When I am in conversation with people, especially someone I don’t know well, it will often come up that my husband and I were foster parents for many years. When people hear we have 9 children, the next questions is usually, “Are they all yours?” I’m comfortable saying, “Yes they are… 6 are biological and 3 are adopted.” But after a bit of chit chat, I’ve had so many people say to me with energy in their voice, “I’d love to talk to you more about fostering. I have ALWAYS wanted to be a foster parent!”
And every time, I feel a catch in my throat and my stomach tightens up and I have to remind myself to take a breath. Every time.
I want to be excited for them. I want to be part of that story but I also don’t. I want to be completely honest with them and I don’t want to tell them the truth. I was that person once and I haven’t quite figured out how to go back.
If you drive down major interstates in my area, you will often see billboards from Children’s Services that say “You Don’t Have to be Perfect to be a Foster Parent.” or “The Best Gift You Can Give a Child is a Home.” I used to see those billboards and feel a tug…here was something I could be part of…it was inspirational. And the thing is…it really is awesome. Fostering is a huge labor of love. But the reason I feel this catch in my stomach is that those billboards with happy faces and cute kids are so far from daily life while fostering that I see them and feel like its propaganda. I feel like the message they send is a bait and switch.
My experience tells me that cute memes and oversized billboards can’t begin to explain what fostering is. It has taken YEARS AFTER ADOPTING our foster kids for us feel somewhat normal as a family. This did not happen while we were fostering. So when someone tells me they want to foster, I kinda feel unsettled…how honest do I want to be with these new friends? Do I cheer them on and tell them, “That is awesome! You will be great!” Or do I tell them the truth….do I tell them how the system is so flawed, it completely disrupts your life in so many ways and what life is really like as a foster family? I never really know. But in case you stumble across this post, in case you are thinking of fostering, I want you to know. I wish someone would have given me a fuller picture of what it looks like to foster. There are so many pieces to this puzzle and its hard to find them all. I realize not everyone goes into fostering with the same expectations or situation, but between the horror stories and glossy promo literature, I had difficulty finding a good picture of what fostering could look like for my normalish family with young children to begin fostering. This is by no means comprehensive. It is just the tip of the iceberg.
If you look up information on fostering, here are some of the things they will look at to qualify you as a foster parent:
- How old are you? States have minimum age to foster. In Ohio you must be 21 to foster.
- Income & Employment – You must be able to provide for your own living expenses. They will check your tax returns to see that you are stable here and don’t have a recent history of bankrupcy.
- Housing – Does it meet safety requirements and does it have enough bedrooms to house children according to state standards.
- How many other children live in the home? Each state has a maximum number of children allowed to live in the home. Biological or adopted children under the age of 18 are part of that number. In Ohio you can have 10 children in the home (5 of whom can be foster children) but there are some states where the maximum is 5 children.
- Do you have a criminal record?
- If you are single or if both parents work, how will you go about providing care for a child when you are not available.
- Do you have adequate transportation or live in an area with public transportation.
- Are you healthy enough to foster?
- What kind of a support system do you have?
- If you have children, they will want information on all of them to make sure things are squared away – birth records, social security numbers, confirmation of school enrollment, health physical etc.
As we were planning to foster, I looked over the list above and my brain went…check, check, check next to each little box. Clearly we could do this. We already had 4 children of our own and I was expecting our 5th. We loved them like crazy and we had a great support system of family and friends. Our circumstances did not preclude us from fostering…therefore…it was totally doable in my mind. However, while the system is quick to run a prospective foster family through a rigorous process to license them as foster parents, they are not as quick to make sure you really understand that becoming a foster parent might just turn your life on its head. I’m not blaming the system or anyone really. If we had it to do over, we would ask better questions before we began to hopefully prepare ourselves better.
So while above I have shared 10 common requirements to become a foster parent, now I want to share 10 things you SHOULD consider before you become a foster parent. These are all from our personal experience and other families will have had other experiences that may not line up with ours.
