OK, I'm going to break away from the usual geekery for today's post. Not too long ago, Cracked.com had an article up about the most insane things about being a foster child, which was all told from the perspective of one foster child who apparently went through just about every bad thing a foster child could go through, with the exception of sexual assault. To be honest, as I read through this, while I sympathized with the plight of this person, I also found myself feeling angrier and angrier while also becoming more and more doubtful about the accuracy of the article.
Yes, in rare occasions, a person or couple becomes a foster parent that shouldn't have become one, and they do terrible things. Eventually, this comes out, and we see the story splashed all over the newspapers, TV news, and the internet, and everyone who reads or sees these stories think how terrible this situation is. And I don't want to take away from how horrible that sort of thing is, but let's face it, the news is about what doesn't happen every single day... it's about what doesn't happen often. As the old saying goes, dog bites man isn't news, but man bites dog is (that's a paraphrase, naturally).
What you never seem to hear about is what being a foster parent is really like. There are a lot of loving, generous foster families out there, and they don't get the credit they deserve for dealing with a lot of situations that most people can't even fathom. When people learn I'm a foster parent, they usually have two reactions: the rarest is when they tell me about the story they "just heard about" (that was probably from months before) about a terrible foster family; but more often, I get congratulated for doing it, and always, always, they say how they couldn't do it because they couldn't say goodbye to these kids when they leave.
Honestly, most people have no idea at all what foster parents deal with, and I decided that since I have this forum, I'm going to write about it. So here's the most unsettling things about being a foster parent!
1. There is a Long Process to Becoming a Foster Parent
If I recall correctly, from the time we began the process to when we finally got our foster parenting license, it was about six or seven months. There was paperwork galore, training sessions that lasted seven hours each over four sessions, background and fingerprint checks, first aid certification, visits to our home, and other things. Our house had to be inspected and pass a checklist of safety items that included having a properly-inspected fire extinguisher, emergency escape ladders, locked-up medicine cabinets, and so forth. You would think that this extensive process would keep people from slipping through the cracks that shouldn't become foster parents, but even the best precautions can't foresee every eventuality, obviously.
Even once we had done everything we had to do, there was still a long wait before we actually received our license. It wouldn't surprise me if some potentially great foster parents ended up losing patience with the process and gave up (especially if they saw some of the other applicants and the questions they'd ask that indicated they weren't doing it for the right reasons).
2. The Wait For the First Call is a Long One
Here's one of the more bizarre aspects of being a newly-licensed foster parent. You've gone through the whole process and got your license, your home is ready for the arrival of a new child or children, bedrooms are all prepared... and then you're just waiting for that first call. And waiting. And waiting.
Despite the fact that every single state has a shortage of foster parents for the children they have, you will still be waiting for that first call that there's a child who needs you. What makes this even stranger is that in our experience (and in the experience of several other foster parents we've talked to), as you're nearing the completion of the licensing process, you'll be told about several children the licensor thinks would be a good fit for your home... and then you'll never hear anything about those kids again. You won't know why they didn't call about them, or where they are.
3. The First Call Will Usually be a Surprise and an Emergency
This actually is the case for a lot of calls about placements. When we were licensed, we were told about a little boy (who we eventually adopted, and is our son Tristan) who was going to have to be moved to a new home, but while we were waiting for the call that it was time to move him, we got another call about a one-year-old boy who needed immediate placement, and was currently in the hospital wearing nothing but diapers, because all his clothes and other belongings were apparently exposed to drugs. My wife immediately went to the hospital to pick him up, and we had to go and get things specifically for this boy that we didn't have (you can't stock up on clothes and toys for every age and gender, obviously). As it turned out, less than a week after this boy was placed with us, Tristan got moved in with us, too, so we went from zero to two children in less than a week.
4. You Really Don't Know Anything About a Child Placed With You
Caseworkers are always unprepared with information about a new placement. About all you ever really know for sure is the child's name (and sometimes that's not even correct) and the circumstances that are putting them in foster care. There are times when they give you other information that turns out to be completely wrong (if you're a foster parent who's looking to adopt, they'll almost always tell you that they believe this child will be adoptable, no matter what). You will never know anything about the child's medical history, or family medical history for that matter, and you won't know about any behavioral issues they might have.
For example, the boy who's now our nephew, Steve, was placed with his sister in our care with no information at all that he had asthma, and was supposed to be using an inhaler or other medication. We found out this when he was having trouble breathing, and took him to the emergency room, where a nurse recognized him and asked where his inhaler was.
Another example: When our daughter, Desiree, was placed with us, her name was Desea, and nobody knew how to pronounce it at all. We heard several different pronunciations, none of which she responded to, so we started calling her Desi. Later, we found out that her birth mother intended her name to be "Deja," but didn't know how it was supposed to be spelled.
