"A Foster Parent? Who? Me?!" by Patti Swoboda
"Love me tender, love me sweet, never let me go. You have made my life complete, and I love you so."
From the song, "Love Me Tender." The words and music are by Vera Matson and Elvis Presley.
"I love you!" "I hate you!" "I like it here, very much." "I don't want to live here! I want to live with the other people!" "You're nice." "You're mean!" "I miss my dad." "Will you be my mom for always?"
One profession of child care that gets very little recognition is foster care. Foster care is a product of adults who cannot or will not perform the parental duties for their own children. Foster children are the innocent victims of circumstances they have no control over. A child alone is unable to protect his or herself from physical and sexual abuse. A foster child often suffers from neglect. Basic human needs that are denied a child can mean malnutrition, illness and even death if someone does not intervene to help this child. They are children in desperate need of safety and security.
Sadly, the demand for foster care is great. Incredibly, most people are not even aware of this great call to serve. Many children end up in foster care because, as George, a foster dad for over twenty years puts it, "The stork left her in the wrong place the first time." Providing foster care is an admirable duty and a privilege. It can be a very difficult job. The reward is the personal satisfaction from doing the job well, meeting the challenges successfully and making an important difference in another person's life. Foster care is another field in child care that, when well done, makes a valuable contribution to society and the future of our nation.
Foster parent? Who? Me? Before you can answer this question, a prospective foster parent has much to consider.
Consider the commitment. To agree to provide foster care is to agree to welcome a stranger into your home. This type of a commitment must have support by all members of the foster family. You must be willing to give a large chunk of your time to drive the child to appointments and activities. You will invest time in making phone calls to therapists, doctors and the caseworker. A foster child may need more time and attention from you than your other children because of this child's exposure to rejection, instability and emotional upheaval. The child may suffer from the abuse and neglect already mentioned and so it will take time for the child to build up trust. The child may act out feelings of rage, confusion, frustration and abandonment through bizarre behavior. A foster child may imitate some of the gross behavior s/he has experienced and it may be shocking to the unprepared foster family. No one can correct inappropriate behavior over night. Helping a child to progress and overcome past horror is very time consuming.
Consider the impact this child might have on you and your family. You will have one more person to pick up after, do laundry for and to cook for. Will your children resent the time and attention you must give to the foster child? What kind of an influence will the foster child be on your children? Maybe your children will mimic behaviors of the foster child that you object to. Your children may become aware of the existence of cruelty in this world. Your children might also learn what it is to truly care about another human being. They may learn more about compassion and understanding. Your children may even come to appreciate their own lives and circumstances a little bit better.
Consider the invasion of privacy. Many people will become involved in your life. A foster child is not the only one who will enter your life. Child Protective Services, biological parents, case worker, family support worker, therapist, respite providers and the Foster Care Review Board will all play a role in the care of your foster child. Inconveniences and frustrations do occur. For example, you arrange your schedule to accommodate a foster child's appointment with a therapist or a visitation with the biological parent only to have that appointment canceled at late notice. If you are unlucky, you may encounter non-professionalism: forgotten phone calls, disruptive, unannounced visits without regard to your personal schedule and informational neglect and mistakes.
Consider the risks to you and your family. A bitter foster child may make a false allegation against you or one of your family members. A child may be destructive and cause damage to your property. Severe cases may pose emotional and physical danger to your family. These are all reasons why it is important to get complete information and ask as many questions about the history of your potential foster child. Things don't always work out. Lina, an experienced foster mother of more than twenty years has found sexual perpetration cases to be the hardest. "All children bring happiness, some by arriving, some by leaving."
Consider your feelings. A heart that is big enough to let a foster child in, risk's attachment to that child. That big heart may break when your foster child leaves. You may set yourself up to experience feelings of failure or anger if things do not work out. Resa Mallet, a family therapist with the Omaha Psychiatric Association believes it is important for a foster parent to maintain a professional attitude towards providing foster care. She believes it is important to acknowledge the difference between parent and foster parent. Foster parents follow a different set of realistic expectations than that of biological 'natural' parents.
