Fostering My Village

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In the early days of talking about fostering, Rent-a-Dad and I knew two things about our fostering path. We wanted fostering to be more than just a way to grow our family. It was always about opening our home to children in a way in which they would always feel it was a safe haven. In the process of creating a safe haven we have also built a village.

Birth parents describe the first moments of seeing their babies as “love at first sight”. It really was no different for us with each placement. Everyone has hopes that they will feel that way about birth and adoptive children. Not many people say that about foster children but honestly, for us, how could we not feel that way?

Our first placements were a sibling group. We went to the hospital to pick them up after a check-up. Rent-a-Dad gravitated to the 13-month old blond haired blue eyed bundle of energy that could have passed as his son. My own arms were naturally reaching for the cooing 3-week old baby that easily could have been my baby. For both us there was an immediate bond with these children.

Even with this natural connection we were not jaded into thinking they belonged to us or that we would instantly be better parents. The truth is we always knew the plan was for the boys to return home. If that was not possible there were plenty of biological family members who would have taken the boys if plans changed.

Another truth was that we didn’t really know what to expect with our first placement. We didn’t know what would happen with the case, how the family would act and ultimately what kind of foster parents we would be. What we did know was that we wanted the family to know the boys were being taken care of and that we wanted to show them respect. It is easier to reciprocate respect when it is first given. Respect is always a good foundation on which to build any relationship.

Respect, so far, is the foundation we have used to build relationships with each birth family. Respect, honesty, and patience are other good foundation stones. Thanks to those building blocks we have been able to do more than develop relationships. We have been able to grow a relationship that has gone past reunification.

At the beginning of each placement we have had no idea what would be the end of each story. Because we did not assume the end story would be adoption but rather reunification, we were able to have meaningful interactions with the birth families. These interactions have gone beyond what DCS, or us really, would have expected.

By the time our first placements went home friends and family were asking “what is the plan”. That question meant something different for each person who asked us. For some it meant “do you think you will stay in touch with the family”. Others who asked really just wanted to know if the pain and loss would prove to be too much for us and end our journey. Some gently urged us to re-consider outright adoption. No one quite expected what actually happened, not even us.

Our hope has always been to have some form of continued relationship with each placement and their family. The shocker has been how close of a relationship we have been able to have. While all of our placements have been successfully re-united with family, we have yet to go more than one week without some form of contact with each child.

The children are still a part of the village we are building. Not only are they a part of our village but they each are part of their own village as they all have growing friendships with each other.

Our village is more than a family. It goes beyond blood ties. Our village is about never giving up on the children who come into our care.

Our village is about providing reciprocal advice, support, and love. Because we have been there for these children and been supportive of the families, we are often asked for our input on care for the children. This would not happen without trust of the family. Often the questions we receive are on topics the birth parents are worried about asking their family for advice on. This knowledge is humbling.

When our friends and family first found out how involved we still are in these children’s lives we recieved a lot of concerned questions. The biggest two being “If DCS wanted these families reunited so badly, why are you still involved? Why aren’t you letting the parents learn how to swim on their own?”

The truth is often more complicated than we want it to be. Both Rent-a-dad and I know first hand how it can take a village to raise a child. If we all walk away from these children, pull this support network out from under these families, then we, as foster parents, are failing them just to be spiteful. That is not who we are.

It takes a village to raise a child. We may not be the permanent caregivers, parents, or blood relations of any kind, but what we are is bigger. We are the people who help create this village for this child.

Our home will always be open, just as our hearts will be.

This is how we want to help break the chain for the next generation. There are statistics that show a portion of children currently in care came from parents who were also in care. We don’t want any child in our care to be in a place where they will continue that cycle.

Too many times the reason a child came into care goes beyond neglect or drug use. It goes beyond one bad decision. The circumstance is complicated and situation did not happen overnight. One big reason children come into care is because of a lack of resources and knowledge of available resources. Birth families feel isolated in their situations. Isolation leads people to bad decision making and reacting instead of planning. We hope that as birth families get to know us that they feel comfortable turning to us for advice knowing we care about the future of their children.

