foster child and their family. As most foster parents were quick to point out, the biological parents aren’t necessarily bad people; they love their kids and they have flaws–like all parents.
TIPS FOR FOSTER PARENTS
1. Never forget a foster parent is a very respectable “job,” as foster parents perform a “job” that not many are willing to do-providing care for another person’s child.
2. When a child misbehaves, always take a moment to step back and
consider what may be the root cause of the misbehavior and what need he is trying to meet.
3. Never take a child’s misbehavior or harsh words personally; foster children have experienced trauma that will affect them throughout their entire life.
4. More than anything, foster children need to be loved and feel secure.
5. No matter how horrendous her birth parents have been, never speak ill of a foster child’s birth parents.
6. Care for a foster child as if he were your own child. When introducing your foster child to others, leave out the term “foster.”
7. Build upon the child’s assets with praise and reward instead of always choosing to use discipline and punishment. A child is more likely to learn this way.
8. Never make a promise you can’t keep; no matter how big or small. This is how trust is built.
9. Remember, a foster child likely didn’t choose to become a foster child; unfortunate circumstances forced her into foster care.
10. Imagine how difficult it would be to be taken from everything you know, no matter how bad the abuse or neglect, and placed into a strange family’s home. Everything would be different from what they eat, to how they talk, to the rules, etc.
11. Don’t try to change a foster child by forcing him to conform to your family’s characteristics; rather, embrace him for the unique individual he is.
12. Although the day-to-day tasks of being a foster parent may seem daunting at times, never forget the positive impact you are making on the child’s life for the present and future.
Provided by the National Youth Advocate Program Louisiana ■ nyap.org