As the foster care system in our state and around the country becomes increasingly overburdened, our DCF system has invested significant effort in recruitment of new foster parents. For example, each area office now has its own social worker specifically focused on recruitment: they do outreach in the community, they answer questions from interested people, and they manage the application process for new families. The idea is that if we can recruit more families, we would be better equipped to meet the needs of the children in foster care, for whom there simply are not enough families to go around currently.
But there is a flaw in this thinking.
Because as we’re recruiting more foster families, we’re losing far too many of them who become disillusioned by their experiences in the foster care system. The longer a foster parent feels disenfranchised or disheartened, the more likely they are to leave. And given many of the experiences these families have, it’s no surprise. Foster care is HARD. It isn’t for everyone. We all understand this. But ask any foster parent what is challenging about being a foster parent and two answers rise to the top as most common: Parenting traumatized children, and working with DCF.
Except not in that order.
Because here is the thing – parenting children who have histories of trauma should be the most challenging thing about being a foster parent. The unpredictability of behavior, the intensity of emotions, the frequent mental health diagnoses, the multiple services that need to be coordinated… Not to mention that heartbreak that comes when you are forced to say goodbye. When people say, “You’re a foster parent? I could never do that.” What they mean is, “The challenges these kids present and the uncertainty of their time with you are just not things I feel my heart and mind can handle.”
But over and over, in foster parent support groups and on social media groups, the most frequently articulated challenge is the experience of working with the foster care system. Here are a few reasons why:
- Too often we’re seen as glorified babysitters, not as parents to these children we love and treat as our own.
- Communication about the case is lackluster, at best.
- Some social workers are disrespectful of our time, our role, our home…
- There is inconsistency in rules and regulations, from worker to worker or office to office.
- Lots of people come to visit your home, and their purposes can seem redundant.
- We sometimes have to see kids failed by the system, with very little ability to intervene.
It’s no surprise that some foster parents would burn out as a result of these challenges. But many others stay on regardless of them. Why? Because the kids need us. Because if not us, then whom? Because getting a smile from a traumatized child, or holding a newborn who has no one else to hold him, or giving a child who has been neglected the experience of family is not only incredibly rewarding, but makes a significant difference in the world. We’re difference makers. We want to keep doing this. It feeds our souls.
So we need to focus on ways to make it less draining for the amazing foster families who want to make a difference – and are making a difference – in these children’s lives. Because for too many, that drive isn’t enough to overcome the frustrations and challenges inherent in working within the foster care system. But let’s remember that without foster families, there would be no foster care.
Foster families deserve more from a system that relies on us. So, please, care about our concerns. Do all you can to make it possible for us to keep parenting these children who need us so much.
Acknowledge our unique understanding of these children.
In short: Respect foster parents. There are so many ways to do this, and we’ll be posting lots of ideas. Because when foster parents are respected, they feel supported. When foster parents feel supported, they stay in the trenches. They are retained. And they are much better equipped to be ambassadors of this cause, and recruit other families to become involved. This investment will pay dividends in the long run. Sure, we need to recruit. But once we welcome these families into our community, let’s focus just as much on retaining them.