- Having social workers come sit in my house every week or two for an hour or so at a time was pretty disruptive. We had young children and the workers might come at nap time or right before dinner. They often came while I was trying to prepare dinner because we had school-aged foster kids and they needed to see them and not just me. Trying to keep my little kids well behaved, talk to a social worker and get dinner on the table was just difficult. During that hour, I ended up talking to the workers most of the time as the majority of our foster kids were either too young to talk to them or did not want to talk to the social workers. When we added weekly counseling visits to this number, I had people in my house several times a week whose primary job it is to make sure that these kids were ok and that we were doing everything we could to help them be ok. I became accustomed to life under a microscope.
- I felt like I had to justify our lifestyle to social workers. It’s weird…having a social worker come to our house made me feel like I had to rationalize potentially controversial things about my family. For example, we homeschool, and many social workers do not associate that with good outcomes for kids because of cases of abuse that have entered the system and were “homeschooled.” Our first social worker was so kind. She was an older lady. She would step into the house and I would see her eyes immediately scan the diningroom, taking in the homeschool books spread across the table. Eventually I brought up homeschooling to see what she thought about it and because I wanted to clear the air. We had a pleasant chat. She really didn’t know of any diligent homeschool families who actually educated their kids. Her experience was on the abusive side of things, so she was noticeably cautious. She did seem to relax more after talking and eventually we settled into to a pretty good relationship. As part of our paperwork, we had to turn our annual homeschool notifications to Children’s Services proving that we were legally educating our kids. So, not only did we have to account for the education of the foster children, we had to account for our own kids too. I don’t think this is bad practice in any way, it was just one more way that it felt like “Big Brother” might be watching. There were other situations in our family over the years where we would have to provide an explanation or documentation that suited the system every time. Thankfully our county was pretty easy to work with but on our end it was stressful to have to explain the details of random situations to a stranger who then would “judge” it on its merits.
- When you foster children, it is really really hard to get a break when you NEED one. Life with your own little biological kids means you don’t get many breaks anyway. Maybe grandma will take them for the afternoon or overnight but most of the time, life is 24/7. But when you have foster kids, unless grandma is fingerprinted and background checked, she cannot babysit the foster kids (at least when we fostered) and she could not keep them overnight unless she was licensed as a respite foster parent. This requires the same training as regular foster parents in Ohio, which is extensive and very time consuming. None of our extended family were licensed as respite providers. In our case, if we wanted or needed respite, it was usually when we were desperately worn out. Without many respite familes on standby, it was usually several weeks before we could have a break and often we would need to drive an hour or so to drop them off with another family and pick them up there a couple of days later. Usually the entire process was so much effort and came at a time when the the crisis was over that respite care did not feel useful. If I had it to do over, with difficult cases, I would go ahead and schedule respite on a regular basis so I could have a planned break and the child could look forward to it.
- Having a rule for everything can make you feel crazy. Most people are used to having a range of possible parenting strategies but when you are a foster parent, those choices are heavily limited. I had no idea how many normal things I do on a regular basis would not be allowed with foster children. I understand all the limits but when you are living in the middle of chaos, all that “knowledge” is not always that helpful.
- Most social workers have never been foster or adoptive parents. In our case, we had some that had never had biological children either. Most of our workers were great people, but its hard to really explain what its like to have your life disrupted 24/7 for someone else’s children with people who have never fostered. After all, at the end of the shift, they go home. Yes, they might be on call and have to go out, and their job IS very difficult, but they don’t bring the kids home with them….and that is very different…no matter how understanding they try to be. There were times times I felt so stressed by our situation with foster kids, but there was no help and talking to social workers just made it feel more hopeless. And HOPE was my fuel when fostering...it is what I needed every day.
- Your family will take a back seat to the system. While the system resists calling fostering a “job,” if you think of it as a 24/7 job it will help you have better expectations. It cannot be called a job because it would pay something like $1/hour or less. However, just like an employer has the “right” to prioritize how you spend time on the clock, there are a large number of ways the system prioritizes your time and things you are allowed to do and not do as a family when you have a placement.
