Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

What not to say to foster parents

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You hear a lot of crazy things when you become a parent. There are tips that will change your life, stories that make you laugh, advice that makes you question what you’ve been doing so far. And then there are those comments. You know the ones. The ones that stop you in your tracks, and leave you reeling for long after they were said.

When you become a foster parent, there’s all of that and then some. We have been surrounded by so much love and support throughout our time getting licensed, and being foster parents, but even supportive people can put their feet in their mouths. This is a list of things said to us by various people, friends and strangers alike, that make us (and other foster parents) uncomfortable.

“What’s his mom’s deal?”
Short answer: that’s not my story to tell. Long answer: review this post.

Anything negative about their birth family.
We spend a lot of time and energy humanizing and having compassion for birth parents, especially when we don’t see eye to eye with them. Any negative comment you make, particularly in front of the child, is in poor taste and directly conflicts with our goal of respecting them and supporting reunification. The state will be critical enough without us weighing in with our opinions.

“You guys are angels/saints.”
Thank you for believing in us! Genuinely, having this support is amazing. But also, no we aren’t. We’re just humans. We are so incredibly flawed. We get frustrated, have doubts and fears, and search for answers we can’t find. We are guilty of looking at the next family over and wondering how we can’t have it together like them. Some days, we feel like we can take it all in stride, and others land us in tears. It’s part of being in a broken world, full of people and situations we can’t control. We are no more worthy of praise or adoration than forever parents are.

“I could never be a foster parent! I’d get too attached.”
But also, attachment is the whole point! These kids need to be attached. They need to know what it’s like to have the opportunity for a safe, secure and healthy caregiver attachment. Once that’s established, it’s easier for them to transfer that to their bio family/relative caregiver/adoptive family. The opportunity for attachment is just as important as getting food and shelter. We are adults, with the skills and coping mechanisms that enable us to love, get attached, and grieve in a healthy way. These children don’t have that luxury. It is hard, but I’d rather expose myself and shield them than leave them to handle it all on their own. I might have signed up for this, but they didn’t.

“Don’t you guys want your own kids?”
I cannot even count the number of times I have heard this. I understand why we get this question, I really do. As a young foster family with no biological children, I can see how unconventional our choice to foster may seem. Curiosity is natural, and part of being human, particularly in an over-sharing society. I’ve genuinely considered boycotting this question on principle, but I decided it needs to be answered. If you know us personally, you’ll know that we’ve talked about having a large family for years. Children, both biological and otherwise, have always been in our plans for our family. For us, the choice to become foster parents runs parallel to pursuing any other avenue of becoming parents. Foster children aren’t instead of biological children, they are a choice we made intentionally regardless of our desire or ability to have biological kids. We don’t know whether we will ever be able to have biological children or not. What we do know is that we are as dedicated to these children as we would be with any biological child. That said, you never know how much you may hurt someone who has suffered loss or struggles with infertility by asking this question. 1 in 8 couples experiences infertility, and while they may not tell you about it, it doesn’t make their experience any less difficult.

“This will be great practice for once you have real kids.” (or “your own” children)
This one makes me cringe. Please, just, no. These children are not decoys. These are real children, from real families. Not only that, but they are our real kids, and part of our real family! Just because they may not be here forever, doesn’t make our connection to them any less real. I can appreciate that this is difficult for some people to understand, but please don’t trivialize the grief, trauma and love involved in foster care by implying that this is some elaborate trial-run for parenting.

“You really have to learn to say no.”
There are over 400,000 children in foster care in the United States right now. There are already too many people saying “no” to these kids. Are self-care and boundaries important? Absolutely. However, just because you don’t understand our “yes”, doesn’t mean we should have said no. This is where we feel God has called us to be, and we will take breaks, ask for respite, or say no to placements when we feel we need to. We take great care in communicating our needs with each other, and acknowledging them to ourselves. But when it comes down to it, there is a big difference between wants and needs. And, just like in forever parenting, there will be times when a child’s needs outweigh our wants. And that’s okay.

So if you can’t say any of these things, what can you say?
Maybe you want to be supportive, but the words are escaping you. Feel free to choose any of the following to say instead: I’m proud of you. I have loved watching you becoming parents. You’re doing a great job. I’ve learned a lot from you. I’m so glad this child is a part of your family. You are kind and compassionate. I’m happy you’re following where God is leading you. I’m praying for you and for this child’s family. And most importantly, Can I get you a coffee? 