There is always room to expand one’s village.

While we do not expect that everyone will understand how we are growing our village or how the village is meant to function, we hope that there will be respect for what we are attempting to accomplish.

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!

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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

1. Patience

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.

 

 

Fostering Questions

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In other posts Rent-a-Dad and I have imparted some of our earliest thoughts on Foster Care, fostering, and breaking down stereotypes and Misconceptions. What we haven’t really covered are some of the questions we receive on a fairly regular basis. Below are some of our most frequently asked questions and answers.

Before I delve into those questions there is has been one sitting on my mind lately that I dearly want to share the answer to.

What is the most important thing you have learned as a foster parent?

Since Rent-a-Dad and I did not have any children of our own before becoming foster parents I feel as if my answer to this question applies to all parents. What I learned is that there needs to be a balance between being firm (unwavering) and extremely flexible. Overall that seems like a no-brainer type of answer but my experience as a foster parent and a mentor to other foster parents has taught me something else.

Foster parents come to the table with our own lifestyle and experiences and try to apply those to the children coming into our care. We forget that these children were not raised by us or even raised in situations similar to our own. We can not expect a child who has never seen a salad to eat one. The salad is unfamiliar territory and the child is already scared because they were removed from the only lifestyle they ever had.

As foster parents, we must step outside of our comfort zone and find a common ground with the children in our care. A lot of times this involves compromises we would never consider with our own children.

Instead of thinking of the foster child as “ungrateful” because they wouldn’t eat your salad, or even punishing them by saying “This is all you get so eat it” it might be time to ask them what their favorite foods are including fruits and vegetables. The shocker may be they never have seen let alone eaten fruits or vegetables.

That is a good example of needing to be flexible. We have found there are other points you need to be firm on like hygiene and homework.

 

The 5 Most Frequently Asked Questions of a Foster Parent

  1. Won’t you miss them?

What generally precedes this question is a “Bless you” or “I could never do that”, sometimes both phrases are used.

In Thoughts from a Path Panel, Rent-a-Dad said “It is impossible to prepare for how much you’ll miss the kids when they leave your home. Knowing and anticipating the hole it’s going to leave isn’t likely to help in the way that one might hope.”

I have often answered this question by replying with my own question “Is there a reason I shouldn’t miss them?”

We miss each and every child who has passed through our lives. This isn’t limited to the foster children in our care. I used to be the business manager for an all girls choir and the producer for a children’s theatre. I miss all of those children so yes I am going to miss the kids who have been apart of my every day life.

Every time a child returns home I am conflicted and torn. I feel more conflicted then the mother and the false mother in Solomon’s tale. I want what is best for the child I have loved and cared for and at the same time I never want to see them go.

 

  1. How do you survive the children returning home?

The obvious answer is taking one day at a time. Additional answers include: having outlets or hobbies you can put yourself into; and making sure not to neglect yourself or your life while you are fostering.

The not so obvious answer, to some people, is that we build a relationship with the birth family in the hopes of never truly saying goodbye to the children in our care.

We want the children in our care to do more than just survive the life they have been given. We want them to thrive in it.

For us this means Fostering Relationships with the birth family. It means being open, attempting to be less judgmental and providing respect. It is teaching the birth family that they are valued. Building a relationship takes time. Providing respect has meant we are given respect in turn.

No this approach is not easy but so far it has been very rewarding to us.

So far we have not truly said goodbye to any of the children in our care. We get to see each of them often and their families look at our house as a safe haven for their children.

Both Rent-a-Dad and I are lucky to understand that a person can have more than one home and safe haven. Each of us valued the safe havens that our families have provided to us over the years. A safe haven can simply be a place away from where you live on a permanent basis where you know you feel safe from what the world is throwing at you like your grandmother’s house.

