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?

Explaining life choices, like fostering, to an 11 year old is not quite what I thought I would be doing on Father’s Day. Instead of our normal low key Father’s Day activities spent with some variation of the kids in our lives we divided and conquered. Rent-a-Dad spent the afternoon with our nephews and their dad at a dinosaur convention. That left me with their mom, sister and half-sisters making a trip to the aquarium.

Sounds like fun.

It was for the guys.

For us girls, we had a mixed bag. Part of our day was supposed to include our city splash area but a good portion of that was closed. We also forwent our ice-cream treats as our afternoon took longer since a camera got mislaid and an a few other small mishaps took place.
The half-sisters only have summer visitation with as they live put of state. This means the only times we get to visit with them is also over the summer.

Ever since we first met the girls, they have readily accepted us into their family. From what I have heard they like to tell people we are their aunt and uncle too. It’s all very sweet. We like spending time with them when we get the chance.

We had all been looking forward to our Sunday outing. For the most part we took all of our glitches In stride.

The first sign I had that our day might be a little challenging was when the seven year old informed me she wasn’t going to ride in the booster seat. She is very tall for her age but she is still in that grey area where she should be in a booster seat. As she is not my child nor was she riding with her legal guardian, it meant I enforced my traveling rule. Either she could ride in the booster seat or she could stay home.

Of course this meant I received not just flack but questions starting with “but why?”. My general answer is “It is my car and as a foster parent I obey laws pertaining to seatbelts and child safety.”
In some ways that was that. Child got into the booster seat with minimal grumbles.

That wasn’t really the end of that. It just switched the subject. By reminding the girls I am a foster parent that opened up the flood gate of questions I received about being a foster parent. Both girls (ages 7 & 11) are very curious about what fostering means and why Rent-a-Dad and I do it.
The girls were respectful and asked if I minded that they wanted to know more about what fostering means. It is true that each time they get alone time with me they ask me a lot of questions about fostering. Often it is the same question or a variation on a theme. Honestly I don’t mind. My answer never truly changes so the girls get to have an example of an adult being consistently open and honest with them. All kids need that and the more they get that the better the chances are that they will have healthy honest relationships with others.

After I got home that afternoon I thought about how important that conversation truly was. Not only was I open and honest in explaining our decision to foster, I was reaffirming my own decisions and gaining experience on how to talk with those age groups about life choices. I look forward to future conversations with the girls about fostering and wonder what they will ask next.

If you are wondering what some of the questions and answers were… well I thought I would share a few here.

Why did you become a foster parent?

No-matter how many times I see the girls they always ask me this question. My answer is always the same. I always tell them it was something I wanted to do since I was a kid. That providing a safe heaven/home to kids who need one just seems right.

This time around they did also ask why we don’t have children of our own. Without explaining what infertility is, I explained that we tried and tried and tried. When the eldest told the youngest to stop asking me questions about why we couldn’t have kids, because that’s sad, I replied that it may seem sad but that I get angry too. That I still cannot understand the doctor who refused to run tests, even when I said I wasn’t feeling right, and six months later I was having masses removed from my abdomen along with part of my reproductive organs.

This then led into a brief conversation about not letting a doctor ignore their worries. That it is always important to be heard and understand what is going on with your own body.

Is it not hard to get attached to then say goodbye?

This is another question that gets asked often. The girls tend to forget that we have been lucky with the relationships we have built with the birth families. They have witnessed first hand those relationships. But it is still a good question.

The answer is yes, it is hard.

This year when I answered the question, the eldest replied that she thought so because she remembers her step mom talking about how sad I was when the boys first returned home. It was true I was sad but time helps with the sadness. It also helped that we didn’t have a forever goodbye with the boys and that they are still very much apart of our lives.

This then led into a variation of this question and a conversation about life choices.

If becoming attached and having to let go is so hard, why do you do it?

Right on the heels of that question it was followed up with a statement. The eldest girl declared how she wants to be a foster mom when she gets older. The difference is that she thinks she would only foster older children so she wouldn’t get as attached. That saying goodbye is too hard.

I laid out a few truths here.

No matter the age of the child, or how old we are, or how long we have been foster parents, we all get attached.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But we don’t foster because it is easy. We foster so that children entering the system have a place they can stay while the state and their family figure things out.

Then I pointed out a few other important things.

If we only ever did easy things, well there would be a lot of jobs going unfilled.