5. Most Biological Parents Are Terrible, Terrible Parents
The reality is that most children placed in foster care are in foster care because their bio parents have gotten way too much into drug use, and it seems that meth is on the top of that list. At least, that's been our experience, anyway. Yes, there are children who are in the system due to neglect or abuse, but drugs are almost always involved somewhere. Since drugs are more important to these people than their kids, they don't do even the most basic parenting. Children are still using baby bottles who should at least be using sippy cups, some are kept strapped into carseats when they don't want to deal with them, others don't have any kind of routine in their lives and go to bed when they fall asleep where they happen to be (and aren't always brought to bed, sometimes they're just allowed to sleep where they're sleeping). These parents have no idea what foods their children should be eating or what they should be drinking (one parent of a three-year-old we had in our care kept giving him Gatorade to drink when he'd have a visit -- Gatorade for a three-year-old?!?), and think that Sunny Delight is the same as juice.
6. Visits With the Bio Parents Usually Means Problems
It really amazes me how generous the judges can be when granting visits with the biological parents. The baby we currently have immediately got visits with her mother five days a week, and often would be picked up late and returned early (assuming the visits didn't get cancelled at the last minute). All too often, the baby goes to a visit wearing a very nice outfit we purchased for her, and would come back wearing an outfit that was clearly used, and probably made available for free. Now, we don't have a problem with getting used clothing for children at all (heck, we buy used clothing for ourselves a lot of the time), but it often made us wonder why these nice outfits would disappear and crappy outfits would come to us, and we'd never see the nice outfits again. Often, the child would outgrow them before they're reunited with the bio parents, so it's not like they got any use out of them. For all we know, they were taking the nice clothes and selling them or trading them for other things.
Another issue with visits is that we never know what's going on with them. Sometimes these visits are strictly supervised (and the stories we've heard about these visits makes us frustrated, because they'll observe and only correct things that could potentially cause harm, but never point out that they're trying to feed their child foods that aren't good for them), and sometimes they are completely unsupervised, and these bio parents can take their kid wherever they want. Honestly, if they wanted to, they could just disappear off the grid entirely with the kid and we'd never know what happened.
A lot of the time, despite these bio parents having no visible source of income, they're taking their children out to eat and buying them things like toys or balloons or other things like that, and not actually spending time with the child, interacting with them. If the child is at an age when they should be taking a nap, they aren't allowed to nap (especially if they've got the kid hopped up on sodas or other drinks with caffeine). They often come back from the visit tired and irritable, and then the foster parents have to deal with these moods that evening, especially around bedtime.
7. Most Foster Kids Have Delays in Multiple Areas
Thanks to the bad parenting of the bio-parents, most foster children are developmentally delayed in one or more areas, putting them behind other children their age. Usually these are areas like speech and hand-eye coordination, but there can be other areas as well. As foster parents, we have to work with these kids and try to get them caught up, no matter what it takes. If we're lucky, we can handle things ourselves, but in some cases, these children have to be brought to specialists. We have to work quickly, too, because we rarely know how long these kids will be with us, and if they're not caught up by the time they're reunited, chances are they'll fall back into old habits again. What makes things even more disturbing than this is that there are kids who get reunited with their bio-parents after the foster parents have gotten them caught up with their peers, and then the bio parent screws up again, the kids are back in foster care, and they're just as bad off as they were before.
8. You Discover Things About the Foster Kids That Nobody Noticed Before
There's probably not a single foster parent we know who's ended up being the first to notice a medical or behavioral problem with a child placed in their care. Sometimes it takes time to realize there's a problem because of the delays mentioned above. We've had two children in our care so far who seemed to have problems with their speech, and it turned out in both cases that they had hearing problems that required surgery to correct. These kids were speaking as clearly as they could, but they were speaking the same way they were hearing.
Even after we discovered this hearing problem, and brought them to a specialist to be diagnosed and treatment planned, because there was surgery involved, we had to wait for a judge to sign off on the surgery before it could proceed, and this can take a month or longer to happen if the caseworker doesn't push the case.
9. Caseworkers Are Overwhelmed With Cases, and Don't Always Get Back to You When There Are Problems
The sad fact of the matter is, the budget for foster care in each state is not nearly high enough. The states can't hire enough caseworkers to manage a fair amount of cases, and the caseworkers get overwhelmed. There are a lot of kids to keep track of, and a lot of phone calls to answer and return, plus there's time spent in family court almost every single week. This is probably the biggest contributing factor to the abusive foster homes, is that the caseworkers don't have the time to visit or follow up with every single child often enough, and they miss opportunities to catch these things before they get really bad.
There are times when a child in our care has had their caseworker changed multiple times, and sometimes we wouldn't know it until we called with an issue, only to find that the caseworker we had has decided to leave their job, and someone else is handling the case.
To be sure, there are some awesome caseworkers who probably spend a lot of what should be their personal time making sure their workload is properly handled, and kudos to them (we've been lucky enough to have a few of those). Unfortunately, there are a lot of caseworkers who just drop the ball because they can't keep track of everything.
10. There Will Be Allegations Against You, No Matter What You Do
No matter how good a foster parent you are, no matter what your record, sooner or later, an allegation will be made against you, and usually it will come from the bio parents. Any allegation of abuse, no matter how ridiculous, has to be investigated. You will get a call out of the blue from the investigating officer with some preliminary questions, and then they will show up without any notice to ask you about these allegations. We've been investigated twice ourselves, and just about every other foster parent we know has also been the subject of an investigation. Every single one of these has been unfounded, naturally.
