I came across this essay recently at Casaubon’s Book, part of the ScienceBlogs network. The author, Sharon Astyk, published it in 2013 as the result of a collaborative discussion on a foster parenting list. She generously offers it up as an informational resource to be shared: “I care much more than people know this than that I get credit – and most of the credit goes to a lot of other wonderful people who want to remain anonymous, most of them wiser and more experienced than I,” she writes in her original post. But I’m happy to give her credit for organizing this extremely useful info. As a foster parent myself, I appreciate what she says, and, as a fairly new and inexperienced foster parent, I learned a lot.
I made some additions and notes to reflect my own experience. I hope you find this as interesting and helpful as I did!
1. We’re not freakin’ saints.
We are doing this because it needs doing, we love kids, this is our thing. Some of us hope to expand our families this way, some of us do it for the pleasure of having laughing young voices around, some of us are pushed into it by the children of family or friends needing care, some of us grew up around formal or informal fostering – but all of us are doing it for our own reasons because we love it and/or love the kids and we are the lucky ones. We get to have these great kids in our lives.
We dislike being told we must be saints or angels. We’re doing something really ordinary and normal – that is, taking care of kids in need. If some children showed up dirty and hungry and needing a safe place on your doorstep, you’d care for them too – we just signed up to be the doorstep they arrive at. The idea of sainthood makes it impossible for ordinary people to do this – and the truth is the world needs more ordinary, human foster parents. This also stinks because if we’re saints and angels, we can’t ever be jerks or human or need help, and that’s bad, because sometimes this is hard.
*I have felt similarly on this point, because in a world where I’m angel I would hate to meet the devils. But I also have to say that while the people who regularly take in foster children may not be saints, they are extraordinarily generous. My husband and I have only fostered kids we hoped and intended to keep in our lives for a long time and I have to say I think it must be more difficult (but also rewarding and wonderful) to have kids coming and going for many years.
2. Watch what you say around the kids.
Thank goodness I have never experienced this personally, and I can’t believe it’s necessary to say, but apparently it happens. “Oh, is their mom an addict?” or “Well, they aren’t your REAL kids are they?” or “Are you going to adopt them?” Not only is that stuff private, but it is horrible for the kids to hear people speculating about their families whom they love — or speculating about their future. Life rule: never say anything bad about anyone’s mother or father, ever. Don’t assume you know what’s going on, and don’t ask personal questions – we can’t tell you anyway.
3. Don’t act surprised that they are nice, smart, loving, well-behaved kids.
One of the corollaries of #1 is that there tends to be an implied assumption that foster kids are flawed – we must be saints because no one else would take these damaged, horrible kids. Well, kids in foster care have endured a lot of trauma, and sometimes that does come with behavioral challenges, but many of the brightest, nicest, best behaved, kindest and most loving children I’ve ever met are foster kids. They aren’t second best kids, they aren’t homicidal maniacs, and because while they are here they are mine, they are the best kids in the world, and yes, it’s insulting to act surprised that they are smart, sweet and loving.
4. Don’t hate on their parents.
Especially, don’t do it in front of the kids. And don’t assume you’re on my side when you’re talking trash.
Nobody chooses to be born mentally ill. No one gets addicted to drugs on purpose. Nobody chooses to be born developmentally delayed, to never have lived in a stable family (and therefore are unable to replicate it). Abusive and neglectful parents often love their kids and do the best they can, and a lot of them can do better if they get help and support. That’s part of the goal of foster care. Even if they can’t, it doesn’t make things better for you to pass judgement.
It is much easier to think of birth parents as monsters, because then you could never be like them. But birth parents are just people with big problems. Birth and foster parents often work really hard to have positive relationships with each other.
5. The kids aren’t grateful to us, and it is nuts to expect them to be, or to feel lucky that they are with us.
They were taken from everything they knew and had to give up parents, siblings, pets, extended family, neighborhood, toys, everything that was normal to them. No one asked them whether they wanted to enter foster care.
We all have complex feelings and ambivalence about things, even when those things are good for us or for the best. Foster kids have those same feelings. We may have a lovely home, but moving into it is not a happily-ever-after for them and it’s not helpful to tell them how lucky they are or how they should feel.
There is no point comparing our home to the one they grew up in. Both homes most likely have things the children like and dislike about them, not the least of which is happy memories.
*I have to admit this one really put things into perspective for me.
6. No, we’re not making bank.
LOL! We get a portion of the child’s expenses reimbursed, and that money is for the child and does not cover everything. Again, this seems obvious but never bring up this money situation in front of the kids. All of a sudden, kids who are being loved and learning to trust worry that you are only doing this because of a pittance from the government. Please keep it to yourself about the friend of a friend who kept the kids in cages and did it just for the money.
7. When you say ‘I could never do that’ as if we’re heartless or insensitive, because we give the kids back to their parents or to extended family, it stings.
Letting kids go IS really hard, but someone has to do it. Not all kids in care come from irredeemable families. Not everyone in a birth family is bad – in fact, many kin and parents are heroic, making unimaginable sacrifices to get their families back together through impossible odds. Yes, it is hard to let kids we love go, and yes, we love them, and yes, it hurts like hell, but the reality is that because something is hard doesn’t make it bad, and you aren’t heartless if you can endure pain for the greater good of your children. You are just a regular parent when you put your children’s interests ahead of your own.
