May is National Foster Care Month.
This month is about awareness, not necessarily a time for celebration and joy (though foster care is not void of those things.) Before deciding to stay home with my kids, I was a foster care social worker. My job was full of extreme highs, and very low, lows. I can only imagine the experience of my clients, as well as their biological and foster families. So often, we get to see the positives that result from foster care through social media posts and news articles. However, I often saw firsthand the shellshock from the reality of caring for a child that is not your own.
The disillusionment of foster care often ended up being the demise for many of the families I worked alongside. People would often pursue foster care hoping that love would heal all and that a bleeding heart would be enough. Though admirable and helpful, they felt blindsided when things became more difficult than they anticipated. My hope is to both encourage anyone who is considering fostering, as well as providing some in-depth reflection from both my experience and the experience of foster parents. Here are some questions.
Am I ready for a long-term commitment?
Foster care timelines are not set-in-stone. A court date, the appearance of a family member or a number of variables could extend the placement of a child in your home from months to years. If you cannot manage to be flexible in large frames of time, foster care may not be for you right now. I have a deep-seated belief that timing is very important when it comes to being a foster parent. It is very, very okay if now is not the time for your family.
Is my support network sturdy and reliable?
Being a parent, in general, can open your eyes to how much we really need a village. Within foster care, your village often needs to be fingerprinted, present, socially-aware, trauma-informed and supportive of your family. The most successful foster parents have people in their lives who are also invested in caring for the family because when the going gets rough, it can be extremely rough. It’s also invaluable to be connected to other foster parents. Fostering can become very lonely. It is an experience that is hard to empathize with unless you have experienced it yourself. Many foster agencies and some churches hold support groups for this reason.
Are my own children ready?
Deciding to foster is a family affair. Your own child’s fears, assumptions and opinions need to be explored. Also, I highly recommend considering birth order as adding a child in your home may no longer mean your oldest is the oldest, or that your baby is the baby. Some children show great resilience in this change. Others struggle to share their parents.
Am I ready for multiple voices to speak into my life and home?
Foster care is not a private affair. Between caseworkers, guardian ad-litems, possible biological family members, school personnel, lawyers, judges, therapists, and doctors, you will feel like your whole life is everyone’s business. For the safety of the child, your life and home will be on full display. Your planner may quickly fill to the brim with appointments both in and outside of your home. Though you will find new rhythms, you may find yourself “trimming the fat” when it comes to non-essential activities and commitments.
Am I ready to parent someone who is not my child?
This seems like an obvious, and almost silly question to consider. However, there were many times foster parents needed a reminder that every child is different and therefore, needed to be parented differently. I believe this is true even of biological siblings, but children of foster care come from different cultures, upbringings and often with trauma (as being removed from a parent or home is traumatic in and of itself.) As a foster parent, are you ready to try parenting techniques you never considered? Are you willing to receive constructive criticism and advice? Are you willing to be a learner, even if you have parented five other children? Are you ready to be compassionate as well as enforce clear boundaries with gentleness and respect? Are you able to accept a child where they are, and not where you expect them to be? Trauma alters the brain greatly. Healing comes when consistency and love work hand-in-hand.
This is a short-list of questions and not meant to be exhaustive. Foster care and adoption agencies do a great job preparing families and giving them a lot to consider. My hope in writing this is to encourage families to foster with a realistic mindset. I also hope that if you are not ready for this step, you consider how you can help those who are fostering. It takes a village to raise any child, and I believe everyone has a role to play in that village.
If you are a foster parent, what questions would you add to the list above? What one piece of advice would you give to prospective foster parents?