One of the problems with this part of the system is that it's easy to get a young child of three or four to say anything you want them to say, because they don't know enough to tell when they're being lead on to give a particular answer. Ask any child a yes or no question, no matter how ridiculous, and often they'll respond "yes." We had a three year old with us for a long time, and when I'd pick him up after a visit, I'd ask him what he did with his dad. Usually, I had to prompt him to get any answer at all, like asking if they had lunch together. Since every answer was "yes," I started asking him more bizarre questions, like did he and his dad go riding on dragons... and the answer was always "yes." So I can well imagine that a bio parent could be on a visit with their kid, and ask, "Does your foster family make you go without dinner?" and they'll say "yes," because they don't even understand the question.
The bio parents can be real jerks about this. For some reason, they seem to think that it's the foster parents' fault they don't have their kid, and not their own fault. They can take out their anger on us, because we can't really do anything about it (if they take out their anger on the caseworker or judges, they'll see some consequences that will hurt them). We are targets, and we have to live with this.
One defense we do have is making sure that preschool children get put in daycare, because that gives us not only a buffer between ourselves and the bio parents (reducing contact with them), but they also work as witnesses. If the bio parent claims that there were marks on their child that the daycare didn't see, they can testify that those marks weren't there before.
11. Bio Parents Will Jerk You Around in Other Ways, Too
We have had kids who had their visits cancelled at the last minute, including planned overnight visits. Now, a lot of us have families of our own, and we will make plans based on information we have. If the baby is supposed to have an overnight visit on one night, our plans will be made based on that... and then when the visit gets cancelled at the last minute, now we have to fit picking up the baby from daycare into our schedule.
As I said above, sometimes visits start late or end early, or end late. The baby we have used to be picked up from our home, but because pick up and drop offs ended up being inconsistent, or complaints were made from the bio parent, we had to enroll her in daycare (fortunately, the state will pay for this). Still, when the baby's supposed to be returned to the daycare by five pm, but isn't there until 5:45, sometimes I end up sitting in the van outside the daycare waiting for the baby's return.
This same bio parent of this baby has also complained that the baby was "covered in hives" or had other problems of a medical nature, and when that happens, we have to take the baby to the doctor, no matter what. This has happened twice, and when the doctor saw her, they said there was nothing wrong with her at all, and berated us for bringing a healthy child in to be seen when other children could've been seen at that time who needed medical attention. We can't just use our own judgement here, unfortunately.
We've also had other items disappear during visits... toys, binkys, shoes, and more go away and don't come back. Now, please understand that we don't do this for free; we do get a payment from the state each month for the children in our care, but this money is basically enough to help cover the expenses of taking care of a child who isn't ours. Honestly, we spend much more than that on these kids (especially around birthdays and Christmas)! When a child is returned to their bio parent, we will send along favorite toys and enough clothes to get them started, but we also keep some of the clothes we've bought ourselves so that we have something for another child when they come with us. We've also passed along cans of formula, diapers, and other items that are not cheap. So it's not like we're being entirely selfish here. We only ask that a child comes back from a visit with the clothes and items they left with.
12. You Never Know When You Have to Say Goodbye
You would think that, as structured as things are, you'd be able to get some heads up when a child is going to be reunified with their bio parents, but that's rarely the case. A child could be placed with you for what's supposed to be a month, and you'll have them for six months or longer, while another child is supposed to be there for two months, and are back a week later.
Sometimes, we've dropped a child off at daycare, and learned during the day that they were going back to their bio parent that same day, and we never see them again. We've been ambushed like that a few times, and it never gets easier.
With us and other foster parents, a child placed with us becomes a part of our family. We celebrate their birthdays, and include them in all our family activities, including pictures. My kids call them their brother or sister (never "foster" brother or sister), and they call my wife and I Mom and Dad. We love them as much as we love our adopted children, and my extended family treats them as much like family as we do. So it makes it that much harder when a child suddenly is gone, especially when nothing we've seen or heard indicates that the bio parent is really ready to take care of them, and that they're likely to be returned to the system again (and we may not have space to take them back if we have another placement). It's not an easy thing, but you deal with it and move on, and prepare for the next child and their challenges.
There are all kinds of other things I could write about the foster parent experience here, but I suspect that most of you have probably heard enough for now. I didn't talk about the joys of seeing a child blossom and grow, overcoming their challenges and catching up with their peers, or anything positive like that. What sucks the most about all this stuff is that for all the foster parents who deal with this and keep doing the job, there are many foster parents who get so frustrated at all this that they finally just give up, and the kids end up suffering for that. I'd estimate that out of ten families that start the process, probably only eight of them finish getting their license, and of those eight, half of them quit doing it within the first two years, with some more of those quitting within the next five years. For those of us who remain, we often get asked to take extra kids that we may not be licensed for, or children outside the age range we prefer (such as the teenager we have, he's 16, and the only reason we said we'd take him is because he has Type 1 Diabetes, and we are about the only foster parents in the area with experience there). Some days, I think that the next child we get will be the last child we take, and other days, I can't see not being a foster parent.