“What’s his mom’s deal?”

What’s his mom’s deal?”

I am shocked at how many times I have been asked this question. Talk of biological parents often brings strong emotional reactions from people. The news is filled with stories of abuse and neglect, so when we talk about being foster parents, a lot of the comments or questions are influenced by perceptions of the bio parents. 

How could someone do/allow that?”

“Why would someone like that get visits?”

“If they did ____, then they don’t deserve to be parents”

I fully believe that most foster parents don’t enter into this ministry with a deep and abiding hatred for bio parents. I also believe that many times, it’s easy to get lost in the details of a child’s case and forget that it is possible to treat the birth parents with love and respect, even as we struggle with the pain of their past actions (or inaction) and how that affected their families.

Early on in the process, I read a quote on Pinterest from Jason Johnson (who writes a fabulous foster care blog) that said, “The birth parents that we struggle to show grace to today were likely the kids 20-30 years ago we would have considered it a joy to foster.” 

Woah. Reading that simultaneously freed me and also placed an incredible burden on me. As a foster parent, I have literally signed up to love, advocate for, and provide a safe space for children who have been exposed to deep trauma in one way or another. The missing piece of this puzzle, for me, was recognizing that these parents have usually had complex trauma in their own background, and have either lacked the opportunity or the resources to make the changes they need to make to create a safe space for their children. 

As an intern, I once encountered a parent being investigated for allegations of physical abuse who was being asked about why he disciplined his children the way he did. He offered his explanation, ready to be judged, but the worker didn’t stop the conversation there. Instead, she asked him how he was disciplined as a child, and he proceeded to explain how he was physically abused and then emphatically stated, “I would NEVER do that to my child.” 

Regardless of how I might have viewed his ability to parent, he was actively seeking to be a better parent than what he was exposed to growing up. I think it’s easy to assume that a lot of these parents “know better”, but choose poor coping and behavior over their children in a deliberate way. And if that’s what I think about these little ones’ parents, I’m not exactly encouraged to be kind. If I think that they don’t deserve their children, and I am somehow more deserving, I will be closed, bitter and unwilling to recognize their successes or love for their children. Viewing them in this way puts me in a competition with the birth parents, in which there can only be one winner (Hint: it isn’t the child).

Instead, I believe it is my duty to love the birth parents. My goal is to be able to come alongside them, meet them where they are and say “We are on the same team, your child’s team. We are rooting for you, praying for you. We want to see your family healed.” Do I condone dangerous behavior? No. Do I hurt when I see the effects of their actions in the eyes of their children? Absolutely. Every day. But you know what also makes me hurt? Thinking of the children that these parents used to be. Thinking of the deep trauma that occurred, the lack of safe caregivers, and all of the sin and brokenness that led them to where they are right now. 

Is there a selfish part of me that wants to be the forever parent to these babies? Of course! I love them with my whole heart. I pray over them. I get attached. But I refuse to put my love and their parents’ love at opposition with each other. We hope to adopt one day, but I want to be standing in that courtroom knowing that I didn’t contribute to the brokenness of his first family, but instead, extended grace and open arms. Maybe it won’t make a difference to the parent, but it will always make a difference for the child. 

You Mean I Can Say No?

When I initially thought about foster care, I had a very specific idea of what I thought that meant. You get called at 2AM, with anything from an abandoned infant to a runaway teen, and you say yes. I think a lot of people have a similar idea when they think about the unpredictability of foster care. And yes, there are some families that are open to placements of every age and stage. But I think the majority of us are better equipped to handle different ages or needs at different stages in our lives.

Foster care is full of chaos and plenty of challenges to keep us on our toes, but it’s also full of opportunities to reevaluate and shift our boundaries as necessary. Stretching ourselves is a good thing, but pushing past what we are equipped to handle isn’t necessarily best for us, or the children. There are many factors that contribute to how a family chooses which children to have placed in their home.

For my husband and I, age has been the most important factor at this stage in our lives. For some people, age may be important when factoring in their other biological or adopted children, but for us it was our ages in relation to these kiddos. The minimum age for licensure in our state is 21, and while we passed that milestone years ago, we are still the youngest foster parents that we know. As we started out, we decided that we wanted to stay within the range that felt most realistic for us, so we decided on placements that are birth-3 years old. This allows us to start parenting these children at the age and developmental stages that we feel comfortable with, that we know a lot about, and that comes most naturally to me. It should be said that my husband relates to older children in a much different way than I do, and he could probably take on an 8 or 10 year old and do well. Because I’m not in that place yet, we kept our narrow age range. Infants and toddlers are time consuming and energy-zapping in a much different way than school-age children, but it’s my “sweet spot”. And, I’m inclined to think that God agreed with me in us needing tinies because all three boys placed with us have been infants.

In addition to having our age requirements, we also feel that we can best serve one child at a time right now. We both have a heart for siblings, especially when so many get split up during the placement process but also know that we don’t feel well enough equipped to take on multiple children right now.

Some people also choose to restrict their placements for other reasons, such as medical or developmental needs, the reason why the child is in care, or looking at potential behavioral issues in relation to children they may already have in their home. Others choose to accept “long-term” placements (anywhere from a few months to a few years), while others want to do “receiving care” (the first few hours or days of a child’s time in foster care).

This is where things get tricky. Is it bad to know yourself, know your boundaries and work within those? Well, no. So, it’s bad to stretch yourself and have an open mind? Also, no. Let me explain.

