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The First Day Of A Foster Placement

So much about the foster parenting training focuses on how to get licensed, what behaviors to expect, how the case plan works, etc. But rarely does anybody tell you what to do that first day, when a child magically appears on your doorstep. What to say, what to expect, how to act. It obviously depends on the age of the child.

For the purpose of this post, let’s assume that the child is a 6 year old girl and this is her first time in foster care. What do you do?

Introduce yourself. It seems so basic, but it’s important. Bend down to her level and introduce yourself with a quiet voice and a smile. Give her a choice of what she wants to call you. You should have already encountered this in your prep classes, deciding what you are comfortable being called. My older foster children always called me Miss Delia or Mama Dee. I never ever asked a child to call me Mrs. James. It’s so impersonal and I just didn’t like it.

Hands to yourself. Until you know the extent of what she has suffered or seen, hands off. They may come to your home and immediately crawl up in your lap for a hug or they may be so scared of physical interactions that a simple touch will send them into a panic. All physical contact should be first initiated by the child.

Ask basic questions. After the introductions are done, ask if she is hungry, thirsty, or needs to use the restroom. This lets her know that you will be meeting their basic needs. It lays the foundation for trust.

Take a Tour. Give her a tour of the house. Show her where the toys are kept, where the TV is, how to get to the bathroom. Show her to her room and show her where to find you if she needs you. Make sure to show her where she can put her clothes and her belongings. Make sure she knows that her belongings will not be taken by other members in the house.

Answer questions honestly. She probably has a lot of uncertainty right now. How long will she be here? When will she see her mom again? Where are her siblings? Always answer her questions honestly, age appropriately and clearly. It is better to answer with ‘I don’t know‘ than to lie and cause her to lose trust in you.

Be clear about house rules. I always recommend having house rules that are simple, direct and consistent. Make sure that everyone in the house is expected to follow the same rules. I always went over the house rules that very first day. Ours were very simple: We keep our hands to ourselves, we are responsible for our own things, we clean up our own messes. There’s no need to have a printed hand out with 36 family rules on the very first day. There will be time enough in a few days to go over the fine details of the expectations in your home, after she has settled in your house and the shock has worn off.

Give the child space. Don’t plan a huge family outing or a party to celebrate their arrival. Remember that while you are excited to have her in your home, this is traumatic for her. Let her ease into her place in the house. Encourage relatives to wait a week or so before stopping by to meet her. Be sensitive to her grief for her birth family, don’t talk badly about them or about her case when she can overhear.

Things To Think About As A New Foster Parent

There are two things I want to talk about in this post. Things you need to understand before accepting your first placement and what you can do before your first placement call to make things a little easier on everyone.

Things you need to understand before accepting your first placement:

1. Understand that young children who have been sexually abused are very likely to act out the abuse on other children in the home. They require vigilant monitoring, regardless of what CPS tells you.

2. Understand that older children who are angry at the world do make false allegations against foster parents, which results in an investigation and depending on your county- your children may be separated from you until the investigation is completed.

3. Understand that no matter what you do, how hard you work or how good your intentions may be- it is a thankless job. Your reward will be the tentative trust on a child’s face, the smile when you tuck them in bed, and the hugs that they share with you. If that is not enough, you should rethink your desire to foster.

4. Understand that the system, for the most part, while designed to protect the children’s rights sometimes does a poor job of it. You will have no say and you will have no rights to decide the future of your foster children. Your opinion will not be asked, nor will it be welcomed with regards to case decisions. Period.

Things to do before your first placement:

1. The most important thing you can do is make a decision about what you can realistically handle in your home. Do you have young children? If so, you need to be honest with yourself about the types of behaviors that you will be able to deal with from a foster child.

2. For homes with young children, my agency really tried to encourage new foster families to only accept placements of foster children younger than their own children. It’s a much easier way to dive into the world of foster parenting. It’s easier to know what behaviors are age appropriate and what behaviors require intervention when you have already parented a child of that age and are familiar with that stage of development. Later, after you get your feet wet in the world of foster parenting, you can broaden your comfort level.

