You Are Loved (Foster Care in 5-7-5)

I remember the first time it happened. For a couple of months, everything seemed to be going great. Then, we had a bad day and a child had a meltdown. They ended up under their bed yelling at me: “I hate you and I hate living here!”

No one likes hearing something like that. Sometimes biological children also say it to their parents in the heat of the moment. Whether with a biological child or a foster child, to be a parent requires an understanding: You can’t take what they say personally. That can sometimes be hard, especially when not long before the outburst, they cuddle against you and show affection. You seek to love them and they are showing you love as well. Then, angry happens and hurt happens.

A child is still learning and growing. They’re learning to process their world and how to relate to the stimuli around them. A lot of children in foster care have the added layer of unprocessed trauma on top of that. Even if they’ve been badly hurt, a child still has various attachments and feelings toward their family. You, as a foster parent, represent a barrier to being with their family. There are also the cases where a child simply does not know how to appropriately love and feel love. Their outbursts are ways to gain your attention and test your love.

You can’t take it personally. Even in moments where they are screaming how much they hate you, they need you. They need to know they are safe and loved.

Sometimes, when they’re lying under their bed telling you how much they hate you, all you can do is lay on the floor, look at them, and say, “Thank you for sharing your feelings. We love you and we’ll be here for you as long as you need.”

Never Certain Until the Ink Dries (Foster Care in 5-7-5)

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Something they told us in foster training: Nothing is certain. When you get involved in foster care, you learn this quickly.

There was one situation that drove this point home. We are able to now look back and find some humor in the ordeal, but not so much at the time. We had said goodbye to our first two (concurrent) placements and took a break for about a month. When we placed ourselves back onto the available home list, we didn’t get any calls for a while. We asked one of our social workers why, and she said we were one of two homes in our tri-county circuit at that time that had the capacity for a large sibling group and they were holding back for that.

No problem. We had the space, we understood. Not long after that, we received a call: “We have a sibling group of five that we’re planning on placing with you in the next couple of weeks.”

Got it. We set to work prepping the house. We bought a couple more bed frames, secured some donated mattresses, and started shopping for a vehicle that could comfortably seat seven people. Shortly before we completed the purchase of a 8-passenger SUV, we received another call: “Actually, we’re not going to move the children at this time.”

Okie doke. Glad we didn’t buy that car.

A month passes, and we receive another call: “We are for sure moving the children. We need to arrange for you to pick them up on Friday. We have a meeting on Thursday, but that is just a formality. They are coming to your home.”

We already had the beds and crib set up. We set out car shopping again. This time, we secure a vehicle that can seat seven. We stock up on some supplies and get the house ready. The Thursday meeting comes, I attend, and it doesn’t take long for me to realize the final pronouncement: Never mind. They’re not moving the children after all.

Needless to say, we were frustrated, along with some other people, and especially because we bought a car (albeit used). We were reminded: Nothing is set in stone until it happens. The ink has to dry on the paper.

A few weeks later, we said yes to and received a sibling set of two who stayed with us eight months and then reunified. We also found out we were expecting a biological child. It was a roller coaster for a couple of months, but that tends to be foster care in general.

Sometimes No (Foster Care in 5-7-5)

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We are on our eighth foster placement, and twelfth foster child. Each placement begins with a phone call. A social worker calls us, gives us basic info of how many children and their ages. If we want to hear more, they give us more details and ask if we’d be willing to take placement.

We have said, “Yes,” eight times. (Actually, it’s been more than that. Sometimes you say yes, but then something happens and the children don’t come to your house after all.)

We’ve also received a lot of phone calls where we have said, “No.”

On the one hand, as a foster parent, you want to be able to help all the children who need it. Your heart floods with compassion when the phone rings and you’re told there is a child in need. The reality is, sometimes you have to say, “No.” It’s gut-wrenching to do so, but it is also necessary. There can be a variety of reasons for this.

1. You have other children / foster children and the situation doesn’t sound like it would be a good fit. You have to think about the children who are living in your home. Foster children, especially, carry different traumas. Those children might be doing well with your family, but when you add a new dynamic of another foster child, things can dramatically change. Sometimes, multiple placements work. Sometimes, they don’t. You have to check with the child’s caseworker and therapist, and give thought to what you see each day to know if multiple placements will work for you in your current situation.

2. You need a break. Fostering is draining at times. All parenting is work, but with fostering, you often have added appointments, meetings, rules to follow, special-needs school matters to hammer out and attend to. Not to mention, your emotional health can take hits as you try to be an anchor for a child in his/her trauma behaviors. You also experience your own grief and sense of loss whenever a child leaves. There is no shame in saying no when you’re in need of a break.

