If you are a foster parent, you have probably heard at least one person say some version of “God bless you. I don’t know that I could do that.” Rent-a-Dad and I have heard that phrase so often that we don’t even blink anymore if it is said. In all honesty… it is just fine with us if you admit that.

For the first year, as foster parents, when I heard some version of that phrase I would jump into explaining my choice to be a foster parent and talking up the rewards. I really wanted others to see the positives of being a foster parent. Perhaps even help convince others considering fostering to take that final leap.

Sometime into the second year I began just saying “thank you” and leave it at that unless questions were asked. Most times questions were asked.

This past spring, I flip flopped between being actively pro-fostering and pro-privacy.

After several conversations, both with foster parents and those who have no thought of ever fostering, and sitting on several foster parent panels, I now have a new take on and response to that phrase.

Being a foster parent is NOT for everyone.

There is no shade or hate in that statement, nor is there any judgment.

Being a foster parent takes a special commitment that not everyone can handle. It is just as important to admit (acknowledge) what you can not do as it is to acknowledge what you can.

As a seasoned foster parent, someone in the “trenches”, we have this part of us that knows how taxed the system is and how spread thin foster parents are. We have this second nature to nurture and protect others, and ourselves.

Naturally we want others to stretch themselves and reach out to become foster parents. It helps everyone involved.

Yes, being a foster parent WILL change a child’s life.

But if at any point you question your ability to foster, then don’t do it.

I have said the same thing about marriage to friends who have asked how I knew Rent-a-Dad was the one. It’s not that I didn’t have doubts about marriage in general or that I wondered if the timing of getting married was right. Everyone has doubts. What I knew was this: I couldn’t imagine my life with anyone else. When ever I tried to really picture someone else as my partner I felt physically ill. Doesn’t mean we are a perfect match and never have any relationship issues. Hint: All couples fight about something. I just couldn’t imagine not spending my life with Rent-a-Dad.

For me being a foster parent was a bit of the same thing. It has always been about timing not questioning the actual act of fostering. I have always wanted to be a foster parent and had no doubt that someday it would happen, when the timing was right.

If at some point, any point, I had any doubts then I would have put the brakes on.

Being a foster parent takes commitment, reliability, accountability, love, attachment and so much more. Some of these qualities come naturally to people. For others it is a struggle to tick off a few boxes. Sometimes having an abundance of one will overcome any challenges or struggles with the other qualities.

Regardless of any of these qualities, knowing yourself is the key.

If you don’t think you can be a foster parent and freely admit that then I admire you for knowing what you can not do.

Seriously.

I would much rather someone admit that than know they can not do something, absolutely do NOT want to do something, and try it anyway.

Kids in the system deserve to have people committed to them. They do not need people who are trying to be something they know they can not be. That only hurts everyone.

I once thought a foster trainer was being a little harsh when she made a similar remark but she wasn’t wrong. Being a foster parent involves a lot of harsh truths. If you can not take harsh truths, then definitely walk away. With that in mind, Rent-a-Dad and I have put our heads together to come up with five topics a couple should consider if they are trying to decide if becoming a foster parent is really something they should do.

Have you been thinking about becoming a foster parent but not really sure? Are there misgivings holding you back? Deciding whether or not you have what it takes to become a foster parent is a big decision for you and your family.

Rent-a-Dad and I have spent a lot of time talking about fostering and convincing others they have what it takes to be foster parents. Certainly there are times where we don’t feel that someone should become a foster parent. Often it is not because we think someone is “sketchy” but rather they are already so over committed and spread thin.

Recently Rent-a-Dad and I got into a conversation about topics couples should consider when deciding whether to foster or not. Whether you are hearing this for the first time or have had a great foster parent trainer talk to you about these topics…

Here are five topics to put some serious thought into if you deciding if becoming a foster parent is for you:

1. Time

Being a foster parent takes a lot of time between DCS (department of children’s services) procedures and actual care of the child. In the first week alone there has to be a health center visit/health care provider visit, court appearance, and meetings at DCS in addition to getting the kid registered at school/daycare and any shopping needs.

There are support systems in place to help with various aspects of the time needed to be a foster parent. But sometimes the support systems do fail.

DCS does not require foster parents to be at court appearances. However, if a foster parent is serious about the care of the foster child then attending court dates matters. It is important to talk to the caseworker(s) involved to figure out which court dates need you in attendance.

Foster parents are not always required to attend the state mandated family visits. When possible, DCS will help with transportation arrangements for the foster child. It is often recommended that a foster parent not be the only person observing the family visitations so they can not be blamed legally if a visitation does not go according to plan. That said it is still important to form a working relationship with the birth family when reunification is the goal. Relationship building takes time.

If both foster parents work and the child is too young for school, DCS can help with childcare arrangements. The level of the help changes not just from state to state but even from jurisdiction to jurisdiction or even depends on the caseworker or program involved.

Between meetings, court dates, and doctor appointments there is generally something going on weekly. That doesn’t take into account the life you are helping to build with/for the foster child like play visits or after school activities.

It is possible to balance all that you do currently as well as all that is expected of you as a foster parent. Thinking about your time constraints is important. If you and your spouse have jobs that are not flexible, then being a foster parent may be very complicated, tricky, or even impossible.

