Foster parents, I love you. You are my people. It is one of my goals to be a source of encouragement for my fellow fostering families on this road that is so often full of difficulty and discouragement. I have so much love for these special families that have chosen to do a difficult thing and engage in a system that is often broken and frustrating. I see mothers pouring themselves out sacrificially for kids who aren’t their own, fathers advocating for voiceless children, siblings helping new family members to normalize and adjust. It is beautiful and a very vivid illustration of what it looks like to be Jesus in this world.
So it kills me when I see a handful of foster parents hurting the rest of us by handling themselves in less than classy ways. Foster kids have a difficult reputation to fight. Foster parents have it, too. We can be seen as weird, doing it “for the money”, potential abusers, or only interested in severing kids from their rightful families. It’s an uphill battle to fight against the implications of the label “foster parent” for those of us who care about these kids and want to see others join in providing a voice for them. I don’t just want to do right by the kids in my house, but also want to inspire others to take up the cause. As my husband keeps reminding me, I can’t personally take in every child who needs a family so I need you to help, too!
So to help us evaluate what’s hurting the reputation of foster parents, let’s look at 10 ways to do fostering wrong:
Be unkind to your foster kids: The stories of foster children being abused by the very people hired and licensed by the state to keep them safe are rampant. DO NOT be that guy. Go above and beyond to show kindness to children who have been through so much. Even when the kids aren’t kind, the families aren’t kind, the system isn’t kind, YOU be kind. It has to start somewhere.
Root against the bio family: It is easy to get a feeling of righteous anger about families that have put children in harm’s way or who have actively harmed this child now in your care. You may instinctively feel sympathy for that child who became a victim through no fault of their own. I want to encourage you to take those strong feelings and now look at the adult in this situation. What was their upbringing like? Did they have someone lovingly guiding them? So much of abuse and neglect is cyclical and while these adults are obviously making unwise choices, sometimes we need to take a minute and realize that at one point they were scared victims too, and nobody stepped up to help them. Even if they are horrible unloveable people (I haven’t met those people yet in a decade of working with hurting families, but I’m sure they’re out there), keep it to yourself. You do nothing to help your case by being unkind to people in a difficult spot even if it is of their own making.
Complain that they don’t pay you enough to deal with this: Nobody wants to hear about the financial end of foster parenting. It makes you seem like your motivation is financial instead of looking at what’s best for a child. The funny part is that many of us are compensated at a comically low rate. We are not getting rich off of foster parenting, in fact we may not even be breaking even. If you need to discuss your compensation rate, do it with your caseworker or talk with a trusted friend. The general public doesn’t need to hear foster parents talking about their children in terms of their financial impact.
Take kids you aren’t qualified to care for: We’ve all been there—you get a call about a child who is outside of the parameters you’ve set up for your family. They’re too old, too young, have medical needs or educational needs you aren’t prepared to meet. Go ahead and pray about it when you get that call, but remind yourself of why you’ve set up the boundaries you have. Foster parents get themselves in trouble by taking on challenges they aren’t capable of handling and then having a very public meltdown. Either it burns them out and they won’t take more kids, or else they bounce that child to a new placement and emotional damage is done to everybody involved. Don’t bend to unnecessary guilt. And while we’re talking about it- please be thoughtful about how many kids (with their unique needs) you are capable of taking on at any one time. It does seem to be more common that it should that you see a family with a crazy number of kids who seem to be functioning more like a gang or daycare than like a family. There’s nothing wrong with having a big family, just be sure you’re capable of providing the right kind of care for those kids.
Be rude to your caseworkers: Caseworkers are (generally speaking) overworked and underpaid. They are often on-call 24 hours a day, hounded by lawyers, questioned by judges, yelled at by bio families, and overwhelmed by paperwork. Show them some love. If you want this child to get the care and representation they need, remember that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Be good to your caseworkers, but also have good boundaries. Don’t be stepped on and be honest if there are problems, but find a way to do it respectfully and with kindness in your heart.
Have unrealistic expectations: Is your caseworker going to return your call immediately? Will this child adjust totally smoothly from their previous environment of chaos to the stability of your home? Will the judge see things your way and move quickly? Will the biological family be at every visit and jump through the appropriate hoops in a reasonable timeframe? Probably not. That’s frustrating, but try to lower your expectations to something more reasonable given the people you’re working with and the system you’re working within.
Blame “the system” for any problems: We are working within a system that can be very broken. It’s a fact. While it should function to protect the best interests of the child, it often serves to protect the rights of adults who don’t seem to care much about those kids. Lawyers can be overworked and disinterested. Sometimes caseworkers are awful. All those things are true, but they don’t generally get better because you whined about it to people who couldn’t do anything. Being an advocate for your foster kids may mean going up the chain of command to be sure their needs are getting met, but publicly ranting about how you’re the only one who knows anything about this case may not win you many friends.
Talk negatively about the bio family in front of the kids: Don’t do it. And don’t let anybody else talk negatively about the parents in front of the child either. How do you feel if somebody badmouths your mom? Foster kids love their moms, too. It may not seem reasonable because of what they’ve experienced maybe even at the hands of their parents, but we are hard-wired to love our families. You will not earn their trust when you’re saying nasty things about where they came from to other people. There are many times I’ve had to use my standard line, “Yes, they have made some poor decisions, but we love them. I don’t know what kind of choices I would have made in their situation.” and then change the topic.
Make an obvious distinction between your kids and your foster kids: It can start as a feeling of protection around your kids. This isn’t a bad thing—you need to protect their hearts and prioritize their safety and security in the home. But then that feeling of protection can create an exclusive club of insiders who get their needs met (new clothes, parental attention, special activities) and a club of outsiders. You can almost justify it in your mind because you know that these foster kids have another family. Your kids just have you, but these kids should be getting those needs met by their biological family. But they aren’t. I remember the night I was tucking some boys into bed and it occurred to me that if I didn’t tell them they were loved, then they would go a whole day without hearing it. Even though those boys were big teenagers and sometimes they were frustrating to the point that it was even hard for me to say it, I needed to tell them I loved them because that was my job as their substitute mom. When we create that divide between “our kids” and “those kids”, I think it’s because we are underestimating the importance of our love and approval in their lives. Love those kids as though you’re the only love they get, just in case it’s true.
Give up too quickly: I don’t know when it’s the right time to say a child can no longer live with you. I have worked with 20 individual kids and there was one time where I had to ask to have a child moved out of our home. That was a very humbling experience. I absolutely know there are times when a child can’t safely stay in his current living situation, but it makes me sad to hear about kids who spend their life in foster care being bumped from home to home. This shouldn’t be. I think a lot of it has to do with families saying “yes” to a child they really aren’t capable of parenting (with the cooperation of a placing agency putting pressure on them). Before you ask to have a child moved out of your home, be sure you’ve given your team plenty of time to help you find solutions to your problems. And please don’t agree to take kids your gut says won’t be a fit for your family.
Any other thoughts about why foster parents have a negative reputation? What can we do to change that?