Guest Post from Contributor Kellie Hamilton
As a caseworker, I have heard time and time again from foster parents that “all they need is love.” Until I started my own journey in this challenging career field, I probably thought the same thing myself. However, I have since learned that this is just one of the biggest misconceptions about the needs of these special children. Yes, all children do need love but love and love alone does not erase what some of these babies have experienced. Here is some advice that I, as a caseworker, have for foster parents or anyone considering fostering.
1. Always remember that these children have witnessed or been victims of various types of trauma and they are not “angels.” You cannot expect these children to behave all the time or be shocked when behaviors that are considered to be unusual are displayed. Give them time to adjust being in a new environment. You cannot possibly expect children who have experienced abuse and/or neglect, have been ripped away from, most likely, the only home they have ever known, and then placed with total strangers to open up to you and reveal their innermost secrets or what they have been through. Get to know them and let them get to know you. As with any relationship, trust has to be built and that takes time. Parents are the first people that children learn to trust and if that has been broken, it takes time to learn how to trust, if they can learn to trust at all.
2. Treat children in care as you would your own child. Seems like common sense huh? Yet it still bothers me that some foster parents do not do this…and it is not always subtle. I have met foster parents that will not transport a child to any appointment if it is not required that they do so. I think this is what bothers me the most and I often want to ask “what would you do if this was your biological child we were talking about?” And that is what you should ask yourselves…what if this were my child? Would I not take them or find a way to get them where they need to be? If you bring restaurant or fast food home for the family, then that foster child deserves to eat the same food that your own family is having. If you allow your children to participate in extracurricular activities, then so should your foster children, if the interest is there. Just remember… children removed from their homes are placed in foster care (or relative care) to allow them to remain in a home environment and be a part of a loving family.
3. Do insist on an informal meeting, or just a phone conversation, with a child before agreeing to accept them as a placement. This is barring an agency is not seeking an emergency placement, in which case, there is no time for this. This is my own “peering through rose colored glasses” coming out. However, it does make perfect sense and is the ideal if caseworkers are looking at best practice. On paper, you never know if a child will fit into your home and do well. It would make a child more comfortable and you, as a foster parent, if you can meet that child and have a conversation with them before placement. Children going into placement often just want to know a few simple things; if there are other kids in the home, whether you have pets, is the family nice, and if they will have to change schools. As a caseworker, it is heartbreaking not to be able to answer these simple questions for a scared child going into the unknown.
4. Be willing to work with a child and their behaviors. It takes time…a lot of time…to work things out when there are behavior issues involved. Sometimes it is a child’s way of testing you, especially if there are abandonment issues/or a lot of changes in placements. In their own way, they are asking you if you are going to give up on them the way everyone else in their life has. It is up to you as to what your answer is going to be.
If a change in placement is necessary, explain to that child the reason…if you honestly love that child, let them know that and offer to be a support to them no matter where they are. Sometimes, circumstances prevent the maintenance of a placement and it is nobody’s fault. Children take on more responsibility for things than they should and often blame themselves. Let them know they are not to blame.
5. Be open to developing a working relationship with the biological parents. I realize that this sounds very difficult for some and it is not for everyone. Certainly discuss with the child’s caseworker to ensure that there are no safety issues involved (believe it or not, more often there is not a safety issue significant enough to prevent a viable relationship between biological and foster parents). Not everyone makes the best decisions as parents. Biological parents get involved with the child welfare system for a number of reasons. Mothers (or fathers) are in unsafe relationships and there is no way to protect the child(ren) so they have to be placed for their own safety. In this uncertain economy, parents may be having a difficult time and are just not able to provide for their children and do not have other family support to help them. Some struggle with alcohol/or drug addiction issues and it is an unsafe environment for the children. Some struggle with mental health or are very cognitively limited and cannot care for their kids. And yes, there are those that abuse (physically, mentally, sexually) their children or allow others to do so. After working in this system, I have learned that not all parents are “bad” or “evil” monsters. They are normal people just like you or me who may not have the coping skills or supports to handle the situations they find themselves in. Just remember…we are all just a paycheck away from finding ourselves in some of the same situations.
You can be a support to some of these parents. It can be very comforting for a parent to know who is caring for their child. Parents are a great source of information about that child…any routines they may have had at home, their favorite foods, their favorite toys, etc. The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” has never been truer than it is for those involved in the child welfare system. Remember… everything we try to do is for the best interest of children. Bonus… it stops any attempts to triangulate parents, foster parents and caseworkers if children know that everyone is on the same page!
If you are not ready or do not believe you are able to do this, then, at a minimum, send notes to parents for visits. Let them know how their child is doing, what you may be struggling with and ask questions. This also lets the parents know that you acknowledge their role as parents and that you look to them as the experts on their child.
6. Do not speak badly of parents to the children or in front of them. No matter what they have experienced, children are going to love their parents. You are not there to judge what anyone has done and children do not need to hear negative comments about their parents from strangers. Which leads me to the next point…
7. Do not sabotage reunification with a biological parent. Reunification with biological parents has to be the primary goal and this is what caseworkers are required to help parents do. If an agency feels that it is time for reunification, caregivers should not be trying to sabotage this. We all understand that it is difficult to care for a child and then have to let that child go. After all, you are the one who is there for them day to day, feeding them, bathing them, doing homework with them, taking them to appointments, caring for them when they are sick and emotions can get the best of anyone. However, if a biological parent has made the necessary changes to make their environment a safe one for their child, that is where that child belongs.
8. Remember, fostering is not for everyone. It takes a special person to take in a stranger’s child(ren), care for them as if they are your own, and then let them go or to take the next step and adopt if they cannot return home. Caseworkers understand and acknowledge the hard work that goes into fostering. However, if you find that you are not able to treat these children like your own or hate the thought of giving a child up then fostering may not be for you. If you look at fostering as a road leading to adoption be prepared for disappointments. If adoption is your only goal, fostering may not be the avenue for you. It may be better to be an adoption only home rather than a foster to adopt. If you are not willing or able to give a child all that is needed then fostering may not be for you. THIS IS OKAY!!!! Like I said, it is not for everyone! You just have to know in your heart what you are willing and able to do and let the agency know up front!
I have worked with many foster parents over the course of the last eight years. I believe the majority of the ones I have had are doing it for the right reasons and are absolutely wonderful. I have also worked with those who probably should not be fostering. All in all, I value my foster parents. I look to them for information about “my” babies, I trust them to be honest with me and to take care of my babies and in turn I give them all the support and guidance that I can.