2. Privacy

Rent-a-Dad and I often joke about how when you have children you should throw any thought of having privacy out of the window. Being a foster parent doubles the sentiment.

If you are a private person and do not like it when others poke your “bubble” of privacy, then being a foster parent may not be for you.

DCS will do a criminal background check. The home-study writer will interview both you and your spouse asking very personal questions. Personal questions about your life will also be asked of the friends and family you have given as character witnesses on your home-study form. An inspection of your home will also be conducted to make sure you can provide a safe living environment.

Once the home-study process is completed the scrutiny only subsides a little. Depending on whether you have a foster child in your home or not, your home will be visited at least once a quarter by one case worker to once or twice a month by two caseworkers (this depends on each case and state).

Foster parents often find that they have to justify many of their actions on a daily basis not just to DCS but to birth families, teachers, doctors, lawyers, judges and more… This type of scrutiny never really ends. For most foster parents it just becomes a part of daily life and you either live with it or walk away from fostering.

3. Your Family/Loved Ones

Before becoming a foster parent, it is very important to think about how fostering will affect the lives of your loved ones. I am not talking about an aunt who lives five states away. Think much closer to home like your children, and yes, even your parents.

I have heard some foster parents talk about how they didn’t realize how fostering would impact their grown children’s lives.

Often we can see the impact of something as it directly relates to us but forget how hard our actions will affect those close to us. Small children will have to learn that mom and dad have to split their time up between them and the foster children. Some kids handle this well while others become very resentful.

I have talked with a few friends whose parents fostered. They expressed that what hurt the most was losing contact with the foster children after reunification. That it hurt like they were losing a sibling or a piece of themselves.

Trauma affects everyone. Losing loved ones is traumatic. Sometimes being a foster parent can cause trauma to your own children.

On the positive side, some of the same people said they are still glad their parents chose to foster and make a difference.

Now some grown children have expressed their displeasure with their parents fostering in their twilight years. Why? Because they feel that grandma and grandpa are not as present in their own grandchildren’s lives as they are for their foster children. The grandparents/foster parents I have talked to in this situation feel a little torn because they love their grandchildren but also feel the grandchildren have safe homes. The point being they want to provide a safe place for children less fortunate.

As for your parents, in my situation I had to take into account my mom and her health. Currently my mom still does a lot on her own but at some point soon will need a lot more help. In most areas (not sure of one that doesn’t) any adult living in your home has to attend the same foster training classes as the people who want to become foster parents. Every adult also needs to be criminally background checked.

4. Your Health (physical and mental)

If you are young, twenty-something or thirty-something, you might not think your health is an issue. Even still it should warrant a thought depending on how long you want to foster. Most foster parents foster until they adopt and their home becomes “closed” because they lack additional room.

If you are someone who has a hard time handling trauma (loss like that of a family member), then you may want to sit down and have a serious “think” about fostering short term versus long term.

On a long term basis, being a foster parent you will find yourself in an assortment of situations. You will also be dealing with a variety of traumatic experiences your foster children have had to live through. This doesn’t even bring up your own feelings when/if reunification happens and the foster child leaves your home.

It never hurts to ask yourself if you feel you can physically and mentally deal with a situation. Your own physical and mental health is just as important, if not more so, than the children you are going to be caring for. I am always reminding myself, and others, about self-care and taking time to replenish.

5. Vision of your future

A lot of young people considering becoming foster parents today are dealing with infertility. Whether they have been unsuccessful in their attempts at becoming pregnant naturally or through fertility treatments, they are considering other options. The big three are open adoption, international adoption, and fostering to adopt. I urge any couple going through fertility troubles to think long and hard about each option. Weigh the pros and cons of each. Talk to as many people as you can about these options.

If you are fostering with no thought of reunification, then you are fostering for the wrong reasons. Reunification is the first priority of each case. If reunification with the parents is not possible then family and friends will be sought. Only when all options are exhausted are foster parents then considered. Adopting a baby through fostering happens but it is the needle in the haystack scenarios (the extenuating circumstance and not the norm).

If the end goal is adopting, and you truly do not care about age, then you should consider just adopting an older child through the foster care system. A large portion of children in foster care, sadly, age out of the system annually.

Rent-a-Dad and I are an infertile couple. What makes us so different? In some ways we absolutely are not.

Our biggest difference is our intention. We had discussed becoming foster parents during the infancy of our relationship. Rent-a-Dad knew it was something I always wanted to do and why. It became a dream of ours. We had always thought to become foster parents when our own children became old enough to understand what we were doing and why. The hitch in our plan was that we didn’t know we would be dealing with infertility.

With the original plan I am not sure how we felt about adopting through foster care. Certainly we had talked about it. It was always an option. As an infertile couple it certainly becomes more fore-front.

Even though adopting is something we want to do as a couple, it is not what drives us as foster parents. We want whatever is best for the child in our care. Whenever possible the answer is reunification and we support that.

These are just a few versions of a vision for the future. It is important to sit down and speak with your spouse and family about what your vision is.

Again I come back to a bit of advice given in a previous post: If at some point, any point, you have any doubts then put the breaks on.

Becoming a foster parent is an important responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Just because Rent-a-Dad and I have had some good experiences doesn’t mean it is all sunflowers and roses. Each person and family is different. What works for us may not work for you.