*This was another eye-opener for me, because I’ve yet to experience letting go, and I do think it would be awfully hard.
8. No, they aren’t ours yet.
And they might not be on Thursday either, or next Friday, or the week after. Foster care adoption takes a long time. Even if we hope to adopt, things could change (for example with the kids’ birth family), and it is just like any long journey – it isn’t helpful to ask “Are we there yet” every five minutes.
*This was tough for us when we were trying to adopt Frida. “When will it be final?” unfortunately didn’t have a definite answer until it was final.
9. Most kids will go home or to family, rather than being adopted.
Most foster cases don’t go to adoption. Not every foster parent wants to adopt. And not every foster family that wants to adopt will be adopting or wants to adopt every kid.
Don’t mention the possibility of adoption, especially in front of the kids. The kids may be going to home or to relatives. It may not be an adoptive match. The family may not be able to adopt now. They may be foster-only. Not all older children want or choose to be adopted, and after a certain age, they are allowed to decide. Family building is private— wait for the family to share their news.
10. If we’re struggling – and all of us struggle sometimes – it isn’t helpful to say we should just ‘give them back’ or remind us we brought it on ourselves.
All parents bring their situation on themselves whether they give birth or foster. But once you are a parent, you deal with what you’ve got no matter what. “I told you so” is never helpful. This is especially true when the kids have disabilities or when they go home. Yes, we knew that could happen. That doesn’t make it any easier.
11. Foster kids are not “fake kids,” and we’re not babysitters – they are all my ‘real kids.’
Some may stay forever. Some may go away and come back. Some may leave and we’ll never see them again. But that’s life, isn’t it? Sometimes people in your life go away, too, and they don’t stop being important or loved and missed. How they come into my family or for how long is not the point. While they are here they are my children’s real brothers and sisters, my real sons and daughters. We love them entirely, treat them the way we do all our kids, and never, ever forget them when they leave. Don’t pretend the kids were never here. Let foster parents talk about the kids they miss. Don’t assume that kids are interchangeable – one baby is not the same as the next, and just because there will be more kids later doesn’t make it any easier now.
12. Fostering is HARD.
Take how hard you think it will be and multiply it by 10, and you are beginning to get the idea. Exhausting, gut wrenching and stressful as heck. That said, it is also GREAT, and mostly utterly worth it. It is like Tom Hanks’ character in League of Their Own says about baseball: “It is supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
13. You don’t have to be a foster parent to help support kids and families in crisis.
If you want to foster, GREAT! The world needs more foster families. But we also need other kinds of help.
– Treat foster parents with a new placement the way you would a family that had a baby – it is just as exhausting and stressful. If you can offer to cook dinner, help out with the other kids, or lend a hand in some way, it would be most welcome.
– Offer up your children’s outgrown stuff to pass on – foster parents who do short-term fostering send a lot of stuff home with the kids, and often could use more. Alternatively, many communities have a foster care closet or donation center that would be grateful for your pass-downs in good condition.
– Be an honorary grandparent, aunt or uncle. Kids need as many people in their lives as possible, and relationships that say “you are special.”
– Become a respite provider, taking foster children for a week or a weekend so their parents can go away or take a break.
– Offer to babysit. Foster parents have lives, plus they have to go to meetings and trainings, and could definitely use the help.
– Be a big brother, sister or mentor to older foster kids. Preteens and teens need help imagining a future for themselves – be that help.
– Be an extra pair of hands when foster families go somewhere challenging – offer to come along to the amusement park, to church, to the playground. A big family or one with special needs may really appreciate just an extra adult or a mother’s helper along.
– Support local anti-poverty programs with your time and money. These are the resources that will hopefully keep my kids fed and safe in their communities when they go home.
– If you’ve got extra, someone else can probably use it. Lots of foster families don’t have a lot of spare money for activities – offering your old hockey equipment or the use of your swim membership is a wonderful gift.
– Make programs for kids friendly to kids with disabilities and challenges. You may not have thought about how hard it is to bring a disabled or behaviorally challenged kid to Sunday school, the pool, the local kids movie night – but think about it now, and encourage inclusion.
– Teach your children from the beginning to be welcoming, inclusive, kind and non-judgemental. Teach them the value of having friends from different neighborhoods, communities, cultures, races and levels of ability. Make it clear that bullying, unkindness and exclusion are NEVER EVER ok.
– Welcome foster parents and their family into your community warmly. Ask them what they need and what you can do.
13. Reach out to struggling families in your community. Maybe you can help so that the children don’t ever have to come into foster care, or to make it easier if they do. Some families really need a ride, a sitter, some emotional support, some connection to local resources. Lack of community ties is a HUGE risk factor for children coming into care, so make the attempt.
To read more from Sharon Astyk, check out her blog Casaubon’s Book. And if you’re in the Bay Area and you want to know more about fostering, check out Alternative Family Services, Family Builders, Seneca and more information from the Human Services Agency of San Francisco. And if you ever have any questions for me about fostering, please get in touch! I will do my best to help.