Fostering

What Is Back to School Like with Foster Children?

Over the years, several of our foster children were school-aged. This is a distinctly different experience than having preschool or infant foster children because children going to school are going into yet another environment with expectations that exist…expectations from the agency, the school and from other children. In every day life, the foster agency already has expectations…a lot of them…but when you add school, it is just another layer. None of my experience with foster children happened during COVID-19…but some of the things I learned should still be applicable!

First, if you have other children in school, you are already familiar with the large amount of back to school paperwork required to go to school. I remember when I was in school that on the first day, we would come home with a large packet of papers & cards in assorted colors which my mom needed to fill out asap and return to the school. Multiply it times 4 kids in school and I’m sure she absolutely dreaded it! We homeschool most of our children, but I have had a couple enrolled in school, and I always think…”Why can’t they just copy off one form to give to each school department. I’m writing the same information over & over on different colored forms!” Things have improved around here since then and now the paperwork gets filled out in early August and the school has a “back to school” day when you come and turn in paperwork, get school pictures done and meet your teacher….all BEFORE school ever starts. The packet of papers to fill out is largely the same as the ones that existed all those years ago and ALL of them require a parent or guardian signature.

Now about that parent or guardian signature…no big deal. Whip out a pen, scribble on the line..done deal. Not so fast. When you are a foster parent, you are neither the foster child’s parent or guardian. Nope. That is not you. When we first started fostering, I had no idea…I identified with being the child’s guardian. After all, I was guarding her, taking care of her, and she was sleeping in my house. But in the legal world, I was not her guardian. Her guardian was Children’s Services. And so, every one of those colored sheets of paper needed a signature…just not mine. So, I would fill out all those papers (somehow my lack of position did not stop me from participating here!), send them to the foster agency where they would be signed by the proper authority and then they were finally returned to the school. Usually this step required a phone call or two….”Who do I send these to? Did they receive them? Did they send them to the school? Ok then, are we done with this step?” Some social workers were really on their game and made this all pretty easy, but other ones I had to walk through the process.

The second noteable area of significance is all the back to school buying….the clothes, the school supplies, maybe the athletic supplies etc. When you are fostering, talking about money is taboo…sort of. We all know, “It’s Not About the Money.” Only the bad foster parents think about the money. The really good ones…the ones that love children…for them, its not about the money. Ok, so I digress. I never had the luxury of not thinking about the money. Whatever kind of foster parent that made me…oh well. And when we are talking about school supplies…and clothes…we are talking about money.

If you have a child in school, you know what I mean. Johnny is in 1st grade and Mrs. Smith would like you to buy a supply list that looks something like this:

— Crayola 24 pack of crayons (not the other brand please, those don’t work)

–a 4 pack of black Expo markers (yes, I know the 4 assorted colors are on sale for $1.00..sorry too bad…4 black for full price)

–a 1.5″ binder (yes we know that they cost 4 times as much as the budget 1″ binder)

–a red folder and a yellow folder (I’m sorry…every teacher in your county also asked for yellow and red. No, we did not coordinate and suggest all the teachers pick different colors. Sorry if Walmart is sold out of these two colors. Maybe fold some out of posterboard)

–2 boxes of Kleenex (will sharing Kleenex boxes even be a thing after COVID??)

–24 wood pencils (please make sure you buy the good expensive ones because the other ones are junk and will break constantly if you do not)

—and on and on it goes. The list of required supplies. If you have multiple children, double…triple or whatever and there you have it…something that should be a separate line item on the budget right up there next to the car payment.

When I think about back to buying school supplies for foster kids, we encountered a couple of different scenarios. The first time we had a school aged foster child, our now daughter had been with us for months. She was starting the school year in 3rd grade, and I had the whole summer to gather things up on that list. In the world of dollars and cents, understand that this means that I had months to account for this cost and plan ahead how to budget this expense among any others we had at the time. I was able to shop the Walmart sales..get the right color of folders while they were still in stock and inexpensive, overall, I did not spend a fortune. However, the second time we did back to school buying, it was quite different. That placement came right AFTER school had started…like 2 weeks or less after school started. In this case, the supply selection was wiped out on many supplies except for full priced options. We homeschool and I happen to have a large closet that I usually keep stocked. So, our first stop was the closet, and then we made multiple stops at different stores to try to fill in the list with normal supplies as well as odd things like locks and lanyards that were on the list. At that time, they had been with us for a couple of days….there was no “check” to cover this and they were expected to stay only a couple of weeks. They needed whatever was on the list in addition to new book bags. There were few items available in the store and even fewer for a great price. So we spent significantly more than the first time…a LOT more. There was no time to plan…no time to shop deals…no time period. In addition, any local programs that give away free supplies were also over. In a practical, financial sense, the second placement came with a huge list of expenses and we had to meet those needs out of pocket. I knew money was coming later but this situation was backwards from the previous which was not something I had anticipated. The reality is, they could have left in 2 weeks and whatever I spent beyond on the per diem received in that time period would have been truly out of pocket and not reimbursed.