Deciding if you have what it takes to be a foster parent deserves lots of serious thought. Even if you disagree with the points we feel are important for consideration, check out this article on deciding is fostering is for you?

Whether it is considered another “hoop” or “multiple steps”, the system has a way of making one feel as if there is always a “next step”. But what does this really mean? It can literally be getting a new placement and fulfilling all the needs of that new placement from doctor appointments to DCS paperwork. Or it could be seeing a successful reunification and waiting for the next placement. Each foster family feels different about what the next step for them means and where they feel their path may lead them.

For us we have had an idea of what we have wanted to accomplish as foster parents without rigidly sticking to one path. We have tried to remain flexible while holding to our own set of morals and ethics. So far we feel as if we have been able to accomplish those goals as foster parents and foster parenting mentors.

Almost four years, four children, and four mentees families in we have started to wonder “what is our own next step?”

We now over a year from the point when Stinkerbell, our last real placement, was successfully reunified with her mom. In that time we were able to take a well needed break; consider adopting two boys (about the age of our nephews); enjoy a multitude of family get-togethers; help with an emergency placement; deal with routine screenings; ailing loved ones; and keep up with DCS training.

For the first four or five months of that time I had baby fever but then got over it as I have helped with potty training three toddlers and dealt with their sassiness. Since September I have been driving one nephew twice a week to and from tutoring as he prepares for kindergarten and getting his speech up to the speed of his brain. In December, rent-a-dad and I sat with the mother of our former placement waiting at the hospital while Stinkerbell had pins placed in her elbow.

Since Stinkerbell had a successful reunification with her mom last year we have been nothing but busy. Our lives are full. The question remains should we continue to have a home open to major placements or consider just doing emergency placements and respite care?

Right this minute we are leaving that as an open ended question. We are still thinking over how rich our life has become and what we want to see happen in the next year. If it is it is possible to become a home for emergency placements and respite care that is what we would like to do because we don’t feel as if our journey with foster care it truly done. It is important to us that we remain true to who we are and the level of care we wish to provide to the children in our care, which for us can even include our former placements.

A couple of months back I read two different posts talking about re-imagining the foster system. One post talked about how the system would be a much better place if each able bodied couple (or single person) considered fostering just one child or child grouping in their lifetime. That the focus would be one that kid(s) not just at that point but even when they were reunified with their family or found another permanent placement.

The second post I read was about a foster mother who believed in fostering one child/child group at a time, which for her meant until their family could fully handle the reunification. To her this meant until the family no longer wished to use her as a resource.

I can admire both concepts and look forward to seeing more people interested in fostering in this manner. For those who find these concepts interesting, this could be your next step.

Earlier this week I gave some generalized topics to use for administering advice to birth parents. I also happened to throw in some ideas on how to approach giving said advice. The one thing I did not actually do was give lots of examples of questions asked or words of wisdom shared. The advice we have been asked to share is more physical guidance, or information sharing, than it is about words.

guidance

Keep in mind birth parents, like any of us, tend to parent the way they were raised. To change this behavior, if change is something we are seeking, one must relearn. Not only is this easier said than done, the best way to learn for most people is hands on.

In terms of foster care and the system, most foster parents refer to this as a “baptism by fire” type of feeling. With each new placement foster parents learn what works and what doesn’t. Foster parents also learn that what works with one placement won’t always work with another.

How does this apply in terms of offering birth parents guidance?

The point here is that each placement, and their family, needs to be treated as a new experience or clean slate. Experiences from prior cases may apply to new placements but be careful that those experiences don’t negatively affect new ones. Also, don’t start a new case by giving advice. Just because you were able to do so with a prior birth family doesn’t mean this birth family will be as open.

Let the positive experiences you have from prior placements shape you for the better. By our second placement we had a better idea of how to interact with birth families from advice to offering guidance. Experiences from our first placement also meant we could be more prepared to help with the reunification process. The second placement also lasted longer than our first one. This gave us additional time to build a stronger relationship with the birth family. Tread lightly with verbal advice even when it was asked for as it is often misinterpreted.

The best way to provide advice to birth parents is through guidance and leading by example. The parents in our first two placements were not new to parenting but admitted they had more to learn. Even when we, as humans, admit there is more to learn we don’t want to be force-fed advice.

When the advice asked for was more technical we provided information from the internet, doctors and specialists. This type of guidance comes off as less threatening. Printed copies of information proves to be better than verbal advice as it is something they can look over at their leisure. If questions do arise the birth parents can ask for clarification later. If asked, providing our thoughts on the subject, pros and cons was much different then straight out advice. Using this method has shown the birth parents that we are human just like them. Yes, it can be truly frustrating if they toss the pamphlet away and ignore what the doctor said. However that is something they are allowed to do as the birth parents.

Another way to provide guidance, not just verbal advice, is through teachable moments. This is just another fancy way of saying leading by example. Using this terminology (the subject matter of a DCS training class) provides a link between foster children and their parents.

Life is filled with moments where we have no idea that we are learning something, like toddlers observing chores. When toddlers are old enough they start helping with the chores they have watched adults do. Completing these chores gives them a sense of accomplishment. Much is the same with birth parents who haven’t had positive role models. They need to watch how other real life (no TV here) adults handle situations. Then when they complete a similar task it gives them the same sense of accomplishment. That is just one reason why DCS advocates interaction between birth parents and foster parents.