 

  1. How do you find time for yourself and your family?

There needs to be a balance between fostering and the life you have already built for yourself and your family.

Finding a balance is difficult even when it is just you, your spouse and your own children. Adding additional children who are already strong willed or traumatized isn’t easy.

I am a list maker and planner. Rent-a-Dad will tell anyone who asks that I make back-up plans to my back-up plans. However, I still find it hard to make a balance between my family and my foster children.

On one hand we want any of our foster children to feel as if they are a part of our family. That’s the point of fostering and creating Normal Normalcy for children in the system.

On the other hand we need to realize that our homes are most likely just a temporary way station for these children. When these children have returned home or moved on to another family member we will return to our own lives. So we can not neglect our own lives and those whom we hold dear.

My no-brainer advice is: Make sure that the needs of your family are met. Make sure you set aside time to sit and talk with your children and other relatives. Keep yourself involved in a hobby and that your children stay involved in activities as well.

Most importantly keep up with your support network.

If you have friends that want to be involved then keep them involved. Use their help as baby sitters. When those friends and family want to make you dinner, let them.

Don’t forget the caseworkers or other professionals already involved in the case.

Request a transporter to help with weekly visits. This helps free up your time so you don’t feel hounded if the need arises for visits beyond the basic allotment.

It is easy to get upset when you feel overwhelmed by all of the appointments and court dates needed for the child/children in your care. If the agency you work with provides transportation for any of these take them up on the offer. If the birth family has unsupervised visits, then request their help as well! After all they are trying to get their child/children back so ask the case worker to have the parent help with doctor appointments. While you may want to be at EVERY appointment and court date for your foster child you also need to make sure no one else in your life, including yourself, is neglected.

 

  1. So why is the child in your care?

Foster parents are NOT allowed to share any details of the case with those not legally involved in the case.

That is the best answer to give. Clean and clear.

If you want another answer: “The child came into care for a reason. I can not share that information with you but I am sure you will draw your own conclusion no matter what I say.”

 

  1. Why don’t you just adopt?

Adoption for us is not about the destination but rather the journey. We had considered out-right adoption but we don’t feel that is our only path to walk. Want more details? You can read about them in Adoption Dreams.

Foster Classes: Training and Understanding

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Back in September I shared a quick post about a training course that Rent-a-Dad and I were looking forward to taking at our first DCS Foster Parent Conference. The class was titled “Loving and Letting Go” and our post Never Letting Go was a little bit about a hope that we never really want to let go of our foster children if we don’t have to. What we know as foster parents is there is a difference between what you hope will happen and what takes place. The classes we take as foster parents are there to teach us what we don’t know and to help bridge that gap.

The first year we were foster parents we attended an adoption day conference given in our county. Our first DCS Foster Parent Conference had a similar feeling for us: educational and re-affirming.

The conference in our state takes place over three days. While there were a variety of classes available due to our own time constraints we were limited we could take. When we arrived at the conference we found out that one of our requirement classes for the year was being given in the slot of the class we most looked forward to. That meant we were unable to take “Loving and Letting Go” that day. We have already looked at the class schedule for our county and found another session for that class will be given soon.

Even though what excited us the most about our training that day changed we still learned new terminology, met some new people, and had an enjoyable afternoon. Since we are required to do 14 hours of training each year, we were very happy to get 8.5 of those hours completed in one day.

Some years the 14 hours of training seems to go by quickly while other years it feels like an insurmountable task. This year we only have two classes yet to take and seven months left to take them. Other years we have been down to the wire as life and circumstances are not always kind to any of us.

So why is there a need for on-going training for foster parents? After all don’t foster parents go through enough? Aren’t they already on the front lines? Why burden them with more classes when they have court dates, review boards, home visits, doctor appointments… and so on, to deal with?