Being a doctor is not all about money. The schooling involved takes years. Once you get the job then lives of others are placed in your hands. That’s not such an easy thing.

Teachers are a lot like foster parents. Sometimes teachers see their students for more hours than the parents do. Teachers get to help guide their students through the year and at the end of that year they have to say goodbye.

Life would be pretty boring if we only did the easy bits. Think about some pretty great moments in our lives we would miss. Often the hard parts in life is what shapes what we want to do and has a hand in defining who we are.

There were quite a few other questions asked and answered but how can you top this? Nothing in life is ever truly easy. Don’t let the idea of something being hard be THE reason holding you back from doing it. That thing could be your defining moment, the greatest thing that ever happened to you.

After people find out that I’m a foster parent, I know that I’m on some sort of timer before the inevitable question or comment about taking care of kids that aren’t really mine and how the other people in the conversation couldn’t imagine having someone else’s kids in their homes for however long and then seeing them go home because it would break their hearts. People respond with that sort of thing so often I actually get a little confused whenever I don’t hear it. I’ve said all kinds of things in response but in the last couple of weeks something struck me out of the blue: they really are my kids.

That may sound disingenuous for me to say as a foster parent who will never have children of his own. I even label myself “Rent-a-Dad” in a very tongue-in-cheek way. Part of the reason for that is because I’m easily amused, but the other more serious aspect of that for me is the constant reminder that I am at most intended to be a temporary parental presence. Not “forever dad” or “favorite uncle”, definitely never “daddy”, because the children we’ve fostered have had fathers who love them very much. “Rent-a-Dad” is the temporary guy you get when actual dad can’t be there for whatever reason.

Then why would I say something as clearly untrue and arguably click bait-y as claiming that they’re actually my kids? It’s a matter of perspective, really.

Because we’ve supported reunification in all of our cases, I can only imagine labeling a biological parent as “not really the parent” in the worst possible situations of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. The sorts of things that people hear about on the news that make them sick to their stomachs and that we can all agree means that no child will ever return to that home. I can’t conceive of ever claiming a child as “mine” in an exclusionary sense that implies their biological parents are somehow not valid. That’s one narrow way to read “mine” and not at all what’s going on when I use the word inside my head.

It’s fairly common to say “this is my company”, “my job” or “my coworkers”. “My friends”, “my family”, “my parents”, “my wife”. “My graduating class”, “my school”, “my chosen field of study”. “My religion”. All of those things are mine, but not in the sense that I own them. Also, “my cats”.

If anyone reads that and thinks the statement implies I’m somehow claiming ownership of the cats, they clearly have never had any sort of feline presence in their home and don’t understand that the ownership very definitely goes the other way.

All of those things that I listed aren’t things that I own, but things that I’m part of, belong to, am devoted to, have some responsibility to. Just because I have some connection that makes them mine doesn’t mean that I have them locked up and no one else can ever have another connection to them, that they can’t be someone else’s “mine”. When people ask “oh, are they all yours?”, what they’re really asking is “did you contribute half of their genetic material” or “did you adopt them and on paper do they belong to you”. In that sense, they’re not mine and never will be regardless of the fact that I could not possibly love them one iota more if they were really my offspring.

In the sense that I am always going to be one of their biggest supporters, that I will be there every moment I can be as long as they want Papa or Uncle B around, that I will fight bears for them if required? In the sense that if anything gets past their parents and evades me and manages to hurt them somehow, I will devote a nontrivial amount of time to finding a way to fly around the planet backwards to reverse time a la Superman III because I can’t stand the thought of any of those kids being anything but happy? Yes, they are absolutely mine. They will always be my kids, and they are more mine every day because that’s one day longer that I’ve had to love them, one more day that I get to see the amazing people that they’re growing into all the time.

In the spirit of full disclosure I’ve found that I can handle a certain amount of upset when they’re visiting and being horrible little snots about sensible nighttime routines. I mean, seriously? Some of us have jobs and enjoy sleep. Where’s Samuel L. Jackson to read a bedtime story when you need him?

We’ve been lucky enough that I still get to see all of my kids regularly and be involved in their lives. I think my nephews’ mom had it figured out long before we did – it’s been over a year ago that she said something along the lines of “whenever they’re over at your house and I ask how our kids are doing, I mean ‘our’ as in all four of us”. Of course she knows that we aren’t their family by blood and don’t have a “claim” on them, but looking back on that offhand comment I’m starting to think that she had figured out most of these things within the first year of the boys being home and I’m late to the party with my sudden personal revelation.