3. It can be overwhelming trying to decide how to set your parameters for placements. I would advise you to first decide on your age range. Let’s say you choose 0-5 years old. Some counties allow you to decide if you will accept a certain sex or race. My county would allow you to specify a certain sex if there were bedroom limitations but you could not specify a particular race. Once you’ve made those decisions, it’s time to think about the needs that a child may have. A newborn in the midst of drug withdrawals is probably not the ideal placement for someone who works full time. A 7 year old who acts out sexually is probably not a good fit for a family with 3 young children under age 5. It’s all about knowing your limits. As you get further into your fostering career, you’ll be able to broaden your limitations.

4. It’s always a good idea to have boundaries in place before you start receiving placement calls. It’s so tempting as a new foster parent to just say yes to the very first call that comes in. You need to make sure the child is a good fit for your family. It’s not fair to have a child removed two weeks later because you didn’t fully think the placement through before accepting. Be prepared to ask questions when you are called for a placement.

How Foster Parenting Changed Me

I saw two separate incidents this past week that made me reflect on how being a foster parent has changed me. I mean, fundamentally changed how I make decisions, how I parent my children, and how I perceive the world. I thought about the old me, the person I used to be before I entered the world of foster parenting. I miss that person.

The first incident took place at Maia‘s preschool. There’s a mom who has a 4 year old in Maia‘s class and a new baby who is around 2 months old. She routinely leaves the baby strapped in the car seat in the car while she walks her child to the door of the preschool. Now the car is never out of her sight, she’s never more than 10 feet away from the car and she does not enter the building. The baby is perfectly safe. Still I could never do that. The old me, would have. And would have without a second thought. I wouldn’t have known how easily someone could call in a CPS report on me for that. I wouldn’t have known how that one decision could change our lives forever.

The second incident happened to our neighbor. Her little girl is 20 months old. She fell outside while helping her dad in the yard. She has a large bruise on the side of her face and a busted lip. Her mom scooped her up and took her straight to the ER. She didn’t have to stop and think about how this injury could be perceived by doctors who didn’t know them. She didn’t have to worry that her story wouldn’t be believed. She just assumed that it would. I would have freaked. I would have waited and watched to see if an ER trip was truly necessary before I took the risk. I also would have gone to our pediatrician first for documentation. Any injuries to the face are suspect in the world of CPS. All it takes is one overzealous resident to call in a report about suspected abuse.

I wish that these were not the first things to go through my mind. I wish that I was naive as to the dangers. But I’m not. When we moved across the state a few years ago, I refused to find a new pediatrician. Flat out refused. Our pediatrician is fabulous. He has proven to be a very steady advocate for our family. He has been our children’s primary physician since Ty was only a few months old. I cannot fathom starting over again to build that trust with another doctor. We had a false allegation against our family awhile back, called in by a supposed friend of the family who was angry with me. Our pediatrician came out to our house, on a Saturday, to deal with the CPS investigator to make sure that she knew it was a false allegation. I consider him to be family.

I think back to the old me and marvel at how innocent and naive I was back then. When a bruise was just a bruise. When a knock on the door on a Saturday didn’t give me flashbacks. When I didn’t have to second guess every decision.

The good old days.

How To Ruin A Perfectly Good Marriage Through Foster Parenting

A foster parent friend of mine posted this a long time ago and I had to laugh because it’s so true. She originally found the article written by Carrie Craft. Truthfully though, these pitfalls will destroy any marriage whether you foster parent or not!

10 Ways To Ruin A Good Marriage Through Foster Parenting

1. Neglect your marriage. Stay away from things like date nights – NEVER have couple time. Allow foster care to become your whole world with room for nothing else.

2. Allow the child to manipulate and triangulate. Playing you against your spouse is a great game! Fall into conversations with openers like, “Boy, Dad said you wouldn’t let me go with my friends, but he would.” or “When Mom is with us all day she lets us play the game system for three hours at a time.”

3. Argue in front of the kids. This way the kids will know that you’re stressed and wearing down.

4. Ignore your own needs. Don’t go out for lunch with friends, enjoy your hobby, or take a long bubble bath. This will keep you good and cranky.

5. Take all of the child’s behaviors personally. Then take the stress and frustration out on your spouse and family.

6. Disagree with your spouse on discipline in front of the children. This shows a further division between you two.

7. Choose to be resentful of the situation. Don’t communicate your needs and feelings to your spouse in a healthy manner.

