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:
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. Throughout this guidebook, we’ll give you suggestions to make these relationships productive, beneficial, and enjoyable.
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.
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. 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. Foster parents’ ability to impact the process of a foster care case is limited.
Become Educated About Your Child’s Needs and the Impact of Trauma
Traumatic stress occurs when we are exposed to situations or events that overwhelm our ability to cope with them, and impact our ability to function adequately or interact appropriately with others. The effects of trauma can linger for years, and can impact every aspect of a child’s life and experiences – their brains, bodies, behavior, and ways of thinking. Children who have experienced trauma can exhibit any number of behaviors, including increased aggression, attachment disruptions, developmental regression, stealing, hoarding, distrusting adults, fear, and somatic (physical) symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, and other complaints. Many of these behaviors may have been a protective way for children to cope, particularly with ongoing trauma and stressors. It will take time, patience, and often professional therapeutic support for children to heal. It often also takes a shift in perspective from adults, from seeing a kid as “behaving badly” to seeing a child who has gone through incredibly difficult experiences and is coping the only way he knows how.
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. 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. Many foster children (regardless of age, how long they’ve been in care, or any negative experience with that birth parent) can have allegiance to their birth parents and can feel a sense of protectiveness and love about their relationship. Or they may develop these as they age. 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.