I can’t answer that question from a DCS or legal standpoint. Honestly I am not sure if you asked every DCS employee that you would hear the same answer twice. What I can tell you is that legally we are required to take refresher courses every two years for medication administration and CPR. Nurses and other health care professionals have similar on-going training. It is true that we don’t need that kind of training to raise our own kids but we aren’t raising our own kids.

It is true that as foster parents we are more liable for the children in our care than regular parents. Truthfully we should be. We have the life of someone else’s child in our hands. Life is precious and should never be taken for granted. Sometimes we get caught up in the minutiae of a case. We are keenly aware that we are responsible for these lives but we can forget how we would feel if these were our children in someone else’s care.

That points out the need for those two courses. Why do foster parents need to take other courses each year?

Again this is just my opinion but rules and regulations change over the years. Even if they didn’t the changes the world sees can be reason enough. There are classes every year that help address theses changes as well as classes to help give foster parents new ideas and techniques for any number of topics from discipline to finding hope while raising traumatized children.

We have seen topics come up from “creating teachable moments” to “stress relief & self care”. Each topic has merit and value on its own. When thrust into the world of foster care it is not just about taking another class but throwing out a life-line to foster parents who may be struggling with the system, birth families, etc.

A recent class we took was going over new terminology for new born babies that are opiate dependent. The class was to help teach understanding as much as terminology. A common thread through the class is that not all babies born dependant on opiates come from bad situations. Our interest in the class was two-fold; we want to stay current with new care options for opiate dependent children and we hoped to learn what medical science can teach us about what to expect once they are no longer babies such as verbal or physical delays.

As medical and health professionals are becoming more aware of the needs of foster care there is new terminology and new ways to approach old cases. Taking these classes will only prove to help those who honestly want to help the children in their care. The classes should also help the foster parents deal with situations they feel unprepared for.

Case in point, police brutality is not new but how socially aware of it we are as a society might feel new to a lot of people. In recent months I have been advocating for more classes that help foster parents of different races help relate to the needs of their foster children. At the conference there was at least one class set up to help with this topic.

Sometimes I might grumble that I have to arrange for childcare so I can take a DCS mandated class. Even though I am grumbly I understand the need for the classes. Truthfully I look forward to interacting with other foster parents and learning what I can do to help better myself and help those in my care.

Overall the DCS Foster Parent Conference was a success in our books. At the end of the day as we were wrapping up our classes and preparing to head home when we spotted a beautiful rainbow in the distance. As a symbol of hope and new beginnings it seemed a fitting end to our training that day.

To Co-Sleep or Not to Co-Sleep: Part 2 Co-Sleeping Habits

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As birth or adoptive parents, our co-sleeping habits are up to us. As foster parents it is a different story. Each state has different rules and guidelines that govern co-sleeping habits. No matter the state the basic part of the official rule is “NO co-sleeping”.

End of story. Right?

In simple terms NO means NO. So it should be the end of the story but it isn’t.

Co-sleeping isn’t just about some “bad” habit formed during infancy. It is true that infancy is when co-sleeping habits form but it is not a habit that simply stops because a child is no longer a baby. And it doesn’t just stop because it is not your kid and you don’t have the right to co-sleep.

Tennessee is no different than most states with officials telling parents of any kind to stop co-sleeping. The official take on the best way to raise a baby to childhood is to follow the ABCs of Safe Sleeping. While this is the official take on the matter it doesn’t mean that all birth families follow these guidelines.

Truthfully there are enough co-sleeping options available so families can co-sleep and still follow those ABCs. All one needs to do is a web search for “bedside co sleeper”.

When it came time for our first placement, Rent-a-Dad and I had already gone through the classes and had been told by the state, pediatricians, and the local health center that co-sleeping was a “no-no”. From our personal standpoint, we fight with our cats for space in our bed each night. Why would we ant to worry about adding a baby or a toddler to that mess?

