Adapted from AOK’s Guidebook, “It Takes a Village“
Being a foster parent can be a rewarding and exciting experience.
It can also be unnerving, challenging, and emotionally taxing. In other words, it’s rather like parenting…. but so much more!
As foster parents, we want to treat our foster children with the same level of care and love that we treat our biological or adopted children. Despite your important and significant role as a caretaker and provider in your foster children’s life, however, there are some key distinctions that make the foster care role somewhat more cumbersome and sometimes more challenging. This challenge comes about for two primary reasons: First, the state - not foster parents - have legal custody of our foster children. And, second, children who have experienced foster care typically need more supports than children who have not.
As a foster parent, you will be expected to do some obvious things: ensuring the safety and well-being of children, have reasonable expectations of their abilities, and meet their basic needs. You will find information about all this in other sources, and particularly MAPP training. Here our focus is a little different. We want you to be prepared to be a foster parent by pointing out some issues that take many of us by surprise. So let’s take a look at some key foster parent roles and responsibilities:
1. Interact Regularly with DCF
One of the things that often surprises foster parents most is how much contact and interaction you will have with DCF. So many aspects of your child’s care will involve contact with DCF. Here are some:
- Host monthly visits from your child’s social worker and family resource worker.
- Attend foster care review meetings every six months.
- Coordinate with social workers for Family Time visits.
- Interface between school and DCF to coordinate meetings and ensure your foster child’s educational needs are met.
- Request a placement letter to allow you to attend a medical appointment or enroll your child in services.
- Ensure a referral for childcare has gone through.
- Get permission for out of state travel, haircuts, or specialized medical care.
Depending on the relationship between you and the DCF staff assigned to your case, these interactions can be pleasant and friendly, or tense-filled and adversarial. In the AOK Guidebook, we give you suggestions to make these relationships productive, beneficial, and enjoyable.
2. Interact with the Court System
DCF cases are intimately connected to the court system, and you will have to interact with them as well. Probation officers, court investigators, and attorneys will ask to visit your home. These visits provide additional information to the court and will aid the judge in monitoring DCF’s management of the case and in making decisions about permanency. In addition, you might choose to attend court hearings or trials, or you might be asked to provide information to the court during a hearing or trial. There is an entire chapter (with flowcharts!) about the court system in our guidebook.
3. Understand the Limits of Your Role
Here’s one of the biggest tensions in the life of a foster parent: you are asked to treat these children as your own, to love them as you would your biological children, and to meet all their needs. On the other hand, you’re constantly reminded that these children aren’t actually your children, and they could be removed from your home at any time. Additionally, children in foster care are asked to do things, be places, or see people that you might believe to be detrimental to them. You are asked to allow things that you wouldn’t allow if you had full legal authority of these children.
To many, this is among the hardest parts of foster parenting. We agree to give our full selves as parents to these children so they can heal with consistency and safety, only to constantly bump up against decisions that we feel are not in their best interests. Too often, actually, these decisions cause further trauma, and if children remain with us, we’re the ones who are expected to pick up the pieces.
4. Become Educated About Your Child’s Needs and the Impact of Trauma
The potential needs children in foster care have are as varied as we all are, but in our experience, trauma and its resultant behavioral and mental health consequences are the most common. Psychologists and public health experts agree that no matter how positively and carefully it is handled, foster care always involves some degree of trauma for children. Being removed from your family is a traumatic event, no matter a child’s age, or the type and duration of abuse or neglect he experienced. For many children, their experiences prior to removal was also, by definition, marked by episodes of both chronic and acute trauma.
Additionally, foster care itself is a traumatic experience for many children regardless of the care, attention, and love they receive from foster parents. The child welfare system is traumatic and not designed to support children’s development optimally. Moving from one home to another, being uprooted from their community, distance from familiar surroundings and people, feeling like an outsider in the family, the juxtaposition between their family or origin’s traditions and customs and those of their foster family, the uncertainty of what the future holds…. In no way is foster care the preferred environment for children to grow and thrive. As foster parents, we do our best to mitigate this impact, but we can never eliminate it.
5. Respect a Child’s Birth Family
Among the most important things we do as foster parents is to honor and respect the history of a child before they came to our family. Although this often means respecting a child’s cultural, religious, or linguistic heritage, it also means respecting a child’s birth family. For some foster parents, this can be difficult. After all, a child only enters foster care when his or her birth parents have acted with negligence or abused their child in some way. It can be challenging to respect a birth parent who has hurt their child in any way, and it is true that in some cases, birth parents have hurt their children significantly.
In our experience, however, birth parents almost always genuinely love their children and want the best for them. The feelings many of us have about our children’s birth families can feel like riding the ultimate rollercoaster. Empathy, compassion, anger, disgust, love, remorse, fear, bafflement, jealousy… It’s complicated, and we devote an entire chapter in It Takes a Village to birth families. For now, we will simply say that children do best when you are able to voice respect for their birth families, and explain their absence in their lives in a way that honors the connection they will always have. Your own heart and soul may also do better.
6. Know That The System is Imperfect
Let’s get one thing straight: We are not saying we have a perfect system, or that a foster parent’s role in this system is the way it should be. But right now, it is what we have, and it is the way it is. It bears repeating: We do not suggest that you sit quietly on the sidelines while your foster children are done a disservice by the child welfare system. But we do suggest that you do your best to understand the system, to ask polite questions, to partner with your social workers as much as possible, to raise concerns, and also to embrace the fact that you simply cannot make all the decisions you might wish to make. And that might be the toughest part of foster parenting.