Fortunately, Stinkerbell’s mom seems to feel much the same way. When our baby girl was hurt and needed to go to the doctor several months ago she was extremely fussy and kept asking for us. The doctors and nurses said that only family could stay with her while she was being examined and they asked if I was dad. I said no, I wasn’t her biological dad but her mom spoke over me and said that for all practical purposes and if they wanted Stinkerbell to calm down at all, I was dad in that moment. All three of us ended up going back with her because the staff decided that she had a better chance of calming down and being comfortable if she had her whole family with her, blood related or not.

Looking back on that day, I think that maybe Stinkerbell’s birth mother figured this whole “mine” thing out before I did too. I’m starting to wonder if I might be the slowest kid in this particular class.

As I’ve dropped some of my other hobbies, one of my favorite new ones is watching people try to do mental math when we’re out in public with the boys and their little sister at the same time Stinkerbell is visiting. We get the typical “oh, aren’t they all so cute!” and “you’re very patient parents” reactions so many times that I’ve lost count. Whenever someone asks their ages and we respond with the impossibly close range between the four children, though, I can almost hear the gears grinding as they try to figure out how we could have that many kids with birth dates that close together. No one has ever asked if they’re all ours and we’ve never offered that information because it’s none of their business and it would take too long to explain properly anyway. I will admit that I sometimes want to respond to their looks of confusion by simply saying “different moms” and walking away, but I’m told that would be a horrible thing to do and I would somehow be a bad person if I did that.

The next time the topic comes up or anyone so much as drops a hint in that direction, I’ll be ready. Of course they’re really my kids. Always will be. And we’ll probably be dropping them back off at their parents’ house sometime on Sunday.

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.

At the start of our foster care journey I had no idea how I could sympathize with birth families as a whole let alone individually.

Why?

There were many reasons from the number of negative stories we had heard about birth families to the horrible situations children had been removed from. Then there was the simple truth that I could not sympathize with what I did not yet know.

After our first foster children the question became “how could I not?”

No I was not naïve enough to think that all situations would be like this one case or that all birth parents would work hard to get their kids back. However, I was no longer innocent to the possible circumstances we could see. Yes I was still a newcomer and had much to learn but I could not pretend that a spectrum didn’t exist in between the black and white cases we had been told about.

It is hard to see all birth parents as villains when some are just as scared as the children you are caring for. Not to mention how some birth parents are mourning the loss of the child who you will mourn the daily presence of soon enough.

When you stop seeing the birth family as a group of villains but rather people fallen on hard times, those who have lost their way, young adults lost on their path… well you start to better understand the children in your care and their needs. You can see how these kids miss the people painted as villains. And you might even better understand these “villians” in ways you never thought possible.

That is how I began to sympathize with birth parents. As I further get to know each of them then I can better understand them as individuals including the hardships they have faced. This includes how isolated and alone they have felt at the onset of both their DCS case and the point where they lost their way.

Sadly some birth parents are hard to humanize and sympathize with. They can be incredibly selfish, do horrible things, and won’t let anyone get near them including their own children. And those are the cases we had heard so much about. The good news is that DCS doesn’t require you to sympathize with the birth parents. Thankfully those are not the type of birth parents we have dealt with, yet.

For more insight on how we have been able to build working relationships with birth families check out another of our posts titled: Fostering Relationships.

Are first impressions getting in the way of being able to sympathize?

Remember my post about Misconceptions?

Well we all have them and sometimes those get in the way.

When we can push that aside we can see that maybe this isn’t the best parent, perhaps they didn’t have any guidance or help like us, but they are parents. Just like any parent they are  worried about who this stranger is that is taking care of their child, where their child is sleeping and what they are eating. When we can remind ourselves of that fact it is hard to see them as villains.

Just because we can understand them better doesn’t mean we have to be best friends. The important thing is to build a working relationship do the kids in our care have the best team possible to help them succeed.

Giving advice to birth parents can be quite complicated at times. It is just as important to know what topics (and situations) to avoid as it is to know what advice or guidance to give and when to give it. The topics can be simple every day things that, under normal circumstances, come up in conversation. They can also be topics that directly relate to advice they either asked you to give or something you feel they need to work on. No matter the situation, it is always good to have an idea of what might be a sensitive subject to birth parents.