Usher in our first placement: a baby and a toddler. They each had their own bed/crib in their own bedroom. We did use a bassinet and a pram for the baby when he wasn’t in his own crib.

Good. Right?

Not exactly.

The toddler had already developed co-sleeping habits with his father but we weren’t to find this out for months. Due to the co-sleeping habits the toddler refused to go to sleep without an hour worth of crying and screaming each night. To him no dad equaled no sleep.

At this time Rent-a-Dad had evening commitments for the first two months of their stay with us. This meant I handled setting up the bedtime routine. The infant was relatively easy as he would be napping around his brother’s bedtime. The bedtime routine for the toddler was physically and emotionally draining for me.

I would spend between thirty minutes and an hour each night trying to calmly get the toddler to sleep.

This difficult and draining nightly event was discussed with all the caseworkers. The caseworkers were worried over the amount of time it took to get the toddler calm enough to drift off to sleep. We discussed techniques such as using noise machines to bed-time stories to even co-sleeping.

Yes the caseworkers and I talked about trying co-sleeping with the toddler. They asked if we had tried it and I told them we hadn’t.

The reason? Not only had the state already expressly said “no co-sleeping” in our training and paperwork, it honestly felt weird to Rent-a-Dad and I to think about a little human not biologically ours crawling into our bed.

That however did not mean we didn’t try a variation of co-sleeping. I would put the TV on in his room, turn off the lights, and sit with him on the twin bed. My hope was he would fall asleep and I could move him to his crib. I even tried quiet time with reading a book or putting the noise machine on. Each attempt at setting a bedtime routine would take five nights as five days is about the time it takes for routines to get set in a child’s mind. Any quiet time activity had the opposite affect on him. He would jump on the bed, laugh, and refuse to calm down. Co-sleeping habits of any kind were not going to work.

So the answer was no. No we did not try co-sleeping, at least not by DCS measures.

At the end of the first month what worked more consistently was turning on the noise machine/nightlight, putting the toddler in his crib, and then I would lie on the floor and hold his hand through the slat of the crib until he fell asleep. This was by no means bed-sharing but it was a form of co-sleeping habits.

Due to the difficulties we had with any bedtime routine for the toddler the birth parents were asked frequently about their bed time routines. Each time they denied any form of co-sleeping as to them it meant bed-sharing.

After getting to know the birth family better we found out that the birth father would get home from work and try to decompress. He did so while watching evening shows and the toddler would fall asleep on the couch curled up next to him. When the toddler was a baby he would fall asleep in his dad’s arms.

Even though the birth father would move him to his crib once he was asleep this was the toddler’s bedtime routine. While technically this was not bed-sharing it most certainly was developing co-sleeping habits.

Once we learned what the bed time routine really was we were able to adapt what we were doing. The toddler still would not curl up with us, nor did we expect him to, we used the TV in his room on a timer to help with a fuss free bedtime routine.

As for the baby…

One very important thing to remember is that co-sleeping does not mean bed-sharing. Because the government uses the two terms synonymously so many people are against co-sleeping. Broken down into the most basic explanation co-sleeping means sleeping in close proximity to an infant.

Our first foster baby had a need to know his caregivers were near by at all times. We found this out quickly as not every time he cried was it for food or a diaper change. It sometimes just meant he wanted to be rocked or soothed. After the first week of letting him sleep in the pram we had, because the crib did not work consistently, we invested in a bassinet. The bassinet could be locked still or in its unlocked position it could be rocked. It also had music and light vibration settings.

That bassinet ensured that we received some form of sleep and sanity each night. At bedtime the bassinet sat in our room next to our bed. During the day I kept the bassinet near me in our family room. After the first few months the baby slept in the bassinet at night and napped in his rocker during the day. After most bottles the baby would fall asleep in our arms.

Both Rent-a-Dad and I are big believers in skin to skin bonding for newborns and infants under 3 months. Skin to skin bonding does not mean anyone needs to be naked. I would generally wear a tank top and Rent-a-Dad an undershirt and we would hold our clothed foster baby with his face in the crook of our neck while we burped him and rubbed his back.