8. When things get really bad, don’t seek out help from professionals or clergy. Keep it all bottled up inside, deep, deep inside.

9. Isolate yourself and refuse to talk about things. Don’t vent to friends, allow feelings to build, thus causing you to explode.

10. Convince yourself that respite isn’t necessary. You are a rock! You can handle anything! You don’t need a break!

Viola, Divorce Court here you come!

Stages Of Foster Parent Grief: A Parody

The following is an excerpt from an actual training seminar that all of the foster parents in our county were forced into attending. It was published in a foster parenting newsletter a few years later and it struck me how different my opinions were the second time I saw it.

The Stages of Grief & Appropriate Reactions:

Stage 1: Denial
What you might see: May take the form of foster parent suddenly wanting to adopt child.
Appropriate Reaction: Reinforce the plan of action with the foster parents, take care not to use ambivalent language or appear to be “on their side” as it can cause confusion.

Stage 2: Despair
What you might see: Takes form of inability to cooperate, i.e., argue about placement visiting schedule.
Appropriate Reaction: Social workers and members of the team should call the foster parent to offer loving concern.

Stage 3: Anger
What you might see: Takes form of complaining calls to supervisor.
Appropriate Reaction: Accept the fact of anger as a legitimate feeling, so that in order to express anger the foster parent doesn’t have to find artificial causes for the anger. This misplaced anger often falls on the agency or individual workers and causes hurt feelings and misunderstandings.

Stage 4: Mourning
What you might see: Can result in tears and inability to cope.

Appropriate Reaction: Allow a time to grieve–agency sends “condolence note” in the form of a warm “thank you” note.

Stage 5: Guilt
What you might see: Conflicting emotions because foster parent is not as happy with the outcome of the case as the other members of the team.
Appropriate Reaction: Reassurance that their feelings are normal and a sign of how much love they have to give.

Stage 6: Acceptance
What you mights see: Takes form of foster parent asking for another child.
Appropriate Reaction: Allow time for healing. This stage is eased by knowing that the adoptive parents will allow their new child his or her memories in a Lifebook. Foster parents should never, on their own, initiate an ongoing relationship.

The whole thing just strikes me as condescending. As if foster parents are children who need to be talked down to and placated. So I’ve come up with a real life version of the Stages of Grief and the Agency’s reactions. Notice I did not say Appropriate reactions.

Stage 1: Denial
Why the foster parent feels this way: Foster parent can’t imagine any moron sending a child home to such an unstable situation.
Agency Response: All of a sudden the social worker is too busy to return foster parents phone calls and all communication is cut off.

Stage 2: Despair
Why the foster parent feels this way: Foster parent realizes that the social worker just doesn’t get it, the child is just a case number.
Agency Response: Talk down to the foster parent as if stupid, then social worker shuts foster parent out of any and all meetings and conversations concerning child by claiming foster parent is too “emotional” to participate.

Stage 3: Anger
Why the foster parent feels this way: Foster parent sees the system for what it is- and realizes that nothing ever changes. The parents have more rights than the children they abuse and neglect.
Agency Response: Threats of pulling license and removing children immediately if foster parent doesn’t “fall into line” and accept the plan.

Stage 4: Mourning
Why the foster parent feels this way: Foster parent knows that the child they have cared for and loved is going back to a bad home and they don’t have any say in the decision.
Agency Response: Down play foster parents emotions with comments such as “this isn’t your child anyway” or “you don’t have a reason to be upset”.

Stage 5: Guilt
Why the foster parent feels this way: Foster parent knows that they have no recourse to protect the child from the agency’s decision.
Agency Response: Ignore, ignore, ignore and hope the foster parent goes away quietly.

Stage 6: Acceptance
Why the foster parent feels this way: Foster parent finally realizes that the system is screwed up and they don’t count. They are just the babysitters.
Agency Response: Pat foster parent on the head like a child and send them another kid to make sure they “forget” the last one.

And that ladies and gents, is the real world Stages of Grief and Agency Responses in the foster care system. And they wonder why we start out so shiny and new only to become all cynical and jaded after a year?