5 Topics Foster Parents Should Avoid with Birth Parents

1. Getting Personal Really Quickly/Being Aware of the Words You Use

Rent-a-Dad and I have not had this problem yet but have heard other foster parents talk about the dangers of getting drawn into the drama of the birth families. We always try to be aware of the words (or colloquialisms) we use so they can not be misconstrued.

Every now and then a case comes along where you can feel an instant bond/connection forming. It might be because one of the birth parents reminds you of yourself or someone else you care about. The situation may feel very similar to another case you handled that went well. Whatever the reason remember to stay focused on the foster children. Observe how the birth parents handle themselves with the tasks they need to complete for DCS.

As long as you see good progress and honest willingness to try, getting personal shouldn’t be a problem. Keep in mind that some birth parents may still see you as the enemy. They may try to get you to share your personal details/feelings just so they can tell DCS how unfit you are to take care of their child/children. This can be an attempt to sully your reputation in hopes of getting their children back faster. All foster parents should be an open book to DCS but sometimes what we say can get misconstrued and cause a problem.

Case in point: Use of language. We heard of a foster family being investigated because someone told the caseworker that the foster dad was having a drink in front of the children at breakfast. Some people use the word “drink” when they mean tea, coffee, water, etc. Other people only use the word “drink” when referencing alcohol. The use of this one word caused a lot of headaches for the foster family and DCS.

 

2. How to Parent

As parents, sometimes we ask for guidance when we feel out of our depth. What we don’t appreciate is strangers telling us that we are doing everything wrong. This is how birth parents are feeling.

At the beginning of each case, birth families and foster families are absolute strangers who have been thrown together through  unfortunate circumstances. Most birth parents (and families) are resentful of the foster parents for their children being taken away and given to strangers. This is an upsetting situation even if they fully brought it on themselves.

DCS requires every birth parent (family) seeking reunification to take parenting classes. These classes cover a lot of topics including how to bottle feed, burp babies and change diapers. If a caseworker feels the parents need additional training they will seek out other classes for them to take.

Sometimes foster parents want to give instructions on care because they want what is best for the child/children they are caring for. Instead of giving instructions, or outright telling a birth parent how I expect they should care for their child during visitations, I send progress reports. In these reports I let the birth parents know of the positive things we are working on. This includes feeding schedules; the kind of food/snacks I am sent for the visit and why; potty training; or new signs their baby is giving to let us know they are ready for a nap. By providing the information in this manner the birth parents can make a choice on how to proceed.

Caseworkers appreciate this type of communication. Even if they never see the note, knowing that weekly progress reports are being sent keeps caseworkers aware that information is being provided. This helps the caseworker when observing how the birth parents interact with the children at visits.

 

3. Relating to their problems when you don’t share a common background

While children are in care, their parents should be receiving the help and care they need to get their children back. A plan for this process is made at the start of every case. During DCS meetings/court hearings this plan and its progress will come up. Most birth parents don’t like to talk about this plan or its progress outside of those spaces. That is their right. It is also courteous to avoid the topic unless they bring it up. If the topic is brought up in conversation let the birth parents do the majority of the talking/sharing.

A lot of birth parents are recovering addicts and/or dealing with mental health issues. They don’t need to know the story of your second cousin who was an addict. Sharing this information may humanize you but if they are seeking to cause problems then that information can be used to try and discredit you with the caseworker. If asked directly,  I have shared that I know others who have struggled with addiction or a mental health diagnosis. After the conversation is over I will might send the caseworker an email to keep them aware of what transpired.

The situation I have often found myself in is a birth parent telling me what they are doing in recovery and asking me if I think it is fair. That is a hard place to be in. Your advice was directly requested. First you must listen, then you must give thought to your answer before replying.

 

4. The company they keep

When interacting with birth parents/families you may never see anyone but them through the entire case. Rent-a-Dad and I have been in the position to meet additional family members, friends and acquaintances. These situations may feel awkward but they are quite normal. So far none of the interactions we have had raised any concerns. If we had been concerned, and the child was still in our care, then we would have talked with the caseworker about our worried us.

In those situations the caseworker should always be notified even if it is an innocuous encounter. Even when you live in a large community you will find that even a coworker might be an aunt of the birth parent you are dealing with. If something like that does happen definitely let the caseworker know sooner rather than later. Waiting to let the caseworker know might appear like you are trying to hide something.

 

5. Teasing & Joking

Teasing and joking should always be reserved for family and close friends. Even then harmless teasing or joking can be misconstrued. While I never want people to feel like they always have to walk on eggshells, I can’t stress enough the importance of choosing the words you use with foster children and their families.