There are many ways you can provide teachable moments. The best way is to interact at visits. In past cases Rent-a-dad and I have not been available for the court mandated weekly visits but have enjoyed being involved in the optional additional visits. We have helped arrange family oriented get-togethers from attending the county fair to getting a photo taken with Santa. At these times we let the parents interact as much, or as little, as they want. Watching the family interactions can provide clues to knowing the type of relationship you might have with the birth family.

These interactions provide insight into the family dynamics. This helps ascertain whether a parent is secure in how they handle their children or if they could use a guiding hand. When it involves the later, ask the parents if you could give them a break. When the child in question is an infant offer to help feeding, burp or change the diaper. If an older child, ask the parents if they mind you taking the child to buy a cola or snack. Showing the parents that you value them through their permission, or opinion, is a good way to build a relationship. It will also provide a teachable moment in positive adult interaction.

As your relationship with the birth parents grows you will find other ways to provide the same care. Birth parents attending doctor appointments often see me asking questions for the case worker and taking notes. At the CFTM (child and family team meeting) and review panels, I am always taking notes and adding dates to my calendar. If the foster child sees other specialists I always provide the birth parents with copies of reports and information received. At weekly visits, the birth parents often receive notes from us with what has transpired that week in addition to any artwork their child made. While all of this is relationship building it is also showing the birth parents positive interaction with another adult and provides ideas on responsible “adulting”.

When physical guidance is given over verbal advice often times the birth parents don’t even realize they are receiving it, much like the aforementioned teachable moments. This interaction is seen as less threatening as verbal advice can sometimes be misconstrued as telling someone they are bad at something. Foster parents never want to make a birth parent seeking reunification seem like they are a bad parent. Most likely they already feel this way because they did lose custody of their child and have to earn that privilege back. Even if you feel the parenting skills are lacking, verbalizing this can hurt your relationship with the birth family and the foster children.

 

End Note: From Advice to Guidance

If you are looking for some advice yourself on things not to say to birth parents you will have to check-out our next installment in this series:

Topics to Avoid: Giving Advice to Birth Parents Part 3

If for some reason you missed the first article in our series, here the opportunity to get caught up: Fostering: Giving Advice to Birth Parents.

Thus far, Rent-a-dad and I have been supportive of the reunification process in the cases we have received. This has put us in a unique position where we are being asked questions by, and giving advice to birth parents. If you are a foster parent who is also working towards reunification in positive ways you may find yourself in a similar situation.

advice

Giving advice to birth parents is a little tricky. First you want to make sure they are actually asking for advice and not making an off-hand remark. Since they are literally dealing with everyone telling them what to do (so they can get their children back) it isn’t very useful to also have the foster parents doing the same thing. Giving unsolicited advice may put the birth parents off and do damage to your budding relationship. Second, if asked to give advice, give some thought to your answer before you give it. Sometimes being asked to give advice feels a little bit like a double edged sword: you have to be careful how you handle the situation.

When Rent-a-Dad and I have been asked to give advice to birth parents it has been when the parents are seeing that their journey through the foster system has an ending point. They know reunification is an attainable goal. By this point you, as a foster parent, have had a chance to build a relationship with the birth parents. The birth parents should feel secure enough to ask for some help/advice.

Here are 5 things to keep in mind as you are helping your foster children to transition back home and ideas of advice to birth parents that you can feel safe giving:

 

5) Keep a journal or folder with information

Going through foster training foster parents receive basic information on keeping scrapbooks or photo journals for each foster child. I also kept a huge file folder filled with medical and legal documents for the children. When it was time to transition the kids back home I created a smaller version of this to give to the parents.

In the front of the folder there is a cheat sheet packed with information. The quick list contains medication information (when and how much to give); allergy information (some parents honestly don’t know their child’s allergies); doctor information including appointments; and emergency contact information. The rest of the folder has copies of paperwork needed for appointments; medical files/notes; and more.

Give this folder to the birth parents prior to the first full overnight or weekend visit, which is the start of the transition period. It is important to cull out some time to sit one on one with the birth parents, minus the kids if possible, so they can ask questions pertaining to the care of their children. This is important because you are showing how much you trust the birth parents and care about their children.

Even if you have reservations about the children returning home you need to show the birth parents that you are rooting for them to succeed. They need to know there are people out there who believe in them because often their own families are skeptical and may be waiting for them to fail. Knowing that the people who have been taking care of their children believe they can do it does matter to them and to your foster children.

 

4) Share recipes

Often birth parents don’t have positive role models in their life who have shown them how to succeed. In many cases birth parents have come from broken homes. Things like homemade meals can often be distant or non-existent memories.

As the children are transitioning home try to cook a homemade meal. Ask the birth family if they would like to be involved. The answer you receive may shock you. They don’t know how to cook and are even afraid to try and fail at something else.

So far Rent-a-dad and I have not housed a transition meal in our home but rather in each case it has been in the birth parents’ home. If the birth parents were unsure of their cooking skills I would make a simple meal to bring and share as well as the recipe. If the birth parents have shown an interest in learning I have offered to teach and have provided basic recipes for meals I know their children have enjoyed.

