When asked what are some of the challenges we have faced as foster parents the largest one is always re-unification because there are always mixed feelings even when you are rooting for the birth family to succeed. Also in the top five are keeping up to date on DCS paperwork/classes and appointments as well as working with the birth families and the first 24 hours (first day).
So what challenges can be expected with the first day of placement?
Getting to know your new family member…
With every placement call foster parents can expect a certain amount of information like race, sex, and age. Sometimes the other details like allergies and family history are only found out through conversation with the birth family or even a visit to the doctor. None of that information really gives you an idea of what the temperament or needs of a child really are. That information you can only find out through getting to know your placement.
On the first day, at least one adult in the household will need to stay home while arrangements are being made for school and/or childcare. If the foster home is a two-parent household, having both parents at home for the first day can make the transition into your home a little less stressful. One foster parent can deal with phone calls and paperwork while the other one can focus on the child. Rent-a-Dad and I have often shared the load of placement chores which have even included shopping for clothes and most importantly diapers and formula!
Having both foster parents accessible on that first day can help the placement(s) adjustment to your home easier. No one ever really knows what is going through their mind or how they were truly treated at home. Sometimes the new placement will bond quickly with the foster-mom while other times it is the foster-dad.
Finding common ground (getting past the awkward)…
When the placement involves a baby the most awkward moments are really just trying to find out what type of feeding/sleeping schedule the baby has been on. The older the child is that comes into care the more awkward the first day may seem even when you are a veteran foster-parent.
The first 24 hours always feel a bit rushed with all the preparations needed for the system and possibly school. Then there is the stress of finding out the likes and dislikes of the child(ren) so you know what to feed them or maybe you want to buy him/her a toy so they can feel connected to your home. Some first days feel magical while others feel like you did 100 things wrong. Take a deep breath and be as kind as you can be to your placement and yourself.
One piece of advice that we received in our training was take the pressure of cooking a home cooked meal off the table. Ask your placement(s) what their favorite fast food restaurant is and go there. First you don’t have to worry about what they like or don’t like. Second going to somewhere familiar (even if it is a different location) takes some stress off the placement(s). Your placement(s) is scared and worried about what is going to happen to them. Having a meal at a familiar location shows your placement(s) that you care about them and their feelings, even if it is only on a subconscious level that they recognize this. While eating the kid(s) will most likely feel more like opening up to you and share more of their likes and dislikes.
Getting all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed…
If the placement process happens over the weekend you may have a reprieve from the stress of paperwork and scheduling. Actually the paperwork itself is fine. At most you are talking about reading over 5 to 10 pages, some initialing and signing. The real time consumer happens not within the first few hours of a placement but generally twelve hours after when the placement is registered into the system and is assigned a case-worker. Then the process is all about finding out when the first CFTM (Child and Family Team Meeting) will be held; when the health assessment needs to be done at the health center; if a doctor visit is needed (and if so which doctor to use); if a clothing allotment is needed when the caseworker can get you that voucher; and if the kids are school aged then all the fun that entails of getting them registered at your zoned school and all the things needed to get your placement(s) prepared to have a “first day of school” there. All in all the first day (first 24 hours) of a placement can often feel like boot-camp.
Setting a schedule for the upcoming week…
This can feel like the hardest task of all. In the case of emergency placements where family are still being sought out as possible care-givers for this placement there may not be much that has to happen the very first week other than registering for school. When the placement is seen as temporary (estimated 3 to 6 months) or something more permanent then getting events scheduled for the first week is imperative as it can set the tone of how you interact with the birth family and DCS. Our first placement felt a little too easy and there was a reason: no one informed of us of who the case-worker was and the case-worker did not have our correct information. For our second placement we had to re-arrange our schedule to ensure all of the doctor appointments and meetings could happen within the time frame the court wanted.
Most times a court date is established within the first 24 hours of a case. We received our placement one afternoon and were in court the next day.
When I reference how important it is to get a handle on your schedule for the week following a placement, what I am really meaning is if the first day feels a little too easy then it was. Try to clear your schedule and prepare for some bumps in the road.
The beginnings of developing a routine…
Setting up a routine can take time with any child. While the child entering your home is new to you they are not (generally) brand new to the world. While you are getting to know your placement ask them what kind of schedule did they have at home. If they are too young to talk or really know, and you feel lost, turn to Google or some other search engine. There are millions of articles out there that give sample schedules for various age ranges. Don’t expect that you need to strictly follow any of these examples but rather use them as guidelines. The older the child the harder it will be to get a good routine set up. Lead by example. The more often the child(ren) see how you handle yourself and your schedule the more likely they will be able to reach their own goals of a healthy routine. Setting the foundation sometimes feels like the easy job. Just remember Rome was not built in a day. You still have to set a good foundation to get good results.
Most importantly about any first day challenges: breath. In looking back at the first day of each placement I think the best advice I can give is be flexible and try to enjoy the messy moments. There will be confusion, worry, concern and fear for your placement and possibly yourself. Treat them like a family member with all the love and care you have. Keep in mind that this is a day (more than any other) that this child(ren) needs your compassion, kindness, and tenderness. This day is all about them not the foster parent, not even DCS. Do something special like buy a toy, go out to McDonalds (this may be very special to your placement), let them pick a movie to watch or a game to play. Our emergency placement liked that Rent-a-Dad played video games with him and that we went to Chick-fil-A so he could play (more than eat!).