Be especially careful about how you interact with your foster children in front of the birth family. What might be a fun family joke to you may seem like something improper and tasteless to the birth parents/family. Once again the birth family could take a harmless joke, blow it out of proportion and even get DCS involved.

Rent-a-Dad and I were once told by a birth mother not to pick on her child. There had been an innocent interaction of adults and kids playing tag during a visit. I tagged her son and went to slowly run away. Our foster son dropped to the ground and began to cry. Even though we had played tag in the past that day he was a bit sensitive with his mother around. When I went to comfort him his mother stood up, told me to stop picking on her son, and walked away. She was upset and saw the simple interaction in a negative light. Even though I wasn’t sure how I could have handled the situation any better, I still apologized.

 

Bonus Tip:

Don’t harp on any one subject. This relates to everything you should avoid as well as any advice, guidance or aid you do give. While I say this as an umbrella bit of advice, for me it is a point I remind myself of every time my parenting skills differ from the birth parents. My inner parenting voice screams that I need to help the birth parents parent but I don’t need to do that. We all parent differently. No one way is the only way.

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End Note:

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. If this is a topic you would like more information on check out our previous two installments:

Fostering: Giving Advice to Birth Parents

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

Since becoming an adult and having my own place I have had a weekly ritual that has served me well. Friday is for cleaning, Saturday is for fun and Sunday is to prepare for the week to come. Even as a foster parent this has served me well. It is Sunday evening and I am preparing for my week. As I was mentally going over the list of what needs to get done this week, and when, it hit me that our home has been empty now for over a year. Empty of a placement, certainly not empty of children. For a childless couple this sometimes seems a bit strange at times.

My focus this week is that Stinkerbell will be turning three. I am helping her mom with some of her party details including the cake. Stinkerbell has known the style of cake she has wanted for her birthday for several months as she has conspired with my mom and the other little loves in my life. For some reason they all think that I can move mountains and make their cake dreams reality. I am not always so convinced of this.

In fact the past couple of weeks I have been quite stressed over the process needed for this cake. So much so that I did a test run of the techniques needed to see if I could really do this without totally ruining a toddler’s dream. Based on this test run I know when I need to bake the cake, when to construct and frost it, how long it needs to stay frozen before I can glaze it, and so on. I am still stressed.

As per my normal Sunday routine I am doing a run down of events this week including the schedule for making the cake. That is when it all came to me. Stinkerbell has been officially home now for a year. I wanted to send a congratulatory text to her mom. This is a big deal and her mom deserves praise. Then I had to sit for a minute.

Stinkerbell has been officially home for a year.

That means our home has been without a foster placement for over a year. The realization of that fact suddenly made me very sad for a moment. Rent-a-Dad and I had planned a few months break from fostering when Stinkerbell returned home. It made perfect sense. She had been our longest placement. We needed time for us, time to catch up on foster training, and time to be available if Stinkerbell or her family needed us.

Shortly after the trial home period was completed our home status returned to normal and we have been awaiting a placement since. Other than our emergency placement in November we have not received any other calls. Our caseworker has told us of the many near calls but no actual placement has happened. On one hand that makes us sad but on the other hand our home may be empty of foster children but it is in no way empty.

Today has been the first day in over a week that our home has not had a child in it. That has been our normal since starting our journey as foster parents. The children who have come into our care have never quite left our hearts or our home. We don’t have to wonder for very long how they are doing because the longest we have gone between visits is two weeks. With three children having been in our care and returning for regular visits it is a bit like a revolving door at our house. So yes, for now our home is empty of foster children but our hearts, and home, are very full with the sound of busy happy toddlers.

After my moment of sadness of an empty home, I got over it. My week is full up of love and happiness. It is packed with the same busy tasks every parent has and yes, I am terrified that this cake is going to be a hot mess. No, I am not your typical parent. Heck, this week I am not even your typical foster parent.

Some days that news saddens me because my brain was raised with words like “normal” and “typical ”. Today I just smile and shake my head. I have all the love and worries that a regular run of the mill parent has. I just don’t always have the children living under my roof. The fact that they are all safe and happy children is enough for me. I can deal with not being normal or typical. After all I don’t have time to worry about that, I have a cake to worry about making!

