Why Is Foster Care So Hard?

Adapted from the AOK Guidebook, “It Takes a Village.”

There are numerous reasons foster parenting is inherently more stressful than parenting in general. These fall into four main categories: the children, social support factors, financial issues, and the child welfare system.

The Children

Children who have experienced foster care are more likely to have behavioral, educational, or emotional challenges that foster parents must manage. Although there can be periods of more acute stress, these challenges are often chronic and experienced daily, and they typically have no easy or quick solution. Many children need constant monitoring, containment, creativity, patience, and boundaries. Parenting children with high needs is exhausting and can be emotionally debilitating. Additionally, these children often need a range of support services that take time, energy, and coordination. Not to mention, if you have multiple children, balancing their collective needs and access to supports takes expert-level organization.

Social Support Factors

Family and friends who are not foster parents don’t often really understand the challenges involved in foster care. Some might be unsympathetic, believing that if you made the choice to foster, you knew what the challenges would be and, therefore, you shouldn’t feel so overwhelmed. You might see relatives treat biological (or even adopted) children in your extended family differently than they treat your foster children. People might ask intrusive questions that can catch you off guard and be taxing to answer. All told, a typical social support network isn’t as capable of adequately supporting a foster family as they are other families.

Financial Issues

Although the state provides foster care subsidy payments and medical coverage for children in foster care, these payments almost never meet the true costs of raising a child. And they certainly do not provide for adequate enrichment, non-insurance-covered therapeutic services, and other items. Additionally, foster families can be larger than average, which means they incur additional expenses for shelter, transportation, and food. Lastly, many foster parents find it impossible to maintain full time employment while also meeting the significant needs of the children in their care. Therefore, many have less income than they would be able to if they weren’t foster parents.

The Child Welfare System

The most significant sources of stress, however, isn’t any of these above. Repeatedly and consistently, according to research literature and our own annual needs assessments, the most significant source of stress for foster parents is the child welfare system. For all the reasons we explore in the pages of this guidebook, the role of a foster parent in the child welfare system is rife with stress, worry, and challenge. Uncertainty, inconsistencies, lack of control, politics, and misinformation…. The stressors pile up seemingly exponentially. Indeed, the most frequently cited reason foster parents stop fostering is because they are too overwhelmed with DCF shortcomings and bureaucracy to continue.

Vicarious Trauma and Overextending Families

Additionally, many foster parents experience something called vicarious trauma or “secondary trauma.” Sometimes this experience can result in compassion fatigue, or feeling burned out. This kind of trauma refers to the cumulative effect of consistently hearing and bearing witness to the trauma that others experience around you. It’s an occupational hazard of foster parenting, but also of helping professions, such as social workers or first responders. The effects of this vicarious trauma can be similar to primary trauma and include experiences such as feeling helpless/hopeless, guilt, fear, intrusive thoughts or images, and hypervigilence. Vicarious trauma can be significant enough that you might need support from a qualified professional. You should keep an eye out for anniversary reactions too – physical and psychological responses to difficult events that occurred in the past, but during the same time of year (importantly, these are common in children too, and children often don’t have the language to explain it).

That foster care is stressful and challenging surprises no one. What might surprise you, however, is just how unevenly distributed these challenges are. Research shows that 20% of foster parents are providing care for the majority of children in foster care. Put another way, a minority of foster parents are overextending themselves to provide stability and family to the bulk of children who need them. These families are typically larger than average and have been fostering for many years. They say yes even when they have to overstretch themselves and their families to do it. They’ve centered their lives around their commitment to fostering. That twenty percent of foster families, especially, needs adequate social support and self-care strategies so they can continue being effective in their role. They also need more of us to step up and help care for kids in order to more evenly distribute the load, but we’ll take that up another time.

Navigating the Challenges and Taking Care of Yourself

However, you don’t need to have a conversion van full of children to experience overwhelm and stress as a foster parent. Remember, the stress doesn’t result because of volume. It results because of the entire system. As long as you’re a foster parent, you will have times of stress, challenge, and trauma. And you will not be able to maintain your commitment unless you learn to manage these. The most important thing you can learn to do as a foster parent is this: Take Care of Yourself.

That bears repeating: Take care of yourself. 

It’s easy to say, and hard to do. As a society, we don’t prioritize caring for ourselves. But there is a reason the flight attendant tells you to put your own mask on before you help your children with theirs. If you want to see your commitment through, you need to prioritize self-care. There is really no other sustainable way. The rollercoaster of emotions you experience as a foster parent is intense, and can be draining. We started All Our Kids in large part because we wanted to ensure that all families had the support they needed. And making sure you have that support is a huge part of self-care. But self-care is so much more than just making sure you have a community of other people who know what you’re going through (as important as that is!).

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