Foster parents are constantly reminded that children in the foster care system have hard times bonding and being able to create bonds is an important life skill. When babies are removed from their mothers so close to birth there needs to be some kind of bond formed between the care giver and the baby. This bond is an important part of early learning. Skin to skin bonding can help make this connection.

Have questions on how to bond with any foster child? This article, 10 ways to bond with your adopted or foster child, has a lot of good ideas including skin to skin contact even with older children.

For concerned foster parents, here are some important questions to discuss with your caseworker:

  • Does co-sleeping strictly refer to bed-sharing?
  • As long as the plan is for the infant to move to a crib in his/her own room after a few months, can a bassinet be used in the foster parent’s bedroom?
  • When a toddler/child is having trouble getting to sleep, can you utilize co-sleeping habits like rocking them to sleep, rubbing their back, or sitting in a chair beside their bed until they fall asleep?
  • What should I do if the child/toddler is consistently crawling into my bad after I go to sleep?

No one ever really thinks about these questions when it is your own biological or adopted child. As foster parents we must think through each of our actions not just because of how others see them but also because of the child in our care. There are many forms of trauma. While one child could use a back rub to get to sleep another child might scream out in fright. Once a child is in your care, and you are taking each day at a time, it can prove useful to talk to your caseworker about habits and routines.

In most states the “no co-sleeping” rule is geared toward newborns and infants as SIDs is a top concern. The rule is also more about “no bed-sharing” than it is about utilizing co-sleeping habits. Talk with your caseworker so you know what your boundaries are.

Getting children to sleep and stay asleep is a struggle most parents sympathize with.

For foster parents I urge everyone to document as much as you can. If you have questions send your case-worker an email. Email is a good way to communicate and document concerns. Most case-workers document the sleeping habits of children in care anyway. Any answers you receive concerning sleeping habits need to be documented so if questions arise in the future you have something to refer back to.

Most foster parents will find that while bed-sharing is a “no-no” that utilizing co-sleeping habits is normal. In Tennessee where the system is working on prudent parenting and creating normalcy for foster children, using co-sleeping habits such as holding a toddlers hand until they fall asleep is just a normal part of life.

To Co-Sleep or Not to Co-Sleep: Part 1

co-sleeping

To co-sleep or not to co-sleep, it is a very good question.

First and foremost this article is not a place of judgment. Every child is different and each family situation unique.

If you want to explore some of the pros/cons of co-sleeping then you will need to do your own research. Two articles that I did find refreshing are Safe Co-Sleeping Guidelines from the University of Notre Dame and Dr. Sear’s article Co-Sleeping: Yes, No, Sometimes. Neither article passes judgment but rather provides advice, and re-assurance. Every parent can use a little, or a lot, of both at times.

Several years back one friend, a new mother, was seeking both of those. She was receiving quite a few judgmental comments about her co-sleeping with her daughter. I believe the only advice I gave was the same advice passed from my grandmother to my mother and from my mother to me. Give the baby, or toddler, his/her own designated sleep space and opportunities to sleep on his/her own. My mom said co-sleeping isn’t bad but we need to make sure that as the baby turns into a toddler and a young child that he/she understands the need for his/her own bed.

After sharing that advice I know I explained my own history. There are pictures of my dad and me taking a nap together in his recliner. Nap times were the times where my parents chose to co-sleep with me. At bedtime they placed me in my bassinet (as an infant) and then later a crib. When I was visiting with my grandparents I tended to co-sleep with them more often than not.

At the age of four my world was rocked by the passing of my grandfather. After which I had frequent nightmares. My father had a chair next to my bed where he would sit and read me stories. On nights where I had difficulty falling asleep he would sit with me until I fell asleep. Sometime overnight I would still find my way into my parent’s bedroom and fall asleep on the foot of their bed if I didn’t crawl in-between them.