Reading the post of a friend the other day brought this subject matter to mind. It was the regular kind of post about a mom happy with the accomplishments of her growing child. The majority of the comments congratulated the mom. Part of the congratulatory comments were phrased as if the accomplishments were due to the mom and not a part of the child’s growth.

accomplishments

This happens all the time. It’s not new to congratulate a proud parent over their child’s accomplishments. Nor is the way in which we congratulate as if it were the parent’s accomplishment. Many of us do it without thinking. Being a proud parent and congratulating parents are both natural events.

In terms of fostering it is should feel just as natural. Sometimes it’s a bit more complicated than that. As foster parents we often have to set our feelings aside and accept that accomplishments, or our help with them, are not our own.

 

Scenario 1: Struggling and Finally Getting It

So many times kids come into care with a myriad of issues. There is nothing out of the ordinary about any of the issues on their own but when put together it’s not just a mild hurdle. Suddenly it’s a looming mountain the kid would rather avoid than figure out a way over or around.

Foster parents know that the mountain cannot be climbed in a day. It is more about list making and accomplishing one task at a time. Each task can feel insurmountable at times as well. That is why when each task is resolved/completed it is a big deal and should be acknowledged with pomp and circumstance. So many times these kids have never had heard one good word about anything they have done. Kids need accolades to build their confidence and show how they are valued even for the small things.

For each task accomplished, as a foster parent, you want to shout congratulations, give awards and give hugs. Do it. Do it. Do it.

Don’t expect to be congratulated for struggling with them. Most of us don’t. Sometimes a caseworker, teacher or other team member will acknowledge the struggles you have shared with your foster child. Acknowledge that the same way most parents do with turning the focus back on the child’s hard work.

What should you expect? The birth parents will take credit for all the hard work their child has done without really congratulating their child. This will be exceptionally frustrating. Nod your head and ignore all that drama. Focus on your foster child. Reinforce your foster child’s hard work.

Scenario Two: Growth Goals and Accomplishments of a Baby/toddler

Just like birth or adoptive parents, foster parents are excited over every small first from smiling and rolling to first step and first word. Everyone involved in the case will be excited with you.

Well that is mostly true. Birth parents are a mixed bag when it comes to this.

Some birth parents will be resentful and possibly confrontational. Why? They are missing these “firsts” while you are catching every precious moment. Even if you are a foster parent who shares photos and communicates regularly with birth parents they may still feel very resentful.

Don’t expect birth parents with resentful feelings to share in your excitement. Certainly don’t mistake their treatment of you as a lack of enthusiasm for their children. While the birth parents are showing you a lack of enthusiasm they may take to Facebook later to tell friends and family members the exciting news. When they share this happy news they will do so without ever mentioning the people taking care of their children.

Birth parents will treat you just like a nanny or daycare provider. You are just a place holder until they can step back into their child’s life. How you choose to take this is up to you. While it may feel like a slight ask yourself one question, “how would you act in their shoes?” Don’t expect people to instantly act grateful especially when emotions are running high. After all you aren’t doing this for their gratitude.

Even when you have a great relationship with the birth parents, don’t expect that they will give you credit for growth goals and accomplishments. The birth parents will be just as excited as you and share your joy. They will even share the accomplishments with others but it will be as if it were due to them because your involvement doesn’t quite exist. You know it exists but their friends most likely don’t. Would you share that kind of detail, that your child is in care, with all of your Facebook friends? I don’t think I would.

So don’t take this as a slight. It isn’t like they are doing it to turn the focus back on themselves or to discredit you. They are just acting like all the other parents out there: sharing their child’s accomplishments.

 

End Notes on When Accomplishments are never Truly Your Own:

Foster Parents are Valued

The point in all of this is to know that you are valued as a foster parent. Rarely will you receive a pat on the back about what matters to you like the accomplishments of your foster kids. Honestly that is not why we are foster parents anyway. Truthfully life is just like that.

Rarely do any of us receive accolades for the things that matter most to us. There are times when we receive congratulations for things that make us uncomfortable like being foster parents. I always feel a bit odd when I hear strangers say “God bless you for taking these children into your home. They are truly blessed now”

 

A Bit of Advice

During foster training we were reminded often, by our instructor, that the cases we handle are not about our feelings. Yes, we all have feelings and no one is asking us to remove our feelings. What is being asked is that we put our feelings on the back burner because we are here to represent our foster children. It is far more important to focus on your foster child’s accomplishments than it is to focus on your involvement.

