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A couple of weeks back our case manager sent out a mass email to all of her foster parents asking for volunteers. She needed a couple of foster parents to sit on a PATH Q&A Panel to field questions and give advice to prospective foster parents. As preparation for the class tonight we sat down and discussed what 10 tips we felt were most important to potential foster parents. Of course there is so much more information and tips we could share. For that you will just have to keep reading our blog!
Rent-a-Dad and I remember all of our PATH training classes. Each foster parent must participate in training classes before having a placement. The classes prepare foster parents for all possible outcomes of the system. While all of the classes are useful, the Q&A session give foster parents the opportunity to speak with DCS (Department of Children Service) staff including CPS and actual case workers as well as receive tips from seasoned foster parents.
Every time Rent-a-Dad and I hear about a PATH Q&A Panel needing volunteers we try to help. One part of being a foster parent is to give back by helping to educate and giving advice to those who are interested in becoming foster parents. There are many ways to give back as well as to educate the general public. Serving on a PATH Q&A Panel, as well as writing our blog, is how Rent-a-Dad and I choose to give back.
Even though Rent-a-Dad and I have been foster parents for 3+ years we still wonder if our experiences and take on fostering are relevant enough. It has only been a couple of years since we went through PATH Training. A little over a year has passed since we sat as seasoned foster parents on our first PATH Q&A Panel. In so many ways not much has changed and yet there is enough new information out there that we want to make sure we our advice is not out dated.
10 Tips for Potential Foster Parents
10. Privacy and Personal Space
Say goodbye to privacy and personal space!
Children of all ages will challenge what privacy and personal space means. If you have never had a child in your life then you might not know that toddlers have no idea what either means. That they will come join you in the bathroom and don’t care about closed doors.
In some ways DCS is a little like a toddler in this respect. The home study process is exceptionally invasive but don’t let that put you off. DCS is trying to ascertain what kind of person you are and what experiences you are bringing to the table. After all you are asking to take on responsibility for children that the state is legally liable for. On its own, this responsibility is greater than generic parent hood.
9. There will always be hoops
Your first year as a foster parent is the hardest. You feel like you just went through boot camp and yet there is still so much paper work and requirements to fulfill. If you feel like you are unsure of being able to handle all of this solo, ask DCS for a mentor. Many foster parents give back by shadowing new foster parents and giving them advice when the system seems overwhelming.
At least in the state of Tennessee, once you are certified as foster parents your obligations and training do not stop there.
Every two years you must re-certify. This is a much more slimmed down process then the original home study involved. Generally it includes just a walk through of the home to make sure nothing has changed, paperwork to make sure everything is up to date from home insurance to pet vaccines.
On-going training is a requirement. The first couple of years there are specific classes required. After that foster parents are allowed to take classes that interest them except for on odd years they need to re-certify their medication training as well as first aid and CPR.
8. Be Prepared
There will always be paperwork to keep up with. Keeping a binder or folder with blank copies of DCS forms is just one way to stay ahead of it.
Keep a few toys and clothes on hand that are appropriate for the age range you have been approved for. Having fostered a good range of infants and toddlers means we have zip locks bags with a range of diaper sizes as well as clothing and toys. As new foster parents we invested in diapers in a various sizes. What worked for us was buying a small pack in every other size so we had something we could make work for the first few hours without scrambling. A few outfits and some used but well maintained toys rounded out our supply closet.
Keeping your friends and family aware of the age ranges and gender of children is a great way to keep them involved! Keeping your support network in the loop makes them feel needed and more likely to lend a hand when you need. Our support network helped us find a second much needed crib.
Foster parents should always open their hearts to the children in their care. It is a rewarding experience for both the children and the foster parents. The downside is that your heart will be broken when they leave. From our experience, there is no way to prepare for the empty space they will behind as they return home. Just because we know the downside of love doesn’t mean we should close ourselves off to it. We have also found that the birth families recognize love and sincerity. So far we have been blessed in that the birth families want us to stay involved in their children’s lives.
7. Document Everything
With all of the paperwork foster parents need to keep track of this can seem daunting but consider it insurance.
The toddler class our foster daughter was in last year had 20 kids and 3 teachers. Even with this large number of adults working with the toddlers not every incident was documented. After a weekend of tummy bugs, Rent-a-Dad took our toddler to the doctor where a question arose about a mark on her knee. The doctor thought it looked like a bite. He took a photo and measurements as he ensure we didn’t bite our toddler.
The events at the appointment concerned both of us. Our home could have been shut down because of a mark the doctor thought we caused. We took our own pictures and measurements to give to the case worker. After speaking with the daycare about the possibility of a child having bit our toddler the daycare provided us with a letter.
After all the worry and documentation nothing came of the incident but it easily could have gone badly. We try to document every bump, bruise, fall… you get the idea. These are not our children no matter how much we love them. While they are in state custody we must provide documentation and information concerning the care of these children. That is what notes from professionals are good for but our own notes are just as important.
Every time there is a boo boo, that I am aware of, I take a picture and email it to the case worker. It takes just a moment with my phone and a few minutes to email what took place. This level of documentation may seem excessive but I would rather do this then have our house closed because of some allegation we could have avoided.
6. Easily Accessed Information
Two years ago we had to rush our baby to the ER because she was having retracted breathing. I was terrified. If she had been our own child the anxiety over the incident would have been limited to her health.
As a foster parent when emergencies happen caseworkers must be contacted. The ER will even ask you if you contacted the case worker and if someone from DCS will be joining you.