In all seriousness, the best thing you can do is to be receptive to the foster parents. If you do say something that makes them uncomfortable, or they politely let you know isn’t appropriate, please don’t take it personally but do be respectful- don’t argue your point or continue to say it. We all have those moments where what we say is completely different than what we intended. Take these moments as an opportunity to learn and hopefully not repeat your mistakes over and over again.

It Takes a Village to Raise a (Foster) Parent

When you help raise up a foster parent, you help give those children a stable and loving foundation, and a chance to see love and family in action.

Everyone says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But I want to talk about how it takes a village to raise a foster parent! Alongside the more “typical” parenting struggles, the struggles that foster parents face are more complex, particularly because the nature of foster care is so isolating. Few people really know what you’re going through when you accept a new boy or girl into your home. Even fewer know what it’s like to pray over them, send them home, and be filled with joy and hope and grief and pain all at the same time. The process of raising them up and then sending them home is grueling, the nights are long, and the details of the case- which must remain confidential- weigh heavy on both the mind and the heart.

I am a passionate believer that more people should become foster parents. (Do you have questions about how to get licensed? Come talk to me!) However, for various reasons, maybe getting licensed right now just isn’t right for your family. And that’s okay! There are a lot of ways that you can help support foster families even if you’re not ready to get licensed yourself. The support that you provide a foster family helps keep them in it for the long haul. The simplest of gestures could be the difference between a family like mine being licensed for 1 year or 5 or 10 (or more).

This is a short list of ideas of how to wrap around a foster family in your community, inspired by the wonderful friends and family that have lifted us up as we became foster parents.

      1. Feed them!

Okay, so our friends are REALLY good at this one. We had a friend who brought dinners to our house, a couple friends who gave us gift cards to restaurants (that I swear we’ll use for dates eventually!) and a particularly fabulous friend who repeatedly ding-dong-ditched us and left grocery bags full of easy snacks on our front step. She explained that she felt pressure to “entertain” after her little one was born, and that she wished someone would have just dropped food and ran, so that’s what she did!

    2. Offer to pick things up at the grocery store for them.

They may not ask you to do a full grocery run for them. But if you’re close to them, it couldn’t hurt to call and ask how they are doing on necessities. Diapers? Laundry detergent? Toilet paper? Until you ask, they might not have noticed they only have 3 diapers left, and you saved them a run to Walmart at midnight.

     3, Offer to watch or transport any other children in the home.

This was a non-issue for us, because we don’t have any other children in the home, but it made the list because I know so many people that this is beneficial for. New foster placements come with a lot of appointments, visits and court dates. If there are other children in the home, it can take a weight off of the parent to have that extra help after-school or during important appointments.

     4. Get licensed to provide respite care for them.

This varies state to state. Our state adopted prudent parenting guidelines, which mean that a foster parent can use their own discretion when it comes to who is suitable childcare for a date night or after-school activities. Some states require any caregiver to go through licensure in order to babysit, while others (like ours) only require that for anyone watching the child for more than 72 hours or on a regular basis (e.g. every day while the foster parent works).

     5. Tell them exactly how you’re prepared to help them.

When we got the call for Sweaty Spaghetti, we had one friend of ours say, “I’m the 2 AM ‘I need diapers’ friend. Call us anytime day or night and we’ll be there.”  We had another friend say, “When I walk in the door, just tell me what needs to be done. Hold the baby? Scrub the toilets? Dishes? Just tell me.” This helped me know which friend was which, so to speak. Are you the food friend? The chores friend? Maybe you’re the “any of the above” friend. Delegating and asking for help is so much easier if you know what that person is comfortable with, and what their strengths are. Also, asking for  help is hard. So remind them, maybe a couple of times, how you can help them. This was SO much more helpful than the people who said, “How can I help?” For some reason, even still, I draw a blank when someone asks me that. Offering to do specific tasks made that internal struggle a lot easier.

     6. Don’t stop checking in on them.

This one goes along with the previous one. So maybe you offered to help, but they never took you up on it? Give them some time, and then offer again. Foster parents, with new placements in particular, will probably be too busy, or to proud, to ask for help. When Sweaty Spaghetti was placed with us, we were so busy figuring out how to parent, and how to be a foster parent on top of that, that delegating was the last thing on our minds. It definitely didn’t mean we didn’t want, need, or appreciate the offers. Each placement has brought about the same offers of help, and we’ve gotten better at taking people up on it.

