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.