The first incident gave both Rent-a-Dad and I new concerns. The DCS contact information we had was outdated. While we had left messages for babygirl’s case worker we also had to reach the on call DCS caseworker but we didn’t have the new phone number. Thank goodness we have other foster friends so they were able to get us the new number.
Since then we had to update our emergency contact list that is framed next to our fridge. We also make sure to have the information programmed into our phones anc accessible via email.
Along this theme, we also have some of the most used forms saved on our phones and in email. This means when a birth family looses a medication sheet and we don’t have any on hand we can easily print another. I also keep a DCS folder on my personal computer. In that folder I keep forms, documentation and folders for each child who has ever been in our care. Foster parents become the authorities on each child who lives with them. Even if your house is closed, if a child ever comes back into care you may be contacted because of your bond and your knowledge of the child.
5. NO ONE IS PERFECT
Sometimes this is a concept that is easier on paper than in reality. Fundamentally we all know that no one is perfect. However when a child comes into care and we witness first hand the abuse or neglect they have been exposed to we tend to go into over-protection mode and forget that life is filled with imperfect people. We do this with good reason. We want to erase all of the pain and hurt these children have suffered. Just keep in mind that when we forget that no one is perfect we begin to build a wall. We may think that wall will keep us safe but it also divides us. Sometimes that wall will even close out the children we are meant to care for.
Along these lines keep in mind that not everyone is exposed to the type of parenting or opportunities we each have had. Not only does this shape who we are but also our parenting skills. Some of the birth parents were also children in care and come from places of limited resources. This greatly affects how they parent.
4. Preconceived ideas go both ways
Rarely do any of us enter into a situation without a preconceived idea. As foster parents our initial ideas are formed by what hear in the news, in the PATH classes, and from other foster parents. Most likely we will form preconceived ideas for each birth family. What surprised Rent-a-Dad was that negative stereotypes of foster parents also abound. Those preconceived ideas that birth families have are difficult to over come.
In his post, Thoughts from a Path Panel, Rent-a-Dad has said “As much as those stereotypes can make it hard to see the humanity on either side of the equation, focusing on the shared humanity can help get past the stereotypes. It may not guarantee a perfect relationship, but with effort it’s possible to prevent the situation from becoming any more unpleasant than it already is.”
3. Keep an Open Mind
This is both the most difficult and most important of all the tips. Keep an open mind, and try not to form preconceived ideas, as you begin to work with the birth family. We know children are not removed from perfectly healthy families. This can lead us to jump to conclusions but be cautious as those ideas can taint the experience you have with your foster and their family.
With each case, Rent-a-Dad and I have tried to keep an open mind. One has to give respect to receive respect. Keeping an open mind and providing respect are both important in relationship building. That is what all foster parents are doing with their foster children and the birth families.
As foster parents we can not operate in a bubble. The birth family is and will always be apart of this child’s history and life.
Even when birth families loose birth rights, children will always be genetically tied to their families. Not to mention how they have already been shaped by experiences with their birth family. A good example is family medical history. Knowing that the birth mother is bi-polar is important not only explains the actions of the mother but may be something that was genetically passed down to the child.
Sometimes the only way foster parents find out information about birth families is through the birth families. When birth families feel comfortable with you all the skeletons in the closet tend to come out. Sometimes you are the one that ends up sharing the information with the case worker and gets the birth family the help they need.
How you treat the birth family will impact your relationship with your foster child. When your foster child knows you genuinely care about their family they will open up to you.
2. Take Care of Yourself
We all know there is a need to replenish from emotionally draining experiences. Sometimes we forget it is just as important to replenish from day to day life as well. Most often we don’t even think of that need because we do simple little acts each day to renew ourselves from taking a walk to connecting with our friends.
As a foster parent it is almost double or triple the importance to make time for yourself and your loved ones. Being a foster parent can be draining. Some days it will be obvious while other days you won’t even know why your cup feel so empty. Three little things can help improve your outlook on foster care as you remember to care for yourself:
- Make sure you keep in contact with your friends and support network
- Keep your children involved in after school activities
- Stay involved in activities that give you pleasure
Want some additional information on how to care for yourself while being a foster parent? Read our blog post: Time to Replenish
If we could only give one piece of advice it would be to focus on patience.
While sitting on our first Path Panel, a DCS caseworker said that her parting word of wisdom needed to be patience. She reminded everyone that DCS is often flooded with cases beyond what it should handle with fewer resources than they would like. Phone calls won’t always be returned in the time you want. The information you need may not be at the case-workers finger tips. Through it all try to remain patient.
At the same panel, Rent-a-Dad also referenced patience. He remarked on the importance of foster parents being patient both with birth families and with themselves. Any of the positive interactions we have had with birth families have been born out of patience. Focusing on how we would act if our children had been taken away and sent to live with strangers reminds us to be patient.
Rent-a-Dad says I often have to remind him to be patient. I believe we remind each other. We both have expectations for ourselves, the system and birth families. Sometimes the expectations are too high. We both need to remember that no one can be perfect 100% of the time. Rent-a-Dad is always asking himself if he is confident that he has done everything he could for our foster(s) that day to make sure their lives were as good as we could make them. That the kids know that they are loved especially since we don’t know how much time these children will be in our care. It is important to us that these children know we would always want them in our lives regardless of the rules of the system. That we need to be mindful that tomorrow is never guaranteed.