I seem to have a theme going this week, so I’m going to follow with some more thoughts on foster parenting.
As I was at the hospital today, waiting for an ambulance to take my new little one to a different hospital, yet another person mentioned to me that “most people only foster children for the money.” I know there are people who have taken children in for the money. We even know of a person who milks the system for all she can. But overall, it is very difficult to milk the system and all the other foster parents we know are doing this because they care deeply about the lives of the children. The nature of the media ensures that we read the inflammatory, dramatic stories, so the whole story, the one of the majority of foster parents, is rarely told. In an effort to offer some balance, I’d like to share thirteen of the many things that comprise a foster parents “job”.
1. We accept the children as they are. They usually come to us traumatized, dirty, poorly fed and hungry, worn-out, angry, behaviorally challenged, intellectually challenged, emotionally challenged, without manners, possessing limited vocabularies, and sick. I don’t know that we have ever received a foster care placement (translation: one or more children) that didn’t come with a cold (more often pneumonia) and lice, and often worse.
2. We immediately set about rectifying as many of the children’s obvious problems as we can. We make appointments at the doctors, dentists, optometrists, etc. We then travel totake them to these appointments and follow-up at the specialists, as needed. In our case, travel time is often three to four hours. This is done in the first month of placement, whenever physically possible.
3. We clean them up, wash their limited clothing, and set about seeing that they are properly clothed for the season. We have to make a physical inventory of their possessions and then shop with them. Have any of you ever tried to go shopping with children who absolutely do not look like you, have poor or no manners, and who do not want to be there? When they start screaming that they want their mommy, and you so clearly are not their mommy, people think you are a kidnapper or child-molester. It can be a very trying experience!
4. Have any of you ever had any experience with lice? For some reason, these kids are not checked before they are delivered to us. We’ve learned our lesson (I hope), but in the past, this has been exhausting. You have to clean and clean and clean again. AND, you absolutely must take care that these kids are not traumatized any more than they already have been by the process. Telling a kid they have bugs on their head and everything in the house has to be sterilized, pretty much because of them, can be very demoralizing. We’ve had to be creative in the way we’ve handled their egos throughout the process.
5. We enroll them in school and then work, work, work to help them catch up. We spend hours of individual time with them. When one of us is exhausted and tempted to become impatient, then the other one takes over. We joyously celebrate victories with happy dances and surprises. These are children who have never had anyone take an interest in their schooling, who are usually terribly behind, and who don’t understand the need for homework when they could be out playing. This is not an easy task.
6. We spend many hours of the night comforting and reassuring. Sleep is something we usually do without, at least initially. We have often been awakened by screams in the night. We listen to what we assume are nightmares and then hear from the social workers that, no, that wasn’t a dream at all. It really happened to the child! Or we discover new bits and pieces that help to make sense of what the social worker already has. Because of the fears of child molestation, these kids cannot crawl into your bed to be comforted, although every one of them that could speak has asked to. How would you tell a child they couldn’t snuggle with you so they would be comforted? I have many memories of crawling into my parents bed at night (and often being the last one there!) to be comforted during storms or after a bad dream. Imagine a childhood without the security of your parents to crawl between to protect you from the darkness.
7. When these children arrive they are strangers to us, and us to them. They do not know our routines and have usually come from very chaotic homes. The process of learning to fit themselves in to our lives and routines is not easy and they often don’t understand why it is necessary. Their parents are involved in their lives throughout their stay with us and they will frequently go out of their way to encourage their children not to fit in or be happy in our home. Chaos is what they know, and what they attempt to bring to our home. This can be very disruptive to our families until we gain the trust of the children and begin to understand the basis of their actions and their expectations of life.
8. Having foster children in your home means catering to the system. We fill out paperwork constantly. Our homes are reviewed on a yearly basis and we have to get police checks each time. We are always on the phone or email to somebody’s worker, parents or other foster parents. We have foster care workers, social workers and their supervisors in our homes frequently. They can drop by unannounced or they may notify us in advance. They know everything about us and have seen us both at our best and our worst.
9. As we all know, crises are wont to happen at the most inconvenient times. Holidays and weekends are a stressful time for well-functioning families, so you can imagine the strain it places on families already struggling. So our calls to take children can come in the middle of the night, when you are more likely to forget that you have plans to go to gramma’s for the week and that three additional out-of-control kids might not be a good idea.
10. There are hidden costs to everything. One of the things that has been most surprising to us is the additional water use that comes with foster children. Because of our location, our water is pumped. The pump is electric. In the past, our water has been trucked in. The pump pumps the water from the huge tank to our house. We are very careful about how often we do the laundry, dishes and water the garden. When you are cleaning everything in the house because of lice or vomit, your monthly expenses go up dramatically. Some of the costs are more fun. We are suckers for the kids and go out of our way to get them age appropriate toys and recreational materials. We go way beyond the recommended spending (I think they recommend $25 for Christmas.) We also go beyond the recommendations for clothing. We treat the foster kids the same way we would treat our own kids. We make sure they fit in.
11. One of the ways we discover what some of the children have been through is their behavior, which is often outrageous. Many of these kids survive on a diet of processed food, candy and coke. Their parents have been chronic drug and alcohol users. For the kids, this means they have been exposed to drugs from the womb onward. In addition, they often see and experience frequent violence. As a result, they are out-of-control and need to be taught different ways of behaving. Most foster parents have had to deal with children who have no awareness of the need to be kind and gentle to other people or their pets and belongings. Did you know they have special home owner’s insurance for foster parents because of the destructiveness of foster children?
12. We teach these children about nutrition and change their diets. In our home, we speak frequently of “brain food” and help the kids to understand the importance of feeding our brains. We’ve also had to become educated about diets specific to culture — whether for tradition or physical sensitivity. We have spent many hours learning about food allergies and how they relate to behavior. Then we have dealt with the behavior, and it’s escalation, as we introduce the kids to new and unfamiliar foods that they are completely uninterested in trying.
13. Besides learning about food, we also have to become specialists in many of the physical and emotional challenges of the kids in the system. We spend many hours every year in classes for foster parents. Then, when we have children with specific problems related to culture, abuse or neglect, we spend more time in research so that we can meet the needs of each individual child.
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