    7. Follow their lead.

In the adoption and fostering communities, there are a lot of varying opinions about “cocooning” (taking a break from busy life to insulate your family and get to know these children) versus going on about normal life and helping the children join in that. Each family will be different, and each child may require a different level of cocooning. With Sweaty Spaghetti, he came to church with us the same day we picked him up because, as a newborn he was happy as long as he was carried, and also because I had committed to sing for Easter. Sweet One came to us with some more complex needs and many appointments, which meant that on days we get to stay home, we really want and need that breather. Similarly, many older children come into foster care with complex trauma histories, which could be made better by routine, or worse by lots of crowds and activities. If we (or another family)  don’t text back, pass up your offers to babysit for a date night, or politely say you can’t hold the baby, please don’t be offended. There are a lot of moving pieces when it comes to parenting, especially when children are affected by trauma. Trust that the foster parents are constantly taking the temperature of their family, so to speak, and follow their lead when it comes to how involved they are willing to be (or let you be).

All in all, caring for a foster family isn’t that different from caring for any other family going through a huge transition. Now might not be the right time for you to foster a child, but helping a foster child is easier than you think. When you help raise up a foster parent, you help give those children a stable and loving foundation, and a chance to see love and family in action.

 

High Five: 5 ways to support bio parents

Sometimes putting the child first means putting their parents first, too.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that we believe part of fostering is also providing that support to birth parents when safe and possible. Ideally, there would be open communication and reciprocal kindness and respect.

Our first baby’s parents really helped us set the tone for who we want to be as foster parents. They were kind, responsive, and treated us with the utmost respect (and still do). They are the kind of people that are so easy to treat well. So as we navigated this first foster-bio relationship, we came up with some concrete ways that we want to be intentional around interactions with bio parents. We may not ever have the kind of relationship with other bio families that we have with our first, but that doesn’t change how we want to conduct ourselves. There will be parents that frustrate, challenge or upset us, but there are some basic things we do to make sure we are still honoring their place as parents. 

This list is less about the parents noticing what we are doing, and more about making sure my head is in the right place, that I am being diligent and intentional about respecting these families. 

Each of these suggestions has been tweaked for each case, so these are just general guidelines, to be met when safe and appropriate. Obviously, if one or more of these is considered unsafe by a caseworker, then we won’t do it. Thus far, that has not been the case. A quick note about that: Some parents are physically aggressive and serve as a safety risk for both children and adults. However, most children enter into foster care due to neglect as opposed to physical or sexual abuse. Just because a parent is being investigated by CPS does not mean that they are inherently unsafe for you to interact with.

1. Meet them!

I was surprised to hear how uncommon this is.  Upon having our first visit scheduled for Sweaty Spaghetti, I had a caseworker offer to have a case aid come get the baby out of the car so that I wouldn’t “have to” see his parent. When I replied that I would come in and I was happy to meet his parents, the worker was obviously surprised. Several social workers and visitation supervisors also mentioned that as being uncommon.

It is important to us to meet the parents because we are strangers to them too! They have also heard horror stories, and I would rather take some of the mystery out of it for both sides by having an intentional meeting. This also gives an opportunity to view the parents as human, not solely as a person responsible for a bad thing. We also had one of the therapists involved in one of our cases tell us that this is important to do, whenever possible, as children learn so much from how we react to bio parents (similar idea to step parenting, or effective co-parenting). If we bristle when we see them, are short, or refuse to meet them and limit how we talk about them, we are sending the message to children that they have to choose who to love, or that their time with their parent is something to be dreaded. Again, in some cases the parent isn’t a safe person to be around, but if they have been granted visits, this will help ease the transition for the child as well.

2. Send updates and pictures

With Sweaty Spaghetti’s family, I sent about one email per week with pictures and an update of new skills learned, successful doctor’s visits and a video or two as he became more interactive. Correspondence with Little Rascal’s mom was limited because he was with us such a short time and his mom didn’t have access to phone or email. We did make contact on a conference call and she was able to give us a caseworker’s email and we were able to send her some pictures that way. Our current placement, Sweet One, is a little different. For this case, his mother and I exchanged phone numbers, and I text her updates and pictures about once a week. When he reaches big milestones, like when he began to roll over, I shared a small video with her the day he started doing it consistently.

Deciding how openly we want to communicate with families is a process of trial and error, but so far each parent has been respectful of any boundaries we put in place. They have not harassed us, threatened us, or otherwise made us uncomfortable. That said, we chose to give our phone number because Sweet One’s mom had been communicating with his short-term foster home that way and for them it was successful. While Sweet One’s mom has been respectful (not texting us at all hours, waiting for us to start a conversation, etc.) an unintended consequence of having our phone number out there was that they can search for me on social media. Everything that we have is set to private, so it’s not that concerning, but going into the future I’m going to be more aware of that.

