***Disclaimer: This post is focused on the perspective of a foster parent and what a foster parent goes through. It does not touch at all on birth parents and their feelings, or even the children, and is not meant to be a discussion on children returning home. Those are very important topics, but for another post. Instead, this is meant to look at the emotions a foster parent experiences. All names and details have been changed.
Yesterday I was cleaning one of my kids bedrooms and I found an old teddy bear that belonged to Alice. Her smell was long gone and an ear was now missing, but I still instantly thought of her smile. I hadn’t seen it in over a year due to a recent move, so it caught me off guard when the flood of emotions returned. It wasn’t just her belongings that made me think of her either. Sometimes it was a photo that popped up on the computer, or driving by the apartment where she use to live. Even something as tiny as seeing 3 little girls together, made me think of my three triplets.
Alice had come to us when she was only 2 years old. She arrived on a plane from the other side of the country and was a shy little thing. She was smack in the middle of my other two 2 daughters, who were 6 months older and 6 months younger than her, thus creating my 3 triplets. They bonded instantly, did everything together, and became the best of friends. My husband and I fell in love with her and before we knew it, 2 years had gone by and we couldn’t remember what life was like without her. The social worker didn’t think she would return home (due to various reasons) and asked us if we would consider permanency with her. Of course we said yes, and assumed it was just a matter of the final court date.
Enter the Canadian court system. I could write an entire post on our court system. Let’s just say the family judge was sick, so a criminal judge took over that day. The burden of proof is very different in family court vs. criminal court…so she was sent home. I know everyone thinks birth family is best. Of course SO MANY TIMES this is true, I won’t deny that and that it is not at all what this post is about. But sometimes, it isn’t. Sometimes the parents struggle with too many things and aren’t in a place to parent (not poverty related). Our hearts broke as we prepared to lose a child we had come to love as our own. She was 5 years old now and called us mom and dad. She referred to all our kids as her brother’s and sisters, and she was a part of our family. Our final day with Alice, the social worker planned a hand off meeting in a parking lot on a Saturday. It couldn’t have been more anti-climactic. The social worker didn’t even attend. We simply walked up to her mother’s car, and walked away. It went against every bone in our body but there was nothing we could do. This was fostering. Temporarily caring for a child in your home until they could return to their biological family. We had done it multiple times before, and knew we would do it multiple times again. Sometimes you are excited a child is getting to return home, sometimes you might be sad, but sometimes, SOMETIMES it hurts like nothing you could ever explain. Like a piece of you was being ripped from your soul and a hole was being left behind. I have never experienced the death of a child, but I know this was somehow similar. Except with fostering, there is no closure. Instead of knowing your child was safely in heaven, you are left worrying and wondering for years how that child is doing. Are they safe? Are they happy? Do they know you still love them? Do they think you abandoned them? In fostering, closure is like waiting for an answer that will never come.
Once Alice left we were lucky enough to continue to see her every month. She usually came over for one weekend a month and we took her to do fun family outings, and loved on her as much as we could. We even had Alice and her mother over for Christmas. Fast forward 10 months. Alice came back into foster care. I wasn’t surprised. What did surprise me is that we were never informed. In the 10 months that she had been gone, a new child had been placed with us. We were now considered “full” with 6 children in our home. Yet instead of informing us and getting us approved for over capacity, they placed that sweet girl in another foster home; someone she didn’t know, even though we were there and WE knew her! We had parented her most of her life, more than any other person. She was attached to us, we still maintained a relationship with her, but instead of minimizing the trauma on this sweet child having to leave home again, they placed her in another home due to their liability based views on large homes.
That was almost 5 years ago. Today, Alice is still in foster care. Who knows how many homes she has been in. Who knows what her future holds. But my heart breaks for her every time I think of her and the stability she lost and the fostering cycle she ended up swirling around in. Most foster homes where I live don’t adopt their children. Her chance at permanency and attachment have dropped significantly, and with every year she stays in foster care, it drops a little bit more.
