7 Things We Learned As Foster Parents

We decided before we got married that if we couldn’t have kids, we wouldn’t go to thousands of doctors trying to understand what was wrong.  We wouldn’t do any fancy procedures.  Instead, we would either adopt or be foster parents.  After a lot of research into both adoption and foster care, we decided to give foster parenting a try.

If you are not prepared for the difficulties that a child in foster care can cause, or if you cannot work with their birth parents, the experience may be too stressful.

Why Foster

Families choose foster care for many reasons, as we learned in our DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) Training.  Some have a relative in foster care.  Others want to grow their family by potentially adopting children who are in foster care.  Our reason was that we wanted to help children who needed it most.

The first thing I learned in doing foster care was that it is a good way to grow your family.  It is essentially free, compared to traditional adoption which runs tens of thousands of dollars.  In addition, there is a shortage of foster parents.  If you love children, are patient, and want to work with a team, you should definitely consider fostering.

However, I also learned that fostering requires patience – a lot of patience – with both the children and adults.  You have to be able to interact with the child’s team (birth parents, case worker, CASA, doctors, school officials) – some of whom may be deliberately working to make your life harder.  You have to be prepared for a child who needs help – emotionally, physically, developmentally, etc.  If you are not prepared for the difficulties that a child in foster care can cause, or if you cannot work with their birth parents, the experience may be too stressful.

Our Experience

Obviously, I cannot give many details about the case we had.  The most I can say is that we were placed with two year old twins who were set to be reunited with their parents.  I had a bad feeling about the placement from the get go, and the year we had the twins was the most stressful year of my life.

However, we learned a lot from the experience and are willing to try it again someday.

We knew nothing about parenting and what to do with children.

Bonding Takes Time

I didn’t quit my job when the twins came, because the goal was for them to return home.  It didn’t make sense for me to be a stay at home parent for a few months and then left jobless when the children transitioned home.  As such, I experienced being a working mom, and it was exhausting!  After putting a day in the office, I would pick the children up from daycare.  They would be crabby and angry.  They would cry and scream and throw fits and in general embarrass me in front of the daycare workers.  They wanted to make it clear that they didn’t like me.  We would then drive home for dinner.  I would make them up plates of balanced meals with kid friendly options – cut up grapes, sausages, pancakes, macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, or little quesadillas.  They would eat nothing.  We then went upstairs, read two books, said prayers, and went to bed.  There wasn’t much time for bonding.

On Saturdays they saw their parents.  Between home visits and naps, we barely saw them on Saturdays either.  So we were left with Sundays, where we spent a whole day at home with two two year olds we barely knew.  We knew nothing about parenting and what to do with children, and we couldn’t communicate with them.

After a weekend that was more exhausting than the work week, we went to bed on Sunday night, prepared to go to work the next day and start it all over again.

We found that we were most stressed out on days when the children saw their parents.

Birth Parents: Playing Both Ends Against the Middle

The birth parents were controlling.  From the get go, we would get nasty communications from them about how the children looked.  Because it was our first placement, we shrunk from contact with the birth parents.  Looking back, I think the communications with them would have been much better if we had been the ones to initiate.  We could have sent a notebook paper asking what the children liked to eat and about their interests.  We could have taken advantage of doctor’s appointments to talk to the parents in person about their children.

Even though they were two years old, the twins had already learned how to manipulate the adults in their lives.  “Bo,” would say, “My mommy gives me lots of candy,” trying to goad us into getting upset or giving him sweets.  “Princess” would refuse to eat or throw temper tantrums when she didn’t get her way.  In fact, her refusal to eat was almost clinical.  Her mother would ask us what she liked to eat, and we would shake our heads in confusion.  We had been wondering the same thing.

We found that we were most stressed out on days when the children saw their parents.  They would come home smelling like smoke, dressed in clothes that were too small, which quickly became a sore subject for us.  On those days they were either grumpy and standoffish or angry and wild.

Buying the Children’s Affection

Although we have never experienced divorce first hand, we likened the experience of working with the parents as a divorced couple.  We were the “custodial” parent who had rules and boundaries in place, who served balanced meals and had a set bedtime and didn’t allow too much TV.  The parents were the “non-custodial” parent who gets the child for a weekend (or a few hours) and pumps them full of candy and media, trying to “buy” their love.  Given that we were new to the situation and that the twins were two, the parents were clearly winning the game.  If we wanted any affection from the twins, we would have to play the parents game, eternally escalating the attempts to buy their love.  It was a game I was unwilling and unable to play.