I put this reminder out there because we are all human. We all feel slighted at times and we often don’t have control over when those feelings pop up. And in all honesty if this were a relationship involving two sets of divorced parents, often the adults forget it’s not about accepting ownership of involvement but the actual accomplishments of the children involved.

 

Keep in Mind

The whole time kids are in the care, the birth parents are coming to terms with, or not, that their kids are being raised by someone else.

There is no time line in which they will have an “ahah!” moment and suddenly see the foster parents as their best friends or their saviors. They may never see you as anyone other than the enemy. Then again, you may be lucky enough to develop either a working or lasting relationship.

The Take-Away

When talking about your foster children’s accomplishments the focus should always remain on the foster child.

When we were in training to become foster parents, we were told that some of our placements might be very short-term, on the order of just a few days. Sometimes this is due to DCS identifying other family members who weren’t immediately available to take the children when they come into custody. In other cases, the situation that brought the children into care might be resolved quickly. Until recently, 100% of the placements we’ve had since being approved to foster have been 9 months or more. That’s out of a sample size of 2 placements, sure, but those two totaled almost 30 months. At the beginning, our first placement looked like it was going to be short term, but until this past November we hadn’t really had a truly short-term experience. After a few months and a little bit of reflection, this is what I took away from our incredible sixteen hour placement.

Incredible

I didn’t sleep a lot on Election Night. For one thing, I come from a very civic-minded family that has been involved in the democratic process at one level or another for literally generations, so the presidential election process and Election Day have intrigued me since I first understood what they meant. For another, I spent five years working for an organization in which election seasons were quite busy and Election Night in particular meant long hours at the office, so that reinforced my habit of staying up to see the results.

This year, that meant that when the CPS worker called and apologized for possibly waking me up close to midnight I could reassure them with “on election night? I don’t think so”. We haven’t had a new foster child in our home since Stinkerbell left in February, so we fell back on the plan we established when we first became foster parents: if we get a call and we don’t currently have a placement, the answer is yes (assuming the child doesn’t have any cat allergies, concerns that we can’t accommodate, etc.)

After asking the standard allergy & health questions and getting what details we could from the CPS worker about the situation, it sounded like the placement was going to be longer than usual. I went to pick him up around midnight and the wife stayed behind to tidy up and make sure he’d have a warm bath and a comfortable bed ready for him with as little fanfare as possible.

On the drive to the DCS office I was equal parts excited and anxious. Looking forward to meeting him, certainly, and hopeful that it would be easy to get him calm and resting. More than that though, I was a little worried about the way the first several days might go and whether we’d be up to the task of parenting. We’ve felt like that to some degree every time we’ve gotten a placement, but previous children have been young enough that the challenges were different. We knew some, but not all, of his story, and the information we had gave us enough to know that we’d never dealt with anything like his situation before. Then I pulled up and met him and I didn’t have room in my mind for anything else.

Five-year-olds are much more talkative than I remember them from the time I was one, I’ll say that much. Come to that, I probably didn’t say that much the entire way home because he didn’t stop talking long enough for me to get more than two words edgewise. Even bone tired at the end of what was likely one of the roughest days of his life, he was chipper enough to keep a running narrative on what he’d had for dinner, the things he liked to watch, his bunny toy, and a million and one other subjects that I couldn’t keep track of while I was trying to focus on driving.

When I got him back to the house he was a little bit shy meeting the wife and her mom and the cats all at once, but he was calm and happy enough after a warm bath. A bit less talkative at that point, he wanted a good-night fist bump before dropping off to sleep less than ten minutes after he got in bed. Once I knew he was comfortable, I wrapped up everything I’d been working on, sent an email to the office to let them know I’d be out the next day, and tried to get some sleep myself.

The first day of any placement can be incredibly hectic regardless of the child’s age. With infants and toddlers, sleep and feeding schedules top the list along with any medications or allergies their pediatrician might have identified. With older children, I imagine that the first order of the day would be dealing with the emotional fallout of whatever brought them into the system. In this case, the morning brought with it no sign of terror or bitterness or confusion. I think he asked for peanut butter toast, actually.

The biggest challenge was really making sure that all of our paperwork was in order and that we communicated everything to our caseworker since the placement happened in the middle of the night. School was another top priority, knowing that his was likely to be a longer-term placement it was important to make sure we got him registered for the one that’s nearby so we could make sure he didn’t miss any more time than absolutely necessary. In between calling in to meetings so I wouldn’t be too far behind at work the next day I got him set up with toys, cartoons, and Minecraft so that he’d be able to occupy himself if he wanted to. That bought us a little bit of time to talk to the school and figure out everything that we’d need to get him registered.