3. The situation won’t be best for the child. The best case for a foster child is to be in an environment where they can be safe, loved, and well cared for. There may be times where you want to be open to receiving a child, but then you hear about his/her trauma, behaviors, needs etc., and you realize that your level of training, experience, and availability will not produce the best environment for the child. You say no in the hope that the child can receive the love and care they truly need.

These are a few examples. If you’ve been involved in foster care, what are some reasons that you’ve had to say no to a placement?

Reunification Day (Foster Care in 5-7-5)

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Families are meant to be together. That is the underlying purpose of foster care. Now, that might sound odd. Foster care, after all, usually involves removing a child or children from their home and placing them in another home. The thing is, though, if everything goes well, then the removal and placement is meant to only be temporary.

Reunification is a key word of the fostering world. That is the primary aim and goal of most cases. Often, when a child is removed from his/her home it is because the state, based upon certain guidelines, has deemed the environment unsafe. This could be do to abuse, neglect, severe uncleanliness, or a combination of things. The caseworker becomes not only the worker for the child but for the family (at least in the way things tend to operate in our state).

The worker then tries to provide resources and avenues for the parent(s) to get help and support with the aim of making changes, creating a safe environment, and receiving the child(ren) back.

But as foster parents, if we’re being honest, when reunification day comes, it is bittersweet. Unless the child has bounced from home to home, often by reunification the child has been in your home months, and sometimes even years. You have built a relationship with them. You have advocated for them. You have provided for their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. Even with the understanding of temporary, you have been a parent to them. You have grown to love the child as if he/she was your own.

You know reunification is the goal. You watch the happy smiles and warm embraces of parent and child, and you do so with a smile of your own. This is how it is meant to be–families together. Yet, as that child climbs into the car to drive off with mom or dad, a piece of your heart drives away.

It hurts. Often, you cry.

Sometimes, the parent will continue a relationship with you, you’ll get updates, and even get to spend time with the children. It is awesome when they continue to be a part of your life. Sometimes, though, the parent doesn’t, and the truth is they’re under no obligation to. It hurts, but you learn to accept it.

There is pain and there is joy. It is a mixed reality.

But then, you do it again, willfully putting your heart on the line, because you know there are children out there in need of a momentary place to stay until their families can be made whole once more.

Always Prepared (Foster Care in 5-7-5)

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Foster care is serious work. You become momentary parents to children who have suffered various degrees of trauma. They have been neglected or abused or have suffered loss in some manner. As a foster parent, you see the impact of such trauma on the day-to-day lives of the children in your care. It is serious work but there are plenty of light moments as well. Kids are kids.

That means, especially with younger children, you have to be prepared for anything to come out of their mouths.

We had a placement, a brother and sister both under the age of five. My wife was working late, so I gathered the kids and we went to eat at a local pizza place. As we sat waiting for the pizza to arrive, a group of older ladies entered the restaurant. One of them did as older ladies often do–paused, leaned down toward the little girl in her high chair, and said, “What a cute baby!”

I grinned and the ladies were about to move on when the boy, sitting across from me, pointed at me and loudly yelled, “That’s not our dad!”

The ladies’ smiles faded into a look of concern and I received a stare down. Since I didn’t know them, it wasn’t their business that the children were in foster care, so I just kept grinning until they finally moved on. The good thing is nothing came from it. I had visions of some authority figure approaching me to ask why I was with children who were yelling they weren’t mine.

Which leads to this: Always carry a copy of your placement letter. You know, just in case…

By the way, once the ladies left our table, I leaned across and whispered to the boy, “You and I both know that I’m not your dad, though I am your foster dad. However, you don’t have to go around saying that to everyone.”

Innocent gaze. “Why?”

“Because… Just don’t do it, okay?”

The Clothes on Their Backs (Foster Care in 5-7-5)

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When you receive the call that a caseworker is on her way with a child, you never know what to expect. We have had children come with literally nothing more than the clothes they’re wearing. We’ve had children come with a few clothes, toys, and trinkets shoved hastily into trash bags. We’ve also had children come with a bag filled with toys, but nothing even as basic as underwear.

Often, a new placement is followed quickly by a run to the store to get whatever basic items we need. We have some tubs of clothes and toys, some that other children in our home have worn and outgrew, and some that have been donated to us by generous people along the way. Yet, it is rare that we still don’t need something that qualifies as the bare necessities.

You learn this reality quickly. However, if you’re new to foster care, be prepared that you’re probably under-prepared.