Over night stays with my grandmother now meant I rarely slept in my own bed. I have memories of waking up at night and watching her sleep to make sure she wasn’t going to leave me as well.

When I was five or six my grandmother moved three states away to be closer to one of her other daughters. By this time I was school aged and spending more time in my own bed at home and less time visiting my grandmother.

The point of sharing that story with my friend was that “to everything there is a season”. Co-sleeping for me was not something that took place 100% of the time since I was a baby. Co-sleeping was tied to needing re-assurance and safety. Two things parents want to provide their children with.

Three years ago my nephews lived with us for a while. My youngest nephew was only a baby at the time. Even though he was the best baby ever, the first two months were still difficult. He easily fell asleep in my arms or on my husband’s chest, in his swing and when he was rocked in his bassinet. Once he was asleep we could leave him in his bassinet or move him to his crib. Any co-sleeping were the times he would sleep in our arms while we watched TV.

When there were late-night wake-ups, my nephew would easily fall back asleep in his bassinet. At three months old he was rolling over and by the fourth month he was lifting his head with ease. This meant more crib time for naps and bedtime. He would easily fall asleep with a few minutes of lullaby music by the time he was nine months old and sleep at least six hours. He was the perfect little baby.

Life and sleeping were a different story when he was fifteen months old. He had moved back home with his parents and only spent the night at our house from time to time. During these visits he refused to sleep in his old crib and he no longer liked the nighttime routine we once had. After a few sleepless nights when he visited we decided to see if he would sleep in his playpen in our bedroom. This seemed to work for a few months.

One night both Rent-a-Dad and I woke up to a very upset toddler who was trying to climb into our bed. It seemed as if my nephew was having sleep anxiety and wanted to make sure none of us were going to leave him while he slept. Ever since that night we have become used to waking up with our nephew at the foot of our bed, on the pillows above our heads or wedged in-between us. Even with a nighttime story book routine and settling down in his bed, some point overnight he would wake up and find his way to our bedroom.

More and more my nephew does sleep the majority of the night in his own bed. His season of co-sleeping is winding down. Whenever he needs it we re-assure him that we will not disappear on him.

As for how we as foster parents feel about co-sleeping and the guidelines we have to follow… well you will need to read Part 2 of this article.

Never Letting Go

letting go

Tomorrow Rent-a-Dad and I will be attending our local DCS Foster Parent Conference. So tonight we have been getting ready by making sure we have pen, paper, and of course directions. As Rent-a-Dad is making sure our GPS is set up in our car, I decided to note down what classes we want to take. There is one class that we have been discussing for some time: Loving and Letting Go.

The title of the class is rather ironic to us but for one main reason. So far we have not learned how to love and let go. In fact we are in contact with not only the children and immediate families of each of our former placements but also extended family members. So far loving and letting go just hasn’t worked out for us, nor do we want it to!

So why take the class?

Sadly we both know that our track record won’t remain perfect. At some point we will have a placement where we won’t be able to remain in contact. While we don’t know what kind of circumstances those will be, because for us it is hard to imagine, we are certain it will come to pass. So taking this class is preparing for the inevitable.

The thought of loving and letting go being inevitable seems sad but it is something we all do throughout our lives. Even though it is something we each experience it is not something we ever want to get used to. By taking the class the hope is to gain some new techniques that will help us cope when it becomes necessary to let go.

There are certain arrangements of words that seem to call to each of us. Recalling back to childhood the phrase that I always called my mantra came from Shakespeare. Hamlet was one of my mom’s favorite plays so I often heard this line. I just always wanted to attribute it to one of his other plays because Hamlet hurts my head, heart, and soul. The line, from Polonius, is “This above all: to thine own self be true”

In my heart of hearts, I know I will never be good at loving and letting go. Doesn’t matter how many coping mechanisms I put in place or the classes I take. I still think of every child I have ever cared for from distant relations to children of dear friends. Not to mention all of the kids in programs I have helped operate over the years.