Providing recipes or a meal may seem simple but to these families it means the world. I have seen some birth parents blossom with their confidence that they can work and provide a home cooked meal that the whole family will like.

When sharing recipes, make the first recipe you share something easy to make that the children have loved like a favorite dessert. One of our family favorites has been Peanut Butter Crispy Treats.

 

3) Share daily routines

This is something that can be added as a section in the medical binder or it can be a quick email in preparation of an overnight visit. Some birth parents want to know this information from the moment their kids are placed in care and ask for weekly progress reports that include information like baby feeding or sleeping schedules. No matter the situation, most birth parents appreciate this kind of information as the transition period gets closer. This way they know how to plan their first unsupervised visit from meals to bedtime.

 

2) Share tips/pointers

As the transition period gets closer I have found that a note with words of encouragement is welcome. Birth parents typically worry about the transition period and trial home-stay not going well. A note sometimes eases these worries and reminds them we are all human.  If you have a strong relationship with mutual respect you can try to give harder advice but be careful as this is still a slippery slope.

The most recent note provided a reminder that in life there are successes and challenges, much the same can be said about raising children. Rent-a-Dad and I are open to being sounding boards when this parenting thing feels crazy hard because we all have been there.

The one tip I have given to parents of infants/toddlers is to find a balance between being strict (disciplining) and spoiling. I have to remind myself that my job is to parent the kids and guide them, not to be their best friend. Once they reach adulthood that is the time to be their best friend.

The reason I provide this piece of advice is from experiences with birth parents of infants and toddlers. Often they feel horrible because they have missed a lot of their child’s first moments. They want to atone for this feeling by overcompensating. They do this through co-sleeping in the parent’s bed, providing lots of candy/goodies, and giving big rewards for every kind of behavior. Once these habits are formed they are very hard to break. Months after reunification, I have received requests for advice on how to alter a toddler’s behavior. The action could be sneaking candy now that the parent has decided to limit candy consumption. Or the parents have grown tired of the toddler sleeping in their bed every night.

 

1) Be sincere and humble

This is probably the most important bit of information I can give advice on. As a foster parent you have been given a special privilege to take care of a child you are not related to or have known existed prior to their placement in your home. For months, or years, this child has resided in your home under your care and protection. Now it is time to turn all of those responsibilities over to their birth parents.

Even if you agree 100% that this is the right time and the right action to take, your parental instincts are screaming in your subconscious that this is your child. Part of you is going to want to speak from a place on high because you haven’t done anything wrong to have this child taken from you. That kind of action is not what you need.

Speak from your heart with sincerity and care. Put love in your words so the birth family can feel the warmth and want to reciprocate. Be humble. None of us are perfect. Foster parents are just lucky to have had families that are supportive, loving and caring to help them in positive ways through troubled times.

 

Keep in Mind:

Not every birth parent will want advice. Many will fight and buck you every inch of the way. They are acting out of self preservation and do not know a better way to act.

One of the most difficult things to do is to be calm in the face of anger and insecurities. But being calm and showing your support is what you need to do. Why? Because being a foster parent is not about us, it is about the children in care. While the goal is reunification, the foster parents must be supportive of the birth family’s success as that is a success for the foster child. Be as supportive as you feel you can if your goal is to be involved in that child’s life beyond reunification. Finding a common ground with the birth parents is an important step in this process. This is no easy task but one well worth all the hard work.

 

End Note: Giving Advice to Birth Parents

Giving advice to birth parents is one of those multi-faceted topics. There are the general things you can do, they point behind it, and the topics you should always try to avoid. This article covered the things you can do. Check out the next two installments:

From Advice to Guidance: Giving Advice to Birth Parents Part 2

Topics to Avoid: Giving Advice to Birth Parents Part 3

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!).

Chores: Who Should Do Them? Yesterday, on our Facebook page, I shared a video from another blog. The video was about a mom who shared photos of her kid doing chores and the support/flack she received over it. In my mind I never knew such a simple subject could raise so much controversy but I should have guessed. It seems that the simple things always raise the most questions if not concern in both normal life and in the system.

Over the summer rent-a-dad and I took a fostering class titled “creating teachable moments”. At the time we registered for the class we didn’t realize how straight forward the class would be. I guess we thought there would be some big secret revealed to us because we never feel like we have all the answers.

The truth is we have more answers than we realize (and that is what scares us the most days!!). The biggest (answer/truth) is that we treat all kids in our house (care) as if they are our children. This includes the expectation that everyone will pitch in and help out.

Yes we expect foster children to do age appropriate chores.

It is a bit of a shock to us that not everyone does this. Treat fosters as their own, have real and realizable expectations, and you know assign chores.

I mean we don’t call all of the activities chores, especially when it is a life skill like expecting a three year old to be able to get dressed (put on a shirt and pair of pants). Cleaning up after yourself or putting your own dirty dishes in the sink aren’t chores either as they are apart of daily life. Knowing when to start with these expectations or chores depends on the child’s social cues or research on age appropriate chores.

I guess it is all about perspective. We each feel certain tasks are apart of daily life. Some tasks are just ingrained as you do them no questions asked while others are labeled as chores.

When we attended the DCS class the subject matter was exactly what the title said “teachable moments”. The class went over expectations of what children learn naturally and what they need to be taught, through daily life and time set aside specifically for teaching life skills. This included the idea of chores.