Consider broken promises. People may disappoint you. Offers to help during the time you are considering foster care may dissipate once the child is in your home. Promises easily made can easily break. Be prepared to stand alone with your family in providing foster care. Something else to consider is the benefits of foster care. The privilege of helping to develop a young person's life has priceless rewards. Some of these rewards are helping an abused child to adjust and function better. Witnessing the change from an angry child to a happier child and to be part of that change is rewarding to the heart and soul. The awesome accomplishment of restoring hope for that child's future is better than any trophy or gold medal. All are possible rewards of a successful foster care relationship.
Other benefits include an education, a network of financial support and meeting some terrific people involved in foster care. The education comes from learning about the foster care system, learning from the experiences of the foster child and discovering things about yourself. One anonymous foster parent reports her discovery of nearly unlimited patience, a vital ingredient to the success of foster care. "Before taking in my foster child, I knew I had patience but I was amazed to learn just how much patience I have. My patience seems endless! I can handle things I never imagined I would need to handle and it doesn't stress me out. Sometimes it wears me down, but I remain patient. I have never before done anything that has made me so proud as taking in my foster child."
The network of financial support includes compensation from the state and child care payment coverage to a licensed provider. It includes Medicaid to pay for all medical expenses for your foster child. There are grants and scholarships that your foster child is eligible for. This financial support helps to enable you to provide opportunities to your foster child. An example is to enroll a foster child into a fun summer camp because she qualifies for a special scholarship that covers expenses.
Another example is signing him up in that baseball league because a grant will cover the cost of his uniform and ball fees. These are some of the ways foster parents and supportive organizations make dreams come true!
Foster parent? Who? Me? No, foster care is not for you if . . .
- you are impatient. It takes a great deal of patience to be a foster parent.
- you are a perfectionist. A person who is inflexible will not make a good foster parent. A foster child brings his or her own perceptions of family life and values. The child needs to feel accepted for who s/he is. Boundaries need to be clear and established. However, a foster parent must understand the child's resistance to rules and 'family ways' is the likely result of his or her non-chosen situation and not a result of stubbornness.
- You want a second income. State compensation is small in comparison to the demands of this job.
- You are looking for religious converts.
- You are bored and just want something to do.
- You are looking to compensate for your feelings of inadequacy or you crave a distraction to an unhappy, unstable life.
- You regard all foster children as dysfunctional and untrustworthy.
Foster parents and therapists surveyed for this article make the following recommendations for people considering the job of foster parenting:
- Know why you want to provide foster care.
- Evaluate the skills you have that qualifies you to provide foster care: patience, time, and abilities to cope with the complications and problems the foster child is suffering.
- Maintain an attitude that is more professional than maternal. View foster care as a job to establish safe boundaries. Create a secure environment that allows the child to progress as a person and enjoy a period of peace and happiness.
- Allow the child plenty of transition time. A newcomer to a strange home does not adapt over night.
- Make certain your expectations for the foster child are realistic and reasonable.
- Believe a trainer or caseworker when you are told some kids are extremely hard to handle.
- Ask questions! Get the clearest idea possible as to where this case is going. Determine the length of time this child will be in your care.
- Investigate and explore all of your options. Find out about subsidized adoption, legal guardianship and other care options available to you. Investigate the opportunities available to your foster child.
- Take advantage of the support available to you. Ask your caseworker for help and advice.
- If you find your foster child is impossible to work with, then admit defeat and move on. Arrange for the removal of the child from your home. It is better for the child and it is better for you. Personality clashes do happen. Fostering can only be effective between people who can work together.
- You must have patience and compassion.
- Foster care is a very important job. It is not an easy job.
- Happy endings do not always happen. The reward is in the 'doing' of this job.
- Check your motives. Are you doing this for the child or for yourself?
- Be realistic about the time you can give to foster care and about the skills you do or do not have.
If you are a preschool teacher or child care provider who accepts foster children into your care, here are a few tips:
- Treat foster children the same as the others in your care.
- If you have a nursing background, consider taking in a special needs child with a disability. Children learn from each other. A foster child may realize s/he is not the only one with problems. A disability may be a worse problem than being in foster care.
- Some foster families do communicate with the biological parents. Communicating a foster child's progress and concerns to a foster parent is as important as communication is to the other parents.
- Establish clear rules between yourself and the foster parent regarding dismissal and release of the foster child to an adult. Get names and phone numbers to call if verification is needed for releasing the child to an adult unknown to you.
- Contact the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and ask how you can provide help for these children.