If you aren’t a foster parent but would like to help foster parents, this is always a good place to start. In our state, we are able to turn in store receipts up to a certain amount for clothing reimbursement for children. I’ve heard other states offer clothing stipends. However, it rarely goes as far as needed. So, ask a foster parent if they need help with clothing. Offer donations of clothes you might have that would fit. Or offer a gift card. Often anything will help.

And even if a foster family doesn’t have a need in the moment, knowing you’re thinking about them is always a blessing.

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Anxiety (Foster Care in 5-7-5)

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We all feel anxious from time to time. As adults, if we are able to properly regulate our emotions, anxiety doesn’t last long and we continue with life as normal. Children tend to have a harder time with anxiety and with being able to communicate their anxiety.

It has happened with multiple children in our care: Everyone is in bed, asleep. Then we are stirred by a rapping of knuckles on our bedroom door. We answer and are met with a sad face and the words, “My tummy hurts.” It’s one of the ways children process anxiety. Usually the situation is momentarily remedied by a Tums, a hug, and tucking the child back into bed. Until it occurs again the next night.

The good news is, at least in our experience, that given time this passes. The child becomes use to us and our home. We better learn their personalities–the things that make them happy and the things that trigger their trauma memory. We are able to better end the day on positive notes and the tummy aches disappear.

We have also found other things have helped: Nightlights (regardless of age), reading to the children at bedtime and saying a goodnight prayer with them, or finding a favorite toy or stuffed animal they can keep in bed or close at hand. We also learned that different situations can cause anxiety and then anticipate it better.

If you are a foster parent or have children who struggle with anxiety, what are some things you have learned that help your children face their worries and fears? Comment below and let us know!

My Story (foster care awareness month)

May is Foster Care Awareness Month. Let me take a moment to share my story…

When I was still single, I would think: What will family be like when I’m married? I wanted children, that was a given. The older I grew, I began to have the thought that adoption should be a part of that.

My wife and I married at an older age than average (our mid-30s). When we were engaged, we talked about what we imagined our family would be like. We both agreed that we wanted biological children, but then she brought up that she wanted to adopt. When she asked me my thoughts on that my response was a simple, “Okay.”

She said later that she thought she was going to have to have a longer conversation with me about that, wondering how open I was going to be to the idea, and instead I answered with that simple okay without hesitation.

It was settled, then. We would try to have biological children and we would also pursue adoption.

When thinking about the options, we decided to go the route of adopting from the foster system. Part of this came from her experience as members of her family were involved in fostering and fostering to adopt. We signed up for training and began the process as an “adoption only” family.

But then something changed.

In the course of training, we became more aware of the need. Every day the state has to intervene in the lives of children because, for various reasons, their home is not at present a safe place to be. These children need families to welcome them in for a season, providing a safe and loving home, while the state works with their parents and creates a plan to return the children home. If not enough foster homes are available, then either children get left in unsafe environments or they get placed in residential facilities where their needs will be cared for but that intimate sense of family is lacking. (I used to work in such a facility. As much as we tried to give it a family-like feel, it is not the same.)

Having our eyes opened to the need, we both decided that even though we still had the desire to adopt, we also wanted to be involved in a way where we would take care of children for a season until they could go back home.

To date, we’ve been fostering for over two years. Along the way, we have welcomed a biological son and have not yet been involved in a situation where adoption was the goal. We have had seven children across four placements, with a fifth placement soon to come. Of our four placements, two have reunified with parents, one moved out of state with family, and one moved to a different foster home.

Why do we open our home to children who will only be with us for a season? Why do we risk the pain of saying goodbye again and again to children who have spent significant time living with us?

It’s simple: A need exists and God calls us to love others by meeting the needs that we can. And of children, God tells us: “Pure and undefiled religion is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” (James 1:27 CSB).

No, most children in foster care are not orphans in the classical sense of the word. But they are children in need of a temporary home until they can return to their permanent home.

When my wife was pregnant with our son, we were asked the question on more than one occasion: “Are you still going to foster?” Our answer, without hesitation, was yes. This is our present mission. This is how we serve. We don’t know how long God will lead us to keep doing foster care, but we have no plans to stop in the foreseeable future.

If you’d like more information on foster care, becoming a foster parent, or helping those who are, please contact your local Children’s Division office or reach out to me. I’d love to see more people doing what we do.

Image credit: Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

A Letter to My Son about Being a Foster Brother

Dear H,

I joke sometimes: I don’t know if he’s our first child or our sixth. You see, before you existed your mom and I decided that we wanted to be foster parents. We want to provide a safe and loving home for children in need for a season until it’s safe for them to return to their own home. Before you were born, we were foster parents to five other children; and we plan to be again.