- The system will rely on you to create the boundaries you need to stay sane. You will need to learn the word “NO” very quickly!! If you are a safe, loving home, they will place as many children in your home as your license allows even if you personally feel overwhelmed UNLESS you say “NO.” This also goes for all the extras they ask of foster parents. Depending on the country, things like transportation to different activities may be required or optional. In our case, there were never quite enough drivers for things they provided transportation for so they would regularly ask foster parents to help with the driving. It was usually a kind request done a way that made you feel guilty for refusing if there was some way you could possibly rearrange your life to help. By the end of our fostering journey, I was very good at saying “NO.”
- When you license, they often warn you that your friends may not stick around for your foster journey. We did not have that happen. However, as we would encounter difficult behavioral problems, some of which were directly related to trauma, friends often could not understand. Often they would say something like, ” I don’t know, I don’t think that behavior is uncommon. My daughter also does XYZ” or “My son did that at that age too.” And after years of fostering and adoption, I can see that in some ways they were right in some ways BUT (and this is a very big BUT), that does not make it the same. In a foster situation, you definitely have trauma going on, you also have very limited ways of responding AND attachment (more like detachment) is a huge factor in how we as human beings respond to each other. Attachment has taken many years to happen with all 3 of our adopted kids and was never in place with our foster kids. So their behaviors and our responses were being filtered through brokenness and detachment and it made it really hard to figure out what we should do as foster parents. While my bio kids may not like consequences, we would talk about mistakes, learn from them and it would build trust. Consequences for my foster and adopted kids made them feel alienated or unloved for the same behavior. At the time, when my friends would tell me that parenting foster kids was the same as biological children, I just felt crazy because I could not figure out where the breakdown was. The parenting books did not have my foster kids in them…it was clearly different but I didn’t really have words for it at the time.
- Your extended family may really struggle with where they fit in to your foster journey. I have an amazing family…its big, supportive and a blessing in every way. However, my parents and siblings had never fostered or adopted. Being foster grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins was all new to them too. My family would offer a listening ear, give suggestions and empathize as best they could. It was difficult for them to see us going through really hard stuff with other people’s children. At times there were conversations where someone would say, “Do you think you will do this forever? Why do you keep doing this? or Is this the best thing for the rest of your kids?”
- When you foster, people will often say things like, “Well God bless you! You are a saint. Thank you for all you do. I could never do it, but the world needs more people like you.” I’m not much of a tongue biter....but this was when I usually bit my tongue. I would plaster a smile on my face and nod in agreement and not say ALL the things I wanted to say. I would usually meet one of these well-intentioned people on a bad day (of course) and I was so tempted to set them straight. I wanted to tell them that really I’m not a great person…I’m actually a fairly terrible parent on some days and these foster kids all deserve someone better than me. And I wanted to tell them that “I could never do it” either and yet here I was doing it. I wanted them to say, “Wow, fostering seems like it would be really hard. What is the hardest part for you?” I could have answered that question honestly and agreed that it is hard. But all the positive accolades made me feel like this was not the time to be real, so I just bit my tongue with a smile on my face while my inner critic reminded me of all the ways I was not saintly. When people think you are doing something special…something they are not part of, something they were were not “chosen” to do, it can be a lonely place. When we were actually fostering, I had a really hard time articulating this thought because it didn’t feel safe. Thankfully I did have people I could be honest with (usually other foster parents) but in those moments of temporary sainthood, I never did quite figure out what to say.
If you are considering fostering or know someone who is a foster parent, I hope that my experiences will give you another piece of the puzzle as you try to figure it out. There are so many words to say on this topic. My husband and I no longer foster, but I care deeply about this topic, especially the needs of the whole foster and adoptive family. If you have questions that you wish some foster parent would give you insight into, let me know. I will do my very best.
Disclaimer: My intent is to share my thoughts on fostering from the perspective of a foster and adoptive parent of “normal” kids for the purpose of discussion, education and connection. There are many resources about caring for children and their needs and that is wonderful, but in my experience, the needs of the foster parents and family often take a back seat. The children are the primary focus of the foster system as they should be but this makes it difficult to feel supported or find real information at times. Fostering rules are different in every state and may be different than what I have shared here.