When the question arose of “Chores: who should do them?”, I was the one to quickly say “everyone”. I had a few questioning looks even when I explained that if my (eldest) nephew at the age of one could pick cat dishes up and put them in a dishwasher on a daily basis, helping me with my chores, then he was doing chores. Ergo a one year old could/should do chores.

When all the heads swung to look at the instructor she said “that’s exactly right”. She went on to say something I believe whole-heartedly in, that if we, as parents or mentors, don’t show our kids how to do things then who will?

The most recent generations are lacking basic everyday skills and we aren’t just talking about kids in care. We are talking about children, teenagers, and young adults from all walks of life not knowing basic things like how to do laundry, mow a lawn, where the spare tire in a vehicle is located (or how to find out) and more.

The school systems are not prepared to handle teaching these life skills so we, as their parents and mentors, have to. Once upon a time Home Ec (economics) taught teenagers the basics of life after high school like how to plan a meal from the budget side to the cooking side, how to handle a bank ledger, and how to change a diaper. When I was in high school I think we maybe learned how to cook two meals. I shudder to think what that class (if offered) teaches today. The point is probably even less.

So who has to pick up that slack? The parents, mentors… rest of society.

Chores: What to expect…

Like with most subjects everyone has an opinion. When in doubt do an internet search. There are many different sources from medical journals to family periodicals that have suggestions of what age appropriate chores and life skills.

One such source, Focus on the Family, even distinguishes between personal chores and family chores. The youngest they go is age 2.

In my opinion if a child shows interest in helping around the house and participating in activities you are doing then, when safe, involve them. It is not like I ever expected my eldest nephew, at the age of one, to pick up the pets dishes on his own or unsupervised. Every time he helped pick up the pets dishes it was because I was already doing them and he showed interest in helping.

Showing that interest to help allowed us to realize that he was ready to start learning about picking up his own toys. His brother and our foster daughter were exactly the same when they turned one. Each of them expressed interest in different tasks but the point is they showed interest and we acted upon that.

Now if the child shows no interest, which is rare, then I would suggest following guidelines from the internet and start working with the child the closer they get to the age of two with small tasks.

As far as older children coming into care, or perhaps nieces/nephews staying with you over the summer, start by asking what chores they were expected to handle at home. If the answer is none then start with a list of small expectations (putting dishes into the dishwasher) and work your way up to age appropriate ones (like sorting laundry and helping with folding).

Chores: The outcome…

After all, no matter the age, what we are all trying to do is raise children who are not afraid to tackle every day tasks, regardless of gender, and who feel confident in asking for/seeking help when they feel they are out of their depth. So that when they graduate high school we (parents/mentors) are just as confident as they are about taking care of themselves, at least in the most basic of ways.

To not aid our children in this way of growth (chores/basic life skills) is doing them a major disservice. I for one would rather cry because my children don’t “need” me any more then because they are permanently stuck with me taking care of them through their twenties and thirties.

Traditions: Cornerstones, Hassles, or Non-Existent

traditions

Some traditions give us warm fuzzy feels while the mere mention of others has us reaching for bottles of aspirin and antacids. This season in particular I want to share some thoughts on traditions and the importance of keeping family get-togethers light and fun.

As a child you learn about the meaning of tradition; as a youth you learn the importance of keeping traditions; as a young adult you begin to learn what traditions are valuable to you and your loved ones; as part of a couple you learn about the need for balance; and as a seasoned couple you find out about the shelf life of traditions.

 

Cornerstones

Dictionary.com defines tradition as “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation”. Wikipedia classifies tradition as “a belief or behavior passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past”.

For me the word tradition has always been a word with some weight to it. I have felt overwhelmed and tied down by traditions. Traditions happen to be the cornerstones of religion and society. They can be tangible or intangible. Family traditions follow much the same pattern and weight but family traditions are a little easier to let evolve and grow with needs and expansion.

When I was the president of my sorority in my junior year of college I felt the burden to keep traditions sacrosanct. I did not want to be the person involved in letting an organization fail. The following year as a regular “sister” who was preparing for her wedding, while handling a senior thesis and graduation, I felt the need for flexible traditions within my sisterhood. Now as an alumna, I have imparted advice letting the next generation know that the important thing about a sorority is to remember why everyone wanted to be sisters to begin with. That some traditions need to evolve while others traditions are the foundation/cornerstone of an organization.

To quote the bible, and the Byrds, “To everything there is a season…”

Hassles

A good number of people learn about traditions from an early age. As we grow we learn that traditions can be something we look forward to or something we dread.

Admittedly when I hear the word tradition I think of Fiddler on the Roof with Tevye singing Tradition. This song has many meanings for me including describing how traditions were handled when I was a child. In my house growing up traditions meant the need to follow everything “by the book”. This can be rather stressful at times. Most events revolving around traditions I looked forward to with childlike glee. Others I would beg my mom to let me just stay in my room. The latter was my experience with Thanksgiving.

Once upon a time Thanksgiving meant big family get-togethers with a balance of responsibility shared between the adults who attended. Events like that I could get behind and love but like most things traditions evolve and not always for good.

