The time has come for Foster Parent’s to take strike.
Daniel and I signed up to become foster parents nearly 13 years ago. We were just a couple of naive but passionate newly weds, parenting our newly adopted infant son. We had hopes and dreams of becoming long term foster parents, starting off as safe baby foster home for prenatally exposed infants, and eventually moving towards teenagers as our own children grew. We hoped to have 6-8 children through adoption/fostering, and had mapped out our life ahead, supporting vulnerable children.
Our first few years on the scene went relatively smoothly. By smoothly, you might think I am referring to without incident, but in reality, that is merely how the first 10 years of fostering compares to our most recent few years. What might have felt like a huge storm back then, does not rival to the hurricane we now call our life. Yet even back then, we encountered many of the issues I will discuss below.
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I won’t be getting into our current struggles, but I would like to focus on some of the important pieces we picked up along the way, and what I have learned as both a foster parent raising children, a charity director supporting fellow foster and adoptive parents, and a social worker from inside the system. Nearly 50% of foster parents are quitting within their first year, and 65% are quitting within their first 5 years of foster care. That is not sustainable retention stats, and results in more moves for children, fewer experienced homes, and a greater strain on the system attempting to recruit new foster parents. This is not OK!
This is what I have concluded:
- Social workers have no sweet clue.
Foster Parents are officially on strike!
For number one, I mean that in as kind of a way as possible. I am not implying that social workers are mean or intentionally trying to cause foster parents harm, but instead they are just unaware of just how hard fostering is, the many different facets it involves, and are often not taught anything about foster parents in their formal education (during my social work degree, for example, we were taught that foster parents were child kidnappers…whaaaat?!?!!) Now before anyone gets up in arms over item number two, let me be very clear; I do not mean a physical strike. Children in care need safe and loving homes to reside in when their families face unexpected challenges. What I am referring to, however, is a metaphorical strike of sorts. A strike for others to really hear us, listen to our pleas, and hopefully incite change in social workers, professionals, the system, and the general public. Below I will discuss 7 facts that we want you to know about foster parents that will help facilitate a greater understanding, respect, and hopefully collaboration in the child welfare system.
1. Foster Parents are NOT Babysitters
One of the most common complaints I hear from fellow foster parents, is that social workers treat us as nothing more than a glorified babysitter. Definition.com describes a babysitter as someone who takes charge of a child while the parent is temporarily away. The keyword in that definition, is temporarily. This word denotes for a short period in time, as is generally accepted when referring to babysitters. Fostering, however, is so much more than that. While there is certainly short-term foster care, the majority of foster care is more long-term and not exclusively temporary. The average stay of a child in foster care is one year. Last I checked, babysitters didn’t stay that long. Digging a bit deeper into the role of a babysitter, we see that babysitting is while a parent is away. In foster care, we are the functional parents. If a child gets a fever, we can’t phone the parents to come home early. If we get sick, we can’t cancel our “babysitting arrangements.” We don’t show up, feed the child, put them to bed, then watch a show until the parents get home. Instead we are raising that child the same way we would raise our own child. We provide supervision, of course, but we also provide a home. Many foster parents buy larger houses, build additions, squish other children together, all in an effort to make room to care for a child through foster care. We buy and prepare food, we take them to medical appointments, we have their friends over, take them to sleepovers, plan surprise birthday parties, teach them life lessons and love them as our own children. The only real difference between a foster parent and a biological parent, is our biology. For all intensive purposes, though, foster parents are raising these children for an undetermined amount of time as their own children. Sometimes the children are able to reunify and return home to their parents, but sometimes they are not. Sometimes we might be raising these children right into their adulthood, as their primary caregiver (and I say caregiver with a grain of salt, since foster parents are so much more than that). The level of attachment between a foster parent and a foster child runs so much deeper than the babysitting relationship, and must be appreciated through that lens. (I will talk more about attachment in Part II)
2. We are Fighting for the Best Interest of the Child
“The best interest of the child” is thrown around a lot in the child welfare system, by a lot of well meaning individuals. The truth is, we are all fighting for that. While social workers might not understand foster parents, they do truly have the best interest of children at heart, and go about it in the best way they know how. Bio family strive for this same goal to the best of their abilities, and foster parents do too. Even professional’s in the children’s lives are fighting for this, from child development workers, to pediatricians, to counselors, to therapists. We are all striving for this mutual goal of keeping children happy, healthy, thriving, and safe. For some reason, however, I have witnessed and heard the majority of these parties involved, ignored. Instead of working as a team, decisions are made based on politically correct guidelines rather than looking at the child as an individual. If we report a concerning actions or behaviors during a visit, social workers are quick to defend biological family as if we are “tattling” on them, despite us being trained to report any concerns to social workers. If we bring up safety concerns, social workers often jump to the conclusion that we are anti-reunification. If we advocate for support services, such as counseling or therapy, we are ignored, denied, or thrown up against lengthy delays. If we advocate for permanency, we are often branded as child kidnappers, with no one else taking any consideration of that child’s attachment. We are the eyes and ears of these children, yet are often silenced throughout the life of that child, losing our ability to help be their voice.