This means that as you grow up, there will be other kids who come and go. Some may be with us for a short time, some for a long time, and some, if the need arises, might become permanent members of our family–adopted brothers or sisters.

The thing about being a foster parent is that you get attached, even though the children aren’t technically yours. But they live with you and you provide for them. You read them stories at night, give them hugs when they need it, and help them with homework. As a foster parent, you walk that fine line of loving a child unconditionally who needs your love while knowing that, if things work as they should, they will one day leave your home to return to theirs.

So, in a way, though they are not biologically related to you and there’s no guarantee you’ll meet them in person, you have had five brothers and sisters in your life before you, even though at the moment you are an only child.

That might confuse you, but that’s okay. Being a foster family brings whole new layers to this thing called family.

But as you grow and as other children come and go there are some things that I hope you learn and discover by being a foster brother.

I hope you learn to value people as people. The children who are in foster care are there through no fault of their own. Their parents, or others who have raised them, often love their children deeply but have, at times, let other things get in the way of expressing that love in safe and appropriate ways. Each person involved is an individual living in a world that is not the way it should be. Our place is to play our part in helping to correct that brokenness.

It doesn’t matter the situation or who the people are, they need someone to show them love, to value them as a fellow human being, and to seek their best. Yes, that means on our end feeling the sting of loss when reunification happens, but we do it because people matter and families matter.

I hope you grow to have deep love and compassion for others. I won’t pretend there aren’t personal benefits and happy emotions that come from getting to be a “dad-for-a-season” to others. I gain from our work in foster care. However, at the core, fostering is not about what we gain but what we give.

To do things right, you have to grow in love and compassion. When children come into your home, there’s hurt and confusion. Depending on their life situation, they may need years of professional help to untangle the web of hurts and emotions. They sometimes don’t know how to love or be loved in healthy ways. Yet, such love is the very thing their young hearts need.

It’s easy to be cynical in this world but the world needs more love. Opening our hearts and homes to children in need expands that love in us and I hope it does in you as well.

I hope you learn to live in faith and not fear. Not every situation is good. Hurt people hurt others, the saying goes; and sometimes people who have been severely hurt and traumatized can hurt themselves and others in ways beyond words and emotions. In this, there is a sense of danger to foster care. We’ve heard stories and we have some ourselves.

It would be easy to let fear win and say, “We have a child of our own, now, we don’t want to take the risk.” But there would still be children in need of a safe and loving home.

We didn’t become foster parents off a whim or because we thought it sounded fun. We did it, because we saw a need, and we felt God lead us to meet that need. Sometimes people say that being in the center of God’s will is the safest place you can be. I guess there’s times that’s true, but sometimes being in the center of God’s will is the most dangerous place you can be.

There are peaceful pastures and there are valleys of the shadow of death. That’s life. But believing that God has led us to be foster parents, we trust that he will be with us through the ups and downs, the joys and the hurts. Faith over fear, that is how we want to live, and that’s how I hope you learn to live as well.

So, H, whether your our first child or our sixth, you won’t be our last even if you end up being our only. Like I said, it’s confusing at times, but it has been worth it being foster parents and I hope you will say the same being a foster brother.

Love,

Dad

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Why we choose to work in an imperfect system

People talk about the foster care system being “broken.” Some use this as a reason to not get involved or to walk away after having been involved.

There are times that it can be frustrating. We foster through the state, and, in general, we have had a good experience, especially within our circuit where we work with people we have built relationships with. Once, though, we took a placement from a different county/circuit and we beat our heads against the wall trying to get one of the kids the help they needed.

Frustrating as it was, I don’t like to use the word “broken” when it comes to the foster system. Instead, let’s call it imperfect. There are things that need improved, but there are also many good things. That’s life when you have people, who genuinely care about children, their families, and our families, having to work under the guidance of politicians in state capitols.

Even though the system is imperfect and frustrating at times, we choose to work within it for one main reason: There will always be children in need of a safe and loving home.

The system is imperfect and the world is imperfect. If the latter were not the case, there would be no need for the “system” to exist. Yet, people make bad choices. Life throws curve balls and we don’t always know how to react. People get caught in cycles of neglect and abuse and struggle to break free. And many times children are involved, hurting and confused.

If we stepped away because the system is imperfect, certain things are frustrating, or some decisions leave us scratching our heads, then that would mean one less home for children to find safety and love until they can return to parents (etc.) who have learned to provide safety and love afresh and in healthier ways.

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