As a foster parent who truly cares about the children, CASA can be an advocate and voice for your concerns as well.

CASA – The Child’s Advocate

Through our experience, we had the most wonderful CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) worker.  “Jean” had followed the twins’ story since they entered the DCFS system.  She knew their medical and educational background and what they were capable of.  She could tell if they were making progress or back sliding.  She knew the birth parents and could gauge how close they were to reunification.

CASA is appointed because, in theory, no one is looking out for the children.  The Case Workers are pushing to get the children to go home – it is the State’s official position to send children home, and that is what they are working towards.  Obviously, the parents want the children to go home, too.  This may not be in the best interest of the children.  On the other hand, many foster parents who believe they are looking out for the best interest of the children may selfishly be advocating for them to stay in foster care or be placed for adoption – perhaps honestly thinking it is the right thing for them.  CASA has no special interest other than to look out for the children.  As a foster parent who truly cares about the children, CASA can be an advocate and voice for your concerns as well.

CASA is also an excellent opportunity for people who love children to get involved to help.  Perhaps you aren’t entirely sure about becoming a foster parent.  Look into joining CASA to learn about the system and help a child out.

The case seemed to stagnate for months.

Waiting for an Update

Pretty soon our case worker told us that the children were for sure going to go home to their parents.  It was not a matter of if but when.  We waited and waited.  Each month we hoped for an update – would the children be starting to spend the nights with their parents?  Would home visits get longer?  But the case seemed to stagnate for months.  Then, when it was time to send the children home, everything moved incredibly fast.  Within the course of three weeks the children began overnight visits, and one day we dropped them off at daycare, their mom picked them up, and we never saw them again.

People treated us as if we were saints for taking the children in.

You Get Noticed

Because our twins were a different race from us, we got a lot of looks when we were out together.  In fact, I was so used to being stared at that I was pleasantly relieved when I was out alone with the kids and someone assumed they were mine.  Without seeing my husband, they had no way of knowing that these weren’t my biological children.  So, even when I was with my husband, I used to daydream about telling people wild stories about where the children came from that did not involve fostering or adoption because there was so much blatant curiosity.

Most people were positive, some to a fault.  People treated us as if we were saints for taking the children in.  They didn’t realize the stress we were going through.  It felt like they were picking on me because I didn’t feel like I was helping the children at all.

Other foster parents came out of the woodwork, but by and large these were not typical foster parents.  Some had been involved with Safe Families, a program that helps children at risk for being placed in foster care.  Others had done respite care – taking care of foster children for short periods of time when the actual foster parents were away.  When these people came forward, it was nice to hear their stories.  In addition, we learned options we could pursue if we couldn’t commit to being traditional foster parents in the future.

There Aren’t a Lot of Catholics Doing It

I don’t know why there didn’t seem to be a lot of Catholic foster parents, but I never met a single one.  All the people who came forward to talk to us were of Protestant denominations.  I assume Catholics have their hands full with biological children, but I wish more would look into foster care!

You can take your foster children to church with you.  All you have to do is get permission from the biological parents.  If you don’t get permission, you can stagger when you attend church so that someone is always at home with the kids.

At the end of the day, our whole experience felt pointless.

We Didn’t Help Anyone

The most emotionally exhausting part of foster parenting was feeling like we weren’t helping anyone.  We weren’t helping the parents, that was for sure – they had no interest in learning better parenting skills or hearing our input on the twins.  Even the children’s presence in our home didn’t seem to be an incentive enough for the parents to work to improve their lives.  We didn’t help the twins, either.  We didn’t help them grow at all – not physically, not developmentally, certainly not emotionally.  At the end of the day, our whole experience felt pointless.  Sure, the children needed a home, but they were cute!  Any other foster family could have taken them in.  I try to remind myself that every foster family is important to give a child a home.  But looking back, the hardest part of fostering was feeling like it was all for nothing.  I cannot say that the twins will have or did have a better life because of what we did.

Useful Links

Foster parenting may not be right for everyone, but here are some sources you may want to look into – there are a lot of children out there who need your help!

Illinois DCFS

The Dave Thomas Foundation

CASA

 

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2 Comments

  • Kate Findley December 25, 2018 at 5:58 am Reply

    I really appreciate hearing your honest experience, as foster care is something I have thought about as well as adoption.

    • admin December 28, 2018 at 4:22 pm Reply

      I wish you luck with either foster care or adoption! Both are such wonderful options to help children. It’s good to have an honest idea of what to expect before you begin. Foster care is a great option to learn if you can deal with an open adoption.

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