Th truth is, in many cases, a foster child enters the system as an infant, and lives with their foster family for years. More often than not, they know their foster parents as “mom and dad” and know no other way of life. Even in cases where a child comes into care later on in life and maintains visitation with their bio family, the foster parent still spends the majority of the time with that child. Call me crazy, but the person raising and caring for a child, likely knows the most about them. I know if my child can handle staying up until 8pm on a school night for a visit, a lot more than a social worker who sees them for 30 minutes, once every 3 months. Granted, there are many cases where children come into care for shorter periods of time and have extensive histories with their bio family, then often bio family may still know that child best. The person who knows the child least, however, is the social worker. Yet the social worker is the one who is entrusted with the legal responsibility and decision making power of that child during the most challenging time of their life. Of course we have to trust their formal education and training is allowing them to make the very best decision for each child, but how can they accomplish this without knowing the individual needs of that specific child? Social workers need to consult with not only the foster parents, but teachers, specialists, and others involved in that child’s case. But remember, the person raising the child is likely the one to know the child best! We are with these children when they wake, throughout their day, when they go to bed, and through the night. This must be acknowledged in order to truly seek the best interest of the child! A social worker cannot possibly work towards the best interest of the child based purely on ideals. They must take each individual child and their own unique needs into consideration.
3. Foster Parent’s Should be a Part of the Team
Collaboration in the child welfare system is key to truly supporting the needs of a child. In my social work program we were taught this ad nauseam and were provided with a hierarchy of who was ultimately in charge (the child’s social worker). Surprisingly, foster parents were conveniently left out of all literature. A little bit of respect, however, goes a long way. Including foster parents in family meetings is a simple way to include us and have our voices heard. I have witnessed many social workers who are great at this, and many that are not. Even allowing a foster parent to come for a short period at the beginning of a meeting, is beneficial. It allows an opportunity for foster parents to provide updated information on how the child is doing, as well as comfort the bio family that their children are being loved and cared for. The foster parent is the only one who will know how the child is sleeping, eating, doing academically, behaviorally, how visits are affecting them, what professionals are involved in their life, and more. They know if that child has started pulling out hair and peeing the bed, or if symptoms are starting to present itself for some sort of special need, like FASD or ADHD. The foster parent knows if the child is scared of dogs, or has a sensitivity to loud noises. All of these facts are vital in planning for the child, knowing if visits are going well for the child, or if they can manage loud public events vs. quiet visits in a home. I can’t imagine someone leaving out a team member with this sort of crucial information in any other facet of life, yet with fostering, we are. This is such a simple fix and will help everyone advocate for the children’s needs when we are included in their planning.
4. Foster Parents Have a Life Too
Foster parents have signed up to care for children in need, but they often have more than just one specific child in their home. Many times foster parents have multiple foster children from different families, have their own biological or adopted children, work outside the home, and have their own life. Kids nap, many are in after school activities, multiple family members have doctor and dentist appointments, and as all other people in this world, we desire down time, time to clean the house, and time to enjoy something as simple as taking a walk. Since foster care is not a 9-5 job, and is 24/7, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, we have to build all of that into our schedule. Social workers routinely, and I mean routinely, inform foster parents of appointments, visits, and more without so much as a question of what works for the foster parent. On top of that, they often do it with a day, or even hours, notice. This is 100% unacceptable. Foster parents are not slaves, they are not subordinates, and they are not a social worker’s employee to boss around at any given moment. The respectful and polite way to approach foster parents, is to have open communication with ample notice. My advice would be to always provide foster parents with at least a weeks notice in advance, before attempting to book something. Unless it is a life or death situation, or some sort of extreme circumstance, it is just not OK to be attempting any sooner than that. Furthermore, don’t demand something, but ask what works. Foster parents want to make it work, and usually end up maneuvering around their entire life in an attempt to make it so, but often there is no reason a foster family needs to be put through so much turmoil when a simple conversation consulting availability would suffice.
Visits are another area of contention between social workers and foster parents, and unfortunately the solution is not always as easy as one might hope. Often, foster parents are placed with children whose bio family lives far away, or the welfare office is located in a neighboring town. With foster parents having to pick kids up from school, appointments, and more, it is often impossible to drive an hour or more to a visit, return home, and get back in time for a 2 hour visit. Sitting in their car for 2 hours is also unreasonable, especially when they often have other children with them. Many times, the children are young or have special needs, and cannot handle sitting in a vehicle themselves, for 2-4 hours a day. Many regions have drivers in place to help drive either both ways or one way, to cut back on the many logistical nightmares that accompany visits, but for those regions where that is not in place or not possible, it would make a world of difference to approach the problem with creative solutions and a kind and understanding perspective. Perhaps the bio family is able to take the bus and meet in a central location, or the agency can use a meeting place in the foster parents home town. In my 13 years of fostering, I have personally never had bio family that worked or were still caring for other children during the course of their case. Of course many do, and many have other obligations, but more often than not, they are capable of meeting a foster parent half way. And when a foster parent is busy and asks for a different day or time, please please respond kindly, don’t assume it is an act of sabotage, and remember that we are doing the best that we can! Also remember that we are volunteers!
I will follow-up in Part II on the last few facts we want you to know, to hopefully help facilitate a more positive collaboration together, resulting in higher retention numbers and a more successful fostering experience for all involved. Almost every single foster parent I have ever spoken to who is thinking of quitting or has quit, has said it is due to the government system, not the children themselves. THAT is a problem that deserves attention.
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