Bed in place? Check! Dresser in place? Check! A stuffed animal ready for snuggles? Check! Locks in place? Check! Kitchen knives put away? Check! Our house has cleared the last walk through. We have been certified. We are ready! So, we think.
My husband and I thought so. But, we learned some hard but important lessons on becoming effective foster parents.
Many of us enter fostering excited, but not fully aware of what awaits us. That was me. I had no idea about how to be an effective foster mom. We heard about the staggering number of foster children in the system and the dire need for more foster families. We decided that we want to make an impact and that becoming foster parents was a very tangible way for us to be involved. But, will our hearty yes eventually turn into despairing no’s?
We begin this journey inspired, hopeful, and full of faith. But, it is also true that many people call it quits soon after their first placement leaves. Why? Because it is hard. It is probably the hardest work I have ever taken on. We want to have a realistic expectation of ourselves and our family as we foster. We have to be aware of our own capacity and limitations.
Be Smart. Ask for what You Need and Want.
Each person carries different capacities. Some of us like to believe that we are capable of more when we are not. Others of us shortchange ourselves because we believe that we are incapable of more, when in actuality we are.
Fostering requires a good measure of self-awareness. Sometimes, through difficulties, we come to realize where our limits lie. It is important that you know your limitations and capacities. Then, you are able to take on this good endeavor with a level of sobriety that enables you to stay in the game without running out of gas.
When I began fostering, my three children were ages 5 and 3 (twins). My two biggest limitations centered on mobility and flexibility. I didn’t have family members close by who could watch my kids. Although I was at home full-time, I knew that it would be a juggling act to care for my three young children and fulfill the additional duties that came with fostering. It would be very difficult to monitor visits, take the child to therapy, and keep up with my certification hours. I spent some focused time in prayer and asked myself some very realistic questions about my capacity. Afterwards, I came up with some realistic goals for myself which I shared with my Family Foster Agency. No longer was I feeling overwhelmed at the idea of fostering, but I felt empowered to serve because I was entering it self-aware and with partners.
Be Realistic and Practical:
Here are some practical steps I took to ensure that I can be an effective foster mom with my limited mobility and flexibility?
- Foster placement referrals should come from the local Department of Child and Family Services office. If the placement is from another office, we must work together to find a locations with my 20 minute driving radius for visitations and meetings. If that isn’t practical for the biological parents, then we can’t be a good placement for that child. I was very upfront with my limitations. Spending an hour or more on the road for each visit was not a viable option at the time as I had preschoolers and a kindergartener to pick up.
- Maximum number of hours of me monitoring visitation is 2.5 hours a week. (Now, my kids are older and in school, so this changed as I became more available during the day.) It did not mean that the child cannot get more visitations with parents. I definitely want our foster children to see their parents as much as the court allows. However, it meant that the FFA or DCFS needed to monitor some of the visits. Once I communicated this limitation upfront, it made it easy to say, “No” to changing expectations. DCFS and my FFA were willing to monitor the extra visits because they had agreed to the arrangement so that they could make the placement.
- I do my best to find out if the child fits my original profile in regards to age, behavior and emotional issues, and how long they have been in the system. We receive very little information about the child when a placement call comes in. Often the social worker doesn’t have all the information herself. So I ask lots of questions. If the person I am speaking with doesn’t know, I ask if they can find out. My goal as a foster parent is to ensure that there is no break in placement once a child is placed in our home until reunification. There are certain levels of trauma we are not prepared to take on. I work hard to make sure that I have some sense for whether our family can properly provide the care and love this child needs. If not, we say, “No.”
When we are sober about our own limitations and capacities, we are able to effectively be present for our foster children and our family.
Sometimes our vision and goals for fostering are too lofty. Many times, they are subconsciously embedded in us. We have visions about the kind of foster family we will be, until reality hits us head on. When that happens, don’t give up. Adjust. Maybe your first month’s goal will be to learn how to connect with your foster child and deescalate when she is having a fit and is about to turn your coffee table over. (Yes, this happened in our home.) Perhaps, it is to make it through one day, one week, and one month.
At the end of the day, my goal is not to become a hero. Our biological and foster children need parents, not heroes. They need parents who are content, not maxed out, and physically and emotionally present through all the ups and downs. Above all, they need parents who can provide safe, structured, and peaceful home environment where all kids can thrive.
When we stretch ourselves too thin and take on responsibilities way beyond our capacity, we are setting up everyone for failure.
The need is great, but you have limitations. Your capacity may be greater or lesser than another family. It is okay. Having clear ideas about your limitations and capacities, as well as your needs, will enable you to foster well.
Whether you are single, working, or a stay at home parent, you can foster. It is not for super humans. So, be wise. Think through your life. Make adjustments. Set realistic expectations about yourself as a foster parent and be clear about your needs. Know that your life will be turned topsy turvy. But, in the end, you will find that it can be more life-giving than you ever expected.