When you get that initial placement call, or paperwork, I can almost guarantee something will be wrong, or missing. And sometimes it is really frustrating. The reason the child came into care will be accurate, but usually incomplete. This can happen for many reasons. For example, a teacher (a mandated reporter) may notice a child being neglected, but have no idea what else has gone on in the home. So, maybe you say “no physical or sexual abuse” as parameters for yourself, and not know specific life events until the child has been in your home for months and they disclose more about their past, or a worker learns more about their case. Or, like our current placements former foster family, you say “yes” to a week or two, and two months later, the state has not been able to find another home for your kiddo, and you’ve morphed into a “long-term” home without intending to. This isn’t said to scare you off, but rather to help you prepare yourself, both mentally and physically, for the long road ahead.

Boundaries within foster care must be both firm, and flexible. Only you know what you can handle, what you’re willing to receive more training on, and what is out-of-bounds for you. We found that since we have such hearts to say “yes” to these children, working with an agency has been incredibly helpful. We give the agency our boundaries, and then they filter the placement referrals from the state/county office and only call with placement referrals that are relevant to our family. For instance, we won’t be called with a child out of our age bounds, or a sibling set when we are only licensed for one. We won’t be called for a child with trach and a ventilator, or for a child who is only expected to stay for 24 hours. And if we were, by some chance, called for these situations, we would say no.

It’s easy to feel guilty because there are thousands of children in foster care right now. But, as foster parents, we agree to put the child’s needs first. And sometimes that means that our first decision as parents is to say “no” to a placement that isn’t a good fit so that they can be in a home where they are able to thrive.

 

Here We Go Again

You get a call. You get whatever details are available (they’re usually quite few, and they may be wrong). You accept. Now what?

The time between the placement call and when we met the babies coming into our home has varied quite a bit. With our first baby, referred to here as Sweaty Spaghetti, we got notified about him Thursday, and picked him up Saturday. For Baby #2, Little Rascal, they called us about him around 1pm, we went and picked him up from the office at 2:45pm the same day. Our newest addition, yet to be nicknamed, will have given us a little over 24 hours to prepare to meet him.

Regardless of how long we may have until we pick up our next placement, I tend to follow the same steps. First, there is the paperwork that is emailed to us that we sign, scan and email back to the social worker. This paperwork proves that we have a legal right to care for the child, and usually has a few more details about the child’s case. I appreciate the information, but have learned, even with only a few placements, that it is either overly-vague or incredibly daunting, and the real story might be quite different. There’s a certain fluidity when we say yes. We know we are saying yes to a set of known facts, but moreso we are saying yes to all of the unknowns that come after that. And there is certainly no shortage of those!

Next, since all of our little ones have been baby boys, preparing our home physically for them has looked much the same. Check what size diapers we have, pull a few outfits out of storage in a couple sizes, pack our diaper bag. Pull the bottles out of the cupboard, and put them back in the basket on the counter. I do as many chores as time allows because I know that my home will suffer as we spend time getting to know the new little one in our home. Laundry, dishes, vacuuming and tidying up. Then, if we have time, comes a grocery/target run. Pick up snacks that are easy to eat with one hand, a can of formula if we know what the baby is currently eating, and bottle nipples or pacifiers in the correct size/style if the new placement differs from the supplies we already have at home.

I love to feel in control. Look at the laundry piles disappearing! Clean sheets are in the crib, diaper bag is packed. I’ve got it all together.

Well, sort of.

But behind the scenes, each new placement unearths a huge pile of feelings and questions. I feel excitement over being invited into a precious child’s life, eager to meet him and get to know his story. I worry that he will have needs I cannot meet, areas of care that I am not equipped to handle. I wonder if his parents will accept me, and how much conflict there will be between the state’s plan for his future and what I might think is best. I worry that I am in over my head. I worry that I’ve already fallen in love with him, and I haven’t even met him yet. I brace myself for the questions, appointments, assessments and visits. And then before we know it we hit the ground running.

Here we go again!

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4th of July

I’ve been writing and re-writing an introductory post about why we became foster parents and having such a hard time articulating myself. I want to have all the answers, both for myself and for other people, but today all I have is feelings.

Today is the 4th of July. Our first 4th since becoming parents to two sweet babies, and our first since having both of those boys return home. Today, I will drag my feet to a BBQ and our local fair, not because I don’t want to go but because I thought I would be coming with someone else.

After our first baby went home, we still had contact with him and his mom. To say I am grateful for that ongoing connection is an understatement. My relationship with her will get its own post; I can’t say enough good things about her. I am so proud of her and genuinely glad that she has the opportunity to raise the child she loves so much. She would go out of her way to text me, and let us see her son and repeatedly said she wants ongoing connection with us. So a couple of weeks ago, I went out on a limb and invited her and her children to spend part of today celebrating with us. I gave her all sorts of outs- “it’s okay if you’re working…”, “only if you feel comfortable”, “you probably have other plans” and she reassured me that she had nothing else planned, we left the conversation with her saying that sounds great.

I won’t know exactly why she didn’t get back to me about specific plans, unless she decides to tell me later. And I would be lying if I said that my throat didn’t feel thick with sadness or that I wasn’t scared that maybe the last time we saw her sweet baby was the last time we’ll ever see him. But this is the grief we sign up for, as foster parents, so that the kids don’t have to. Because the last thing I want is for that sweet baby to be a toddler, or in elementary school, sitting around on the 4th of July, wondering why he can’t spend it with his mom. Or hurting because his visit got cancelled, because the offices are closed on holidays. So today I choose to not believe the worst, but to think how I would feel having to share another first with anyone else. I choose to attend that BBQ, go to that fair…and keep my phone on loud, just in case she changes her mind. And I’ll choose to not hold it against her when we speak again.

And most importantly, when the offices reopen, and they call us about another child, I’ll sign up to do it all over again.