Letting go is never easy, not for me. Above all else I know this about myself.

Since becoming a foster parent there have been additional phrases, idioms, and quotes that have called to me. Some of the Disney re-writing of Winnie the Pooh has been quite inspirational. In fact a few of the quotes grace the spare bedroom wall where most of our placements have slept.

You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” As said by Christopher Robin in “Pooh’s Grand Adventure: the Search for Christopher Robin.

When Rent-a-Dad and I re-decorated our spare room we felt that quote needed a prominent space. Even if the children who sleep in that room can not read it is the quote we feel that needs to define their life. It is a quote we feel the need to read to them each night. When we ourselves feel sad and a bit lost, it is a quote we need to read to bring us strength.

In the past couple of months I have found that another adaptation of literary lines to be equally meaningful in my life. It just so happens that the line was also adapted by Disney. Although which movie it hails from is still being debated on the internet.

Never say goodbye because saying goodbye means going away, and going away means forgetting.” As said by Peter Pan. Adapted from J.M. Barrie’s novel.

As a foster parent I feel it is my duty to never forget. While some of the little loves who pass through our doors, and lives, may never be old enough to remember their time in our home, we will never forget them! We will ALWAYS love them! And even though time and space may separate us, we will never truly let them go.

Fostering Privacy

privacy

There are so many topics I could use when this phrase comes up: “when we began the process of fostering…” In part that is because of all the assumptions and preconceived ideas associated with fostering. Some of the notions we had were spot on while others not so much. When it comes to confidentiality and how it applies to each case, our ideas of implied privacy were not too far off.

Our society is at a stage where there is a struggle between private and public knowledge. Half of society wants to post every little emotion and be followed by a million people. The other half is wondering where any kind of implied privacy has disappeared to. Because of that we can no longer assume something is so; it needs to be defined, labeled, and made crystal clear. That is certainly true for every aspect of the foster care system.

We thought one could assume that each child is due his/her privacy especially since the system is clear on how foster parents must handle it. Foster parents are required to sign contracts for a multitude of reasons, one being that we must not discuss personal aspects of a case. When tackling that bit of privacy we also thought there was an unstated rule for not sharing information of any kind on social media. Soon after becoming foster parents that unstated rule became an official policy. The policy (in Tennessee) is not as strict as one would assume. Yet it is also meant to protect all parties involved, which sometimes feels laughable.

On social media foster parents are allowed to share that we have a placement, the age and possibly gender. We can not share specifics like a full name or the names of the parents. An approved nickname may be used. While we can share family photos that the placement may be in, most still need prior approval. This is also the case for status updates that concern the foster child. Approval can be done at the discretion of the caseworker if the child is very young otherwise it must also involve the consent of the child and the child’s family team. Sometimes policies and rules, like these, may seem to be excessive however it is as much for the protection of the placement as it is for the foster family.

Privacy is a wonderful thing. So much with the foster system seems invasive and as if there is no such thing as privacy. It feels like ones movements and actions are scrutinized, not just the foster child but also the foster family. People are treated like mechanical things that need to be kept tabs on with a high level of accountability. On paper it all makes perfect sense because of the foster children who have being taken advantage of by the system, the foster family, or the birth family. In practice it certainly feels as if there is no such thing as privacy.

While foster families must keep close tabs on their social media posts, birth families are still allowed to post whatever they feel. This can be hard as they are allowed to post pictures from court sanctioned visits while foster families may not be allowed to post a family photo. To make matters more interesting (in the state of Tennessee) foster children are not permitted to have Facebook or other social media accounts.

There are a lot of blurry and confusing lines in the foster system. Privacy is one of those. On one hand we are due a certain amount of privacy but on the other we need to be aware that as a foster parent privacy is only an allusion.