Many people believe they cannot foster because they fear they could never say goodbye to a child, that it would hurt too much, and presume to leave it up to those who “can”manage it. But the truth is, we are all human. It is not natural for a a parent to lose their child, regardless of whether they are blood related or not. Fostering, is NOT childcare. It is a family based model and attachments happen. Parents fall in love. Children fall in love. It is beautiful, and raw, and painful. And most importantly, it is just not natural to end that relationship. So it makes complete and utter sense that when a child does finally leave, a foster parent is going to be hurt…damaged…and quite likely: broken.
Sometimes kids go home where they should be. Sometimes they go to other family members, and sometimes they get moved to another foster home. Regardless of why that child is leaving and where that child is going, it is still a relationship that is coming to an end. This post is about what happens when they do leave. How do we as foster parents, process, cope, and move on after experiencing the deep, emotional and traumatic loss of a child over and over again?
Every bond with a foster child is different, and often where and when they leave can affect how that loss affects us. But it is a loss. A loss that foster parents go through again and again and again. A parent-child relationship is the strongest relationship there is. Parent’s love their children unconditionally and would give up their own life for their child. It is miraculous. To sever that relationship is painful. Of course this has already happened with the birth parents and their children, but that is not the focus of this particular post either. Foster parents are expected to open up their hearts and love on children again and again in order to provide a stable and loving home environment during their time there. It is truly such an amazing experience to love on all these children, but how can foster parents move past this heartbreak and loss each time?
I believe on of the most important things a foster parent can do is build up their support system. Having people in place to support a foster parent is vital in maintaining sanity and strength as you navigate grief and loss over and over again. A support system consisting of other foster parents is also important. Often, family members and friends do not fully understand the ins and outs of foster care, the effects it can have on everyone involved, or how traumatic is truly is. Support groups geared towards foster parents can also be amazing, and have been one of my own personal places of comfort.
Next, I believe it is important for foster parents to seek counseling routinely and particularly around transitions between children. Likely you will know best when it is needed. A child only staying with you for 3 months may not affect you as much as a child who stays with you for one year. Finding a counselor experienced with trauma and attachment is crucial in receiving adequate support. Many foster parents don’t realize that they can develop PTSD or depression due to the nature of foster parenting. Sometimes foster parents develop secondary trauma just from knowing the trauma their child has undergone. Sometimes a foster parent can develop PTSD from repeated loss and possibly trauma surrounding the way a child left. General depression is also possible, stemming from loss, from the child’s history, from working with a flawed system, from lack of support, the isolation that accompanies fostering, or the behaviors that might accompany a child. There are many factors that can affect the mental health of a foster parent, so being proactive towards prevention is important.
I also believe it is important for foster-parent to practice self-care. This is taught to foster parents again and again, but it really is that important! Sometimes it might look like taking a break between children placed in your home. Other times it might look like getting away for a weekend or going out for a ladies or men’s night. It can even be something as small as taking the time to enjoy a quiet, hot bath all to yourself. We know how hard that is, but it can allow foster parents to decompress and let out their stresses. Another amazing way to practice self-care, is to write! Some people prefer journals, others write letters to people they never send (good bye letters, angry letters, emotional letters) and some people blog! There are many options out there but having the opportunity to get your thoughts and feelings out can make a massive difference!
Finally, I believe it is SO important to remember…even though foster parents don’t always parent children throughout their childhood, they are still making a difference. They are caring for a child when they need it most. A time in their life when they can’t remain in their home and they need another safe and loving home to take care of them during that season of life. A child’s brain is always developing, and having the ability to attach, even if that attachment is lost, does more to promote healthy brain development, then to never attach at all. The old model of state run orphanages and group homes had that problem; A lack of attachment and love, leading to mental health issues, attachment issues, and more. So to all the foster parents out there struggling with the loss of a child, just remember, you are doing a GREAT job. You are making a difference in the life of a child. And YOU’VE GOT THIS! Hang in there and continue to seek out supports and self-care until the next sweet child is at your doorstep.
Please let me know in the comments if there are other things YOU do to support yourself through these challenges!
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