Disclaimer: I know that bio parents we come into contact with in the future may not be as safe and well-intentioned as the parents of our boys. This particular decision was made knowing how mom had previously been interacting with other foster family, as well has the caseworker’s opinion and recommendation.

3. Ask for their input. 

This one might make you uncomfortable.  Just hear me out.

This is another one that will vary on a case by case basis. Our experience thus far, regardless of our relationship with the parents, is that they probably feel vulnerable, angry or confused, and very out of control. They are no longer with their child, and they have a host of strangers telling them what to do and how to behave. One simple way to give some of that control back to them (and in turn, begin to establish a rapport) is to ask them how they parent. This is the point in the case where I ask what their routine has looked like with baby so far. Do they read them a specific book or sing them a special lullaby? Do they address the child by a different nickname than we do? In emails or conversations, refer to them using the parent’s name for them. What brand do they usually bathe or lotion the child with? Does the child break out in a rash when you use a specific brand of diaper?

It’s easy to assume that because they can’t safely parent that they don’t know anything about their child. However, that isn’t usually the case. Parents can make unsafe choices and still know that their child is allergic to Luvs and they always sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” at bedtime. Not only do these conversations reinforce the fact that the parent and I are equals, but this consistency is so important for these children. Maybe the parent doesn’t have a preference. But this gives them the opportunity to have a voice and that goes a long way. Little Rascal was with us for days before we were able to talk to his mom about any of these things. The worker didn’t even know what formula he ate. All at once, his home changed, his laundry detergent and people smelled different, his formula and baby wash were different. We also found out later, upon reunification, that he even had special prescription strength lotion for his skin. Regardless of my opinions or feelings about the parents we interact with, knowing some of these things could have made the transitions a lot easier on our little guy. Sometimes putting the child first means putting their parents first, too.

4. Prepare the children’s bag for visits with toys, blankets or clothes that their parents provided.

This one is definitely more for me than for the parents. Part of my ritual for preparing our babies for visits is dressing them in an outfit their parents provided (when possible), and making sure that the extra blankets and toys in the diaper bag are ones the parent provided, if they have provided some. This is a small step, that will probably be overlooked by everyone but me, and that’s okay. This is a small way that I can take time to mindfully recognize the parents’ role in the child’s life, and honor the fact that they have been providing things for their child. It is easy, throughout the course of a case, to focus on the parents’ deficits and shortcomings. For me, these small gestures help remind me that these parents deeply love their children, and that we don’t have to have an antagonistic relationship.

5. Invite them to doctor’s appointments.

This one falls under the umbrella of “it’s great if this can happen” but doesn’t always work in practice.  I’ve been asked by workers to do this on a couple of occasions, for different reasons. From a practical standpoint, I completely understand why this is important. In cases where there are deficiencies in safe parenting, hearing about milestones, safe practices, and instructions about health and infant care from a doctor is likely to be helpful. For some parents, hearing things from a doctor will be better received than hearing it from a foster mom or caseworker. Additionally, if a child has any medical or developmental diagnoses, the parent will come to need that support as the child gets closer to reunifying.

On the flip side, I’ve had this go two, well really three, ways. One, you invite the parent and they don’t come. Similar feelings to a missed visit (which is a post for a different day). I have also had the parent come to the appointment late, interrupt the flow, and serve as more of a distraction (for the provider and myself) and not actually get questions addressed because the dialogue becomes a conversation between parent and doctor with me sitting there like… “Um, hello? They are with me full time so I definitely know that, but don’t worry about asking me…” And lastly, I’ve had parents come to appointments and have it go really well. I have seen both the provider and the parent balance the dialogue between all parties that are involved, both verbally and nonverbally recognizing that both myself and the bio parent are parents of this child, and we all have valuable input that needs to be heard (and actually listened to). I think when it goes well it’s also an incredibly valuable tool for establishing a relationship with the bio parents, because it’s going beyond what is legally required and showing them that, at least to some extent, you are rooting for them. Do I think this works in every case? Of course not. However, it’s something that I’m happy was initially asked of me, because if it hadn’t been, I might not have even known it was an option.

 

That was a lot to digest. Do you have questions? I’m happy to answer them. This list is just the tip of the iceberg, and I’m sure we will add to it as the years go on. But for now, this list serves as a guideline for our interactions with birth parents. That said, this is specifically about concrete ways to support bio parents. As such, I didn’t go into the ways we try to be intentional about the words that we speak, particularly about bio parents and our children’s cases. If you’d like me to write a separate post going into more detail about the language we use, please let me know and I can break down some of the words we use or avoid and our reasoning behind that as well.

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.