In a similar way, buying clothing for back to school can be a significant expense that is better anticipated ahead of time than decided in the moment. When I was growing up, I remember standing in line behind families who would stack the checkout high with new clothing purchases for back to school. In our family, we usually had one or two new outfits and new shoes but not a whole wardrobe. The rest of it came from thrift stores, hand me downs or my mom made them. When our foster daughter was 8 and preparing for school…we had the summer to prepare to gather the list. She was only 8 and the only one of our 6 kids going to school. Her wardrobe was a mix of new and used and very affordable. The second placement at we had for “back to school” was completely different. They were in middle school and high school came with zero outfits and needed everything quickly. It was far more expensive shopping that way. Since they wanted all name brands, trying to meet their needs was much more difficult. I found myself having a lot of internal distress over their needs, wants and a my own desire for them to feel welcome and cared for.

These girls were placed right after school started, and highlighted that we didn’t have a great solution for a situation like theirs. Our longer term solution that we implemented for the 10 months they stayed was for them to have a monthly budget for spending on clothes or makeup. I would give them cash at the beginning of the month for them to control. In the short term though, the back-to-school wardrobe was just a difficult, expensive situation. I did not feel like they were happy or that I was happy about how we got their wardrobe in compliance. Essentially, to salvage the budget, we bought a couple of new outfits and new shoes and supplies but the rest did come from the thrift store. One of the girls in particular did not like this and rarely wore the second-hand clothes…choosing instead to wear her few new outfits over and over or take my daughters clothes or unfortunately, steal from others. Not good.

The third part of the back to school experience relates to just meeting the educational needs of that individual child. Often times when a child is placed, the social workers don’t really have a full picture of what a child needs academically. They are often being removed in an emergency situation and they are primarily assessing the most iminent problems. But once a child is in the home and there is time to finish gathering details, an IEP often comes to light. An IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, is used in the school setting to identify and meet the specific learning needs of children who might need extra help or accomodation to make progress in their learning. One of my adopted children has an IEP, but as his parent, I am an integral part of his learning needs being met. I fill out the paperwork with all the background information, and I provide any outside documentation that medical providers, counselors or other services have provided. But when a child is placed that has not lived with you and has or needs an IEP, it is an entirely different experience. The school wants to look at you the foster-parent to fill that parent role. They know you are not…but they still visualize you that way….at least in my experience. They invited me to IEP meetings as well as a social worker. However, for foster children, I felt most comfortable handing this back to Children’s Services for a placement that was new. I did not have valuable experience or information that would be helpful in the process of obtaining IEP services. The county had more information than I had. So, while they would have let me be part of the process…I deferred on this one. In order for an IEP to be implemented, there are often several meetings with teachers, parents, and school psychologists. When we had a placement with older girls, they had IEPs in place but still needed meetings to implement. But as a foster parent, I had nothing to contribute because I did not know them, so I chose not to be part of the conversation and let the county handle it entirely.

All in all, doing the Back to School routine with foster kids looked similar to the experience with my own kids, but the timing of placement did affect how easy or stressful it was to make this transition. If I had it to do over again, I would actually make a plan for 3 things:

  1. I would create a “fund” early on in our foster journey to be used for “surprise” expenses related to fostering. Whether that was a placement with no wardrobe or buying a new carseat, having a slush fund that was only used for special purposes would be wonderful and would have relieved some of the stressful decisions made due to finances.
  2. I would ask Children’s Services what resources they have to help with clothing and school supply needs for foster kids. (Because we only encountered this back to school situation a couple of times, and only had one scenario where the children arrived without belongings, I did not establish a routine for how to fill these needs with community resources that do exist.) They do have and can usually give you a list. I would investigate those early in my fostering journey to become more comfortable with them.
  3. If I was fostering school aged children, I would educate myself on the IEP process and purpose. I would also educate myself on how to access IEP services. They take months to implement so if you have a placement that needs one, it is helpful to start the process shortly after placement.

Whether you are just investigating fostering or have been doing it for years, I would love to hear what other tips or ideas you have for the back to school season that would help other foster families navigate this more easily.