I am writing to offer some advice for you to consider as you contemplate signing up to be a foster parent. Let me start by telling you a short story. At the beginning of the year I took 8 year old twins to have transfer physicals at a local pediatrician’s office. A transfer physical is required every time a child moves from one foster home to another and this was their fourth set of transfer physicals in the seven short months I had been on the case. These children, while utterly adorable, are a force to be reckoned with- bundles of nonstop energy in motion. As it turns out, energetic twins in motion will stay in motion, especially in new locations where there are magazines to read and then discard on the floor, office supplies to borrow from the receptionist (when she isn’t looking), and snacks to munch from new friends who weren’t really intending to share. It was a bit chaotic but we finally got called back into the room. When it came time for the actual physicals the room was suddenly quiet, but not a particularly satisfying type of quiet as it came from their anxiety about the potential of “getting a needle.” Once assured that it was just a quick check-up they immediately perked back up and reverted to their mischievous selves that warranted the doctor uttering the phrase “don’t touch that” approximately one hundred times in twenty minutes.
As the twins started to put their shoes on to leave one of them turned to me, face glowing in pride, and shouted, “Ms. E, I figured it out!” “What did you figure out?” I asked as I tried to wrangle the other child’s foot into a boot without losing an eye. “When we are bad we come to the doctor and then you take us to another home to see if that person thinks we are good or bad!” The words were said with such glee in the discovery that they had figured out the pattern- it was heartbreaking, mostly because it was true. Four sets of foster parents had decided over the course of seven months that they could not keep the children in their home, so four times they had their possessions packed up and delivered to me at the agency, I would accompany them to their transfer physical, buy them lunch, and then take them to a new home full of strangers.
Now I don’t mean to start this letter on a negative note. I don’t write these words to pass judgment on the parents who could not keep these children in their homes. I write this because I have seen in my time as a case planner that there is an increasingly common trend of foster parents putting in their “ten day notice” without really trying (in my opinion) to preserve the placement. I urge you to consider with utmost care what you are capable of doing and how you will cope with a foster child who is not perfect because I am here to tell you a not-so-secret secret: NO child is perfect. Regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sexual-orientation or even placement into foster care: every child presents unique and often frustrating challenges.
I understand that what I am asking of you is impossible: I want you to love that child in your home like your own but with an understanding that they could leave at any moment. They could go to a relative who you don’t like. They could go to a grandparent who has very little money or a recovering parent residing in a shelter. You might not approve of the circumstances and no matter what it will probably break your heart because you did what I asked of you- you loved that child like your own. It is a heavy emotional price to pay if you want to be a foster parent, but I assure you the investment is worth the pain. The love, time, and energy that you put into raising that child, no matter the duration of time, will always be with them. What I ask of you is that you remember that no child is perfect and it will take time for a child to adjust to your home. Being a foster parent does not mean that you are “saving” a child. Children and youth might not be happy with you by no fault of your own, almost all children want to be with their family, even in cases of severe abuse and neglect. Their biological parents will not be perfect, just like you yourself are not a perfect parent. Their faults as parents might be more substantial but try your best to not be judgmental. Almost all parents with children in care (I would say at least 99.99%) love their children and want to protect and provide for them. They might not express their love the same way you do, but at the end of the day the children love their parents and, usually, want to go home.
I write this so that you will know ahead of time what to expect, but don’t be discouraged! Children are so wonderful, they love freely and without conditions, they will love multiple parents without the constraints of labels like “biological” and “foster.” I ask that you summon as much patience as is humanly possible, and then maybe a little more. Patience will be key to preserving your sanity. Nothing in child welfare runs on time and the only thing that is predictable is the promise of change. Be patient with the child and be patient with yourself. To be a truly phenomenal foster parent you have to practice exceptional self-care so don’t feel selfish when you prioritize your own physical and mental health above other things.
I commend you for considering this adventure because it is not a small commitment, children are precious but their needs are many. You will be busy with appointments and visits and meetings and you will feel exhausted and discouraged. And perhaps on that lowest of days you will come home to crayon mural of expletives on your newly painted wall or the leftover ashes of a joint in your mother’s antique ceramic pot. You might say that this is not for you, that this child cannot possibly stay one more day. Try to remember when you were a child or a teen, I am sure you did a few things that drove your parents crazy. And if you were somehow an angel in your childhood I am sure you had friends with rebellious streaks and their parents, while tempted to ship them to a circus, kept them because they were their children. I ask that if you truly want to be a foster parent then you commit to have this level of love for a child, a type of love that prevails over a storm of negatives when the positives can be few and far between.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for support and additional resources, don’t think that you are alone. As a case planner I know and love the children but I am not raising them 24/7- you are the one doing morning and bedtime routines and everything in between so you might feel like I don’t really understand when you tell me what is going on. Try joining a support group for foster parents so you can vent to someone who actually understands what you are going through on a daily basis, someone who might have also scrubbed some curse words off of furniture or waited up for teenagers who don’t mind curfews. Other people who have practice in negotiating the tumultuous waters of foster care and the extensive responsibilities and requirements you face. Build up your support network so that your friends and family can learn how to better help you and the child get everything done. Find someone to remind you on a daily basis how strong and wonderful you are. But please, unless there is a safety risk to you, the child, or your family, please don’t send a child back to the agency because they “aren’t the right fit.” Children are not puzzle pieces, there is no such thing as a perfect fit.
Please try a little longer, because the sunshine might be right behind this passing storm cloud but no one, not even the child or youth themselves, knows that it is so close. I ask you the impossible: love that child like they are your own and pour every last bit of your love and devotion into a child that you may never see again if/when they leave. You could be the one to help a child discover their true potential, to give them stability they might have been missing, you could help lead them to the sunshine, whatever that light may be. Just be prepared for the storms, and please don’t throw in the umbrella too soon because every day in the life of child is precious and they deserve someone who will be around regardless of the weather.
Your future case planner