At some point Thanksgiving became a holiday we shared with my dad’s parents. They would travel three hours south to see us and the holiday was always ripe with tension. My mom always felt like she had to be perfect and serve the perfect meal. Between the tense energy for her need of “perfection” and my hatred of being the child who was supposed to be “seen and not heard” by her grandparents, I always wanted to just spend Thanksgiving alone in my room.

Other than the enjoyment of watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade as a family, Thanksgiving was no more than a hassle for me as a child. I am excited that Thanksgiving is no longer this way for my family. The parade is still a BIG part of our day, as it means Christmas is right around the corner, but we can be more relaxed and flexible now about how we choose to celebrate.

 

Flexibility

As a young couple Rent-a-Dad and I learned the need to find a balance between his traditions and mine. Some family traditions overlapped while others were drastically different. A balance was needed even for the traditions that seemed as if we grew up in the same household.

A good example was Christmas Eve. Both of our families celebrated gift exchange on Christmas Eve. So we couldn’t easily be at both his house in Missouri and my house in Maryland at the same time. The best compromise did not come within the first years of our relationship or marriage but later as foster parents.

Ever since becoming foster parents we have learned that not everyone knows traditions can be positive experiences so there is a need to share the traditions we value and why. We have also learned to remember that some traditions are important to hold onto while others have a time and a place. Sometimes letting go of one tradition is just as important as preserving another. As families form and evolve, it is also important to remember that traditions do the same thing. Traditions have a lifecycle: point of creation; a point of evolution; and a time to retire.

Christmas is a time filled with traditions and is a time that reminds us most about the need to be flexible.

 

Non-Existent

DCS wants foster parents to be flexible about their own plans to make room for the children coming into their homes. Sometimes this is easy as gift giving and tradition sharing. Other times are more difficult. When re-unification is the goal, DCS will ask foster parents to put their own holiday plans on hold to ensure a child spends Christmas with his/her birth family. This often seems unfair.

It is important to remind DCS that your traditions matter too. Before you decide to hold fast to your traditions, first talk with the birth family.

Our experience has shown us that when you ask birth families to share their traditions they are more flexible than you thought they might be. They can also be open to hearing about your own traditions so they may start something new with positive memories.

When working with birth families remember to be flexible in your own traditions as you help build new ones.

 

Parting Words on Traditions

 

Over the past three years we have learned so much about sharing our own traditions and creating new ones.

As the grandchild of a French/Italian American, I have learned that Thanksgiving and Christmas are not just about turkeys or hams. That there is as much of a place on the table for homemade meatballs and pasta as there is gravy and mashed potatoes.

As one half of a married couple who are also foster parents, I have learned that traditions are not just about keeping memories alive or something you see on TV but are about the love and time you spend with family. Traditions are not (just) about specific dates instead they are about moments shared. In terms of gift giving, Christmas is still Christmas whether it is spent on December 25th or another day that week.

As a foster parent, I have learned that sharing traditions can help heal old wounds for birth families and yourself. Creating new traditions also have the same effect.

As a parent, I have learned that the messy moments in life mean more than all the perfect ones. From the baby who loves to roll around in the wrapping paper to the cat jumping into the tree. Deep breaths and laughter can guide you through the rough spots. So can reminders about boundaries and how family can be helpful.

Also as a foster parent, sometimes DCS is not the biggest push for flexibility or the opposite. Don’t be afraid to let your own family know you may need time, space, and their understanding as you work with the system.

So this holiday season as you are running around gift buying and focusing on the traditions dear to your family, remember to cut yourself some slack. That creating the perfect moment is tenuous and often unattainable. Focus on the happy messy moments, no matter how small (time or space), as they are the ones you will always remember and hold dear!

Fostering: A Line in the Sand

line in the sand

Whether you are an easy going person or someone with very strong views and convictions, we all have our breaking points. Our values, tangible or intangible, are things that define us. We all have moments that we will not back down from. Each of us has a line in the sand that we will not cross. [Wikipedia refers to the line in the sand as a metaphor for a point, whether tangible or intangible, where beyond which a person will not advance.]

As a foster parent it is important to have an idea of what that line is before you accept a child into your home. While I encourage foster parents to be flexible and to look outside of themselves to provide better care for foster children, it is just as important to be honest with yourself and the system. Being a foster parent has many rewards but it is also a very draining commitment. Not being honest with yourself or the system will only lead to a lot of unnecessary stress and pain for all those involved.

When going through the initial training process you will have several opportunities to speak with a home study worker. Use those times to talk about you concerns (we all have some) about what being a foster parent means to you and your family.

If you are worried about having a child in your home of a different color or ethnicity make sure it is listed in your file. Concerned about interactions with birth families? Ask questions. Make sure you are honest about the gender, age, and needs level of the children you are willing to have in your home.

Most importantly if the thought of not having “constant aid” from the system worries you ask for a foster parent mentor or look into a private agency. While I stand behind my decision to work with the Department of Children’s Services, private agencies are around for a reason. I have friends who work for private agencies and friends who are foster parents through other private agencies. Case managers for private agencies can do a little more hand holding than the over-loaded case managers of DCS. Some private agencies may also align better with your personal belief system as there are ones that are Christian based.

Before jumping on the private agency bandwagon remember to do your research.  State vs. private agency is all about personal preference and goals.