We were tremendously productive throughout the morning, culminating in a visit to the school at noon to fill out all of the paperwork that would let him join his new class the next day. By the time we got to the office he was comfortable enough to start being a little bit silly, changing the calendar on the secretary’s desk to the wrong dates while we waited, changing it back again after I gave him a stern look. Naming things incorrectly, like referring to the ceiling to as the floor or pointing at the walls and commenting on how nice the windows looked. I’ve noticed similar things with the nephews so maybe it’s something about the age range? The more he joked around, the more comfortable he seemed to get and by the time we got back home he seemed more chipper than I’d ever seen him.

I had an afternoon meeting that I needed to call in to and planned to spend the rest of it hanging out with him and making sure he was adjusting well. The adjustment was apparently going quite well by the middle of my call because everyone who had dialed in was treated to an impromptu “can you unlock the computer so I can play Minecraft?”

They’re still getting a significant amount of mileage out of that at the office as I understand it.

Once I wrapped up my last meeting of the day, I devoted the rest of the afternoon to playing. Before the end of the day we got the chance for him to ride around on a toy jeep, take turns playing the Transformers video game that I’d been waiting for in one form or another since I was about eight years old, and play Minecraft in between bouts of typing nonsense in the middle of emails I was trying to write. He was pretty good at the video games and seemed to be having a great time the whole day of his unexpected vacation.

Lots of smiles and giggles and, if he wasn’t completely at home, he at least seemed sufficiently adjusted to his new environment that he was starting to push boundaries and get a little bit out of hand the way the nephews tend to do. I was happy that we’d had a good beginning. Sometimes that’s all you really get though.

We got the call about 5:30, right as we were getting ready to figure out dinner. “Can you bring him back to the DCS office within the next hour or so? He’s going back to his family.” That was definitely cause for some mixed feelings.

The goal of the system, as they keep reminding us, is to reunite families and do it as quickly as possible. I had my doubts based on what we thought we knew when he came into the system less than a day before, but I reminded myself of two facts that kept me from driving myself crazy over taking him back so soon. First, it’s ultimately not up to us. There are millions of variables that factor into those decisions. Situations can change quickly, and despite my sometimes cynical view of the world I know that sometimes they can change for the better. Second, the information the system gets can be wrong though no fault of anyone’s so it’s possible that only a small percentage of the things we were told ended up being correct in the light of day. Either or both of those could have applied in this case so the best thing to do was to be happy that we could go back home so soon.

It was a little bit of an emotional roller coaster in a fairly short time. We went from anxiety to relative ease in a flash and built what could have been the beginnings of a good relationship in the time that we had. He seemed to have a good time all day and it felt like he was already fitting in well in our home. He wanted a good-bye fist bump, too. The visit ended little more than sixteen hours after it began and didn’t even register as a proper placement in the system, it qualified as a “respite care” stay. In a lot of ways, it was kind of perfect.

Don’t get me wrong, we had a lot of fun and I’m selfishly sad that I couldn’t spend more time getting to know him. It was almost an ideal short form version of what we’d like every placement to be. There was all the joy of a day spent with all of us together, we were extremely productive with paperwork and everything we needed to do on the first day, and there were no real discipline problems the entire time. We didn’t have to sit through endless rescheduled court dates, worry about visitation schedules, or deal with any drama that might have come up with his birth family.

One can assume that his transition home was smoother than anything we’ve seen or heard about from any of the foster families we know because he was out of his typical environment for less than a weekend. Nothing went wrong, and we were able to provide exactly what he needed without feeling like we might fail him. It hit all of high points that we think of when we imagine being foster parents without the parts that make me want to scream. It left me a little bit wistful and missing a shy little ball of giggles that we barely got to know, but happy that we could be there when he needed a safe place.

Sometimes things happen exactly the way they need to even if they seem too brief to us, and it all fits into a bigger plan in a way that we can’t see until later if at all. That’s why I’ve tried to take a very Dr. Seuss approach to the experience. What was it exactly? “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened”? It was a really neat day, and I wouldn’t trade any part of it.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally wonder where he is and how he’s doing, though. Given the amount of time we spend with the other children who have come in to our home and left again, doing it the other way just feels odd to me. Still, it was a pretty incredible sixteen hours.