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Minimize the negative impact of foster care on your kids

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Yesterday I wrote about the very real difficulties kids can experience when their family decides to become a foster family. Honestly, it was emotionally tough for me to write. I have seen such beauty and maturity in the lives of my kids because we’ve made the decision to foster that I don’t like to think the concerns would keep people from making the same choice. But the truth is that we went into it with eyes VERY wide open. Because we had done years of group home work before we had kids, we knew what kind of potential risks were involved and we were very realistic in our expectations. My goal is to give you that same kind of perspective without you having to spend five years working with teen boys 🙂

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Josh and Danny when they were foster brothers

Some of the reasons our experiences and the experiences of our kids have been so positive is because we have understood the potential for the negative and we’ve worked hard to minimize it. Here’s how we’ve done that.

Minimizing the negative impacts of foster care on your kids:

Respect birth order. I know I’m a broken record on this topic, but I really believe it is the number one way we can protect our kids. I was just talking with a man the other day who told me his parents had been foster parents when he was a kid. He was an only child and had really fond memories of the foster kids who were in their home. I asked him about any negative experiences and he said the one thing he regretted was that his parents had taken in a child who was older than he was. He said he and this boy made poor choices in jockeying for position and to prove who was the biggest/strongest/smartest. It was distressing to him and he knew they did things they shouldn’t have because he was trying to prove himself to this kid. Our kids need to feel confident they are safe in our home and part of how we do that is by being sure they are old enough and big enough to say “no” when something inappropriate is suggested. Our older kids also help set the tone for how our house runs and can help a new, younger child acclimate. Now I know there are many families who choose not to respect birth order and God blesses that decision. Even this last summer Brian and I were discussing the possibility of one of our former group home kids coming to live with us, if needed. There are times when there is a previous relationship with a child or there’s a family placement needed where this doesn’t have to be such a big deal. There are also times where a family feels called to taking older kids and they have the skills and resources to make it work. If that is what you choose to do, just make sure your kids are on board with this decision and you have a safety plan in place for any potential problems.

Include them in decision making. If God is calling you to foster, he is also calling your children. Talk to them as you think through the process. Ask them how they feel about it. Let them express their concerns. You know your kids and you know some of them may be resistant to change just because they are generally resistant to change. That doesn’t mean you can’t pursue foster parenting, but see how they are processing it all and if you see they are really struggling, you may need to rethink things.

Prepare them for fostering realities. It isn’t wise to sugar coat things for your kids when discussing what it may be like to be a foster family. This is going to be hard and the more they are prepared for that, the better. As you are getting educated through the foster parent training process, educate your kids in ways that are age and developmentally appropriate. Trust that if this is really how God is calling your family, they are going to be able to deal with that information well. (You also need to be prepared that whatever you tell them may come up again when you take a placement, so be sure you’re using words you’d be comfortable with hearing them say to a foster child or talk to them about what would and wouldn’t be appropriate to say.)

Spend time with other foster families. While you’re in the decision making process it is really helpful for your kids to be around foster families. Let them see that foster kids are just kids who need a temporary safe place. Let them talk to other siblings of foster kids to hear what it’s like for them. And once you’re licensed this becomes even more important. Kids need to normalize with other kids, so it’s great if they can see other families doing what their family is doing and know they aren’t alone. If you don’t know other foster families, talk to your agency or caseworker about connecting you with a family like yours.

Give them a voice. Listen to your kids. Listen without an agenda. If something is wrong, you need to hear that from your child even if it means you need to stop pursuing this thing you really want to do. It breaks my heart to see that in order to help a child from a crisis situation some families have created crisis situations within their own previously healthy families. I don’t believe kids need to be sacrificed so we can do this effectively. It needs to be a family team effort and if your kids are telling you something isn’t working, you need to hear them. Create a time for them to express any concerns as you’re in the training process, the home study process, ask them before you take a placement, and continue to talk to them about their feelings while you’re fostering. They need to know it is safe to share their fears and struggles and not worry that they will hurt your feelings or that you’ll be upset about it. This doesn’t mean you abdicate your decision making to your children, just that we keep an ear to the ground about how this is impacting them and let them know we value their input.

Don’t spiritualize your fostering decision. This one may be a bit dicey for me to explain, but I think it’s important. If we explain our fostering decision to our kids in purely spiritual terms (i.e. “We’re doing this because Jesus says whatever we do to the least of these, we do for him” or something similar) we may eliminate their ability to be honest with us because they feel like they’re betraying Jesus. I was thinking about this reality while reading this article about sexual abuse that happened at missionary boarding schools. There were ways those parents were unintentionally setting their children up for abuse by the language they used and unscrupulous adults took advantage of that same language. We DO care for these kids because Jesus asks us to, but I don’t believe Jesus is asking our children to be put in harms way through sexual abuse, physical abuse, or having to live in fear. We don’t want to create a climate where they don’t feel safe in telling us what’s going on because of how we’ve spiritualized this decision.

Spend special time with them. Be sure that your kids don’t feel like they come last in line. I will say I get a bit irritated when I see families put their foster kids in respite so they can have a “family vacation” away from them. Foster kids whenever possible should be fully acclimated as part of your family, although I know sometimes you can’t take them on vacation because of their visitation schedules or their parent’s wishes. And sometimes a family will legitimately need time away from a particularly difficult foster child to regroup. So while respecting that the foster child is an actual part of your family, find ways to affirm the special place each child has in your heart by spending individual time with them. There may be more natural opportunities to spend time with your foster child as you’re dealing with court or appointments, so just be sure you’re also creating those opportunities with your bio or adopted kids.

Reevaluate your decision regularly. Your kids need to know that as a family you aren’t locked into this decision forever. Sometimes spouses need to know that, too. The relicensing process is a good time to think about if this still works for your family. Every placement call should be prayed about and there should be freedom to say no if this doesn’t seem workable. For many families, foster parenting is something you do for a season and you need to be aware of when that season has come to an end.

There is a family at my church who is considering foster parenting. It has been beautiful to me to see that one of the major motivating factors in this decision has been the heart for foster care their daughters have developed. It’s also inspiring to our family that one of the employees at our foster care agency grew up in a family that provided foster care. While he was growing up he had frustrations about it, but God has used that experience to uniquely qualify him to educate and support foster parents. I hope we can handle this process well enough that it lights a fire in the hearts of our kids to continue this work in whatever way God calls them. We have to handle it carefully and with intentionality or our fire my instead burn them out on this work that is so important to the heart of God.

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