I could end the post right there. Always be true to yourself and honest with the system. Check into private agencies if you feel you can not work with the state. I wish life was as easy as giving out simple advice.

I know our posts at times seem rather idealistic and our intentions perhaps a bit altruistic. The truth is not all cases are the same. Rent-a-Dad and I have been extremely lucky in the cases that we have received. The birth families involved in each of our cases so far have seen “getting caught” as a wake-up call and realize this is their second chance. This has allowed Rent-a-Dad and I to be mentors for these birth families and help with reunification. This is not possible with every case in the system. We know we will not be able to take this approach with each and every case that comes our way.

Whether you are considering becoming a foster parent; are in the middle of the process; have only been a foster parent for a short time; or are a seasoned foster parent, you should make time to sit down with your spouse and family to go over your pros-and-cons list. Creating a pros and cons list defines your motivations and can accentuate reasons why/why not to become a foster parent. Sometimes the reason for “why not” is as simple as your children may need more of your attention at this moment. For Rent-a-Dad and I, we feel revisiting this pros/cons list helps keep us focused. If at any point the cons outweigh the pros it might be time for us to reconsider being foster parents.

When creating a list ask yourself why is fostering important to you. Do you just want to adopt or are you looking at fostering as a long term goal? Can you work with birth families? How involved do you want to be in the process? What are your feelings about re-unification? What age range or needs level can you work with? Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the hard questions that will lead to your line in the sand. Don’t be afraid to share that line in the sand with your case-worker.

For Rent-a-Dad and myself, the line in the sand is about knowing what cases we can not handle. Right now we know we could not handle high need cases, or sexual abuse cases where re-unification is still an option. We are not equipped to work with high needs or special needs children in our home. While we think we could help children who have been sexually abused we know that we can not work with their family.

By knowing what our line in the sand is, we are able to be honest with DCS. Our case worker has documented in our file everything we feel we can handle as well as all the things we do not feel equipped to deal with. This line in the sand enables proper placement.

So far we have not received calls that would make us re-enforce our standpoint. If we were to receive a placement call that raised concerns for either Rent-a-Dad or me, we feel secure in not accepting that placement.

Accepting a placement when you know it would be a bad call is not only setting yourself up for a stressful time but potentially setting the child back as well. So yes, I encourage being flexible but knowing what you can not be flexible about is just as important.

A good example of what I am talking about is a family we met while doing ongoing training. The dad is a cop who has also worked at one of the correctional facilities. With one of their cases he knew the father who had been arrested. He had personal interactions that colored how they could handle the case. In hindsight the foster dad said they never should have accepted the case because he did not believe in reunification with the birth father.

This foster family realized that they needed to further evaluate the level of care they could provide. They had already filled out the foster family strengths and needs sheet where age, gender, and level of need are detailed. They still wanted to be foster parents but were questioning their ability to be involved in the reunification process. They asked themselves what type of foster care they could provide. Should they only handle respite placements or placements where the system is moving to sever parental rights? The answer was something they had to be honest about with themselves and the system. The answer was their line in the sand.

Fostering: Emergency Placement

emergency placement

Late Tuesday evening Rent-a-Dad and I received a phone call about a child needing an emergency placement. By Wednesday evening our emergency placement was able to go home.

During the day on Wednesday, we had received several phone calls and text messages. Friends and family were  asking if we needed anything. By the time we replied to those concerns our emergency placement had already been re-united with family. This news shocked several of our friends and family members. They were a bit confused thinking that foster parents provided homes for stays lasting longer than one day. It is true that the bulk of placements last more than one night, often the stay spans a minimum of eight months. Emergency placements are rather different.

Emergency placements are a little like they sound. Something has happened to the parent or caregiver and now the child needs some where to call home no matter how temporary.

The first priority of DCS is to find a safe place for the child in question to receive food and a warm bed. Once that house is identified DCS then turns its attention to finding other family or friends that could care for the child. The search may only last a few hours, a day or it could take several weeks to several months. The intention of an emergency placement is to re-unite this child with family/friends as soon as possible.

It is important to keep in mind that emergency placements happen for a number of reasons. A caregiver might unexpectedly be in the hospital. A parent may have passed away or be missing. Not all foster care placements are due to negligence, drugs, or abuse.

Sometimes DCS finds out about cases like this late at night. A warm bed and safe home need to be identified so the child does not need to fall asleep on the floor at the local DCS office. This was the case with our emergency placement. By the next afternoon everything was worked out and could be reunited with family. In situations like this the reunification process happened so quickly that the child never truly had to be in care.

There are so many reasons to become a foster parent from emergency placements to long term care. Not only are there many reasons but also many ways in which a person can foster. Foster parents do not have to adopt or even plan to adopt. They can open their home to strictly deal with emergency placements or even respite care.

Interested in learning more about the different types of foster homes and placements? I encourage you to contact your local Department of Children Services or local charity that works with the foster care system. Rent-a-Dad and I work through the state. However there are plenty of private foster care organizations in the area where we live that we could also work through. There are even group homes meant to provide more of a respite type of care for families.

The only sad bit of information I have to share is that terminology can be different from state to state. Not all state agencies have websites that are easy to navigate let alone explain what you need to know. Families United Network, Inc. in Pennsylvania has a good “go to” page that explains some of the terminology I have used in the past from emergency placement to kinship foster care.