Today a young woman will be moved to a group home because there is no space for her. It’s a case in another county that I am not involved with in any way, so there is a chance that there is a reason for the move (perhaps trauma so deep that she needs an intensive therapy experience before she can best live in a family setting, perhaps a volatile family looking for her and a group home is her safest option, etc) but there is also a chance that she has fallen through the cracks. There is a chance that there are no families willing to take a teen. There is also a chance that there are no families available, period. And I blame every person that is not connected to the foster system in any way that goes around telling the story of their friend’s friend that had a terrible experience as a foster parent.
And someone is reading this saying “SEE? She always talks about how great foster care is, but I know better. I know the system is broken. About time she acknowledges that!”
And it is. It is so, so broken. It is rooted in brokenness. The very need for foster care arrives from brokenness. Without a social worker heading into a home on a terrible day and taking a child from everything they’ve ever known with a few belongings that they can carry, a family broken by something painful and ugly, there would be no foster care. The system cannot be blamed for what it is the answer to. Without brokenness, foster care wouldn’t exist.
I have been on both the social work side and the foster parent side (and a child who experienced trauma side, as well) so maybe the complaints about foster care don’t register in my mind the way that they should because I know the “why” behind them. Maybe I should do more to dispel them, though, because the fact is that every day kiddos are being taken into care and every day social workers are scrambling to place them and every day we, the healthy families in our area, are dropping the ball by telling ourselves it’s all too messy and we don’t want to be involved. Foster care is not for every family, and I could not emphasize that enough, but I think that so many friends feel led to it and become afraid. They will mention to a friend that they are considering it, and will be met with horror story after horror story.
Fair warning: If I catch you sharing your friend’s friend’s horror story, I will verbally shred you. And I will cry. And I will tell you about this girl that I love. And the girls and boys like her. That do not belong in institutions.
Five things that I wish everyone knew about foster care, (in rebuttal to the horror stories I hear y’all spreading):
1. Yes, it will ruin your family.
Your kids will see the kid in their school who is aggressive or quiet or poorly groomed differently. No more will they wonder what is wrong with that child, instead they will wonder what is wrong in that child’s world and meet them with kindness. They will think less of themselves and more of others. They will spend so much time in the car running to appointments and meetings and visits that they will stop bickering over arm space. They will celebrate the games and concerts you make because you can no longer make them all. Giving will become a fundamental part of your family make up, not a lesson you speak but a lesson you live. They will be unable to un-see what they have seen, and they will be better for it.
2. You should not be foster parents because you wish to adopt.
Foster care is not an adoption agency. The nature of your role is to be anti-adoption. You need to be a fervent, tireless, vocal advocate for the family. You cannot compare your family to theirs and find all of the ways that you are “better.” It will always be better for a child to be with their family of origin, regardless of your income or education or religion. If that family can be healed, you need to be ALL IN for making that happen. You need to encourage kiddo and remind them that their parents love them and are working so hard on their goals. That is nearly impossible with one foot itching towards the adoption lane. Yes, people adopt from foster care. We will most likely be those people, one day, too. However, nationally, 85% of kiddos return home and that is the goal of foster care… that is a success. NOT a broken system. If you can’t support that goal, foster care is not the calling for you (and that is okay!). This is why we are adopting internationally… they are separate lanes.
3. What you want as a foster parent is the very last concern of anyone involved.
When DSS becomes involved in a family, their focus (as it should be) is the family. Your wants and complaints and wishes mean nothing… except they need your home to stay open so they will entertain your whining. We are blessed to be a part of a small agency and they have been amazingly good to us, but I hear all the time how foster parents didn’t feel like a priority and I usually say “well yeah… you aren’t. and shouldn’t be. it’s not about you.”
4. Hug a social worker
I hear all the time how “awful” they are and how they don’t care and I wonder if you’ve ever been in an office at DSS when a new kiddo comes into care and watched them excuse themselves to go to the bathroom, cry a little to get it out, and march right back in to finish intake. Or when they try all day to get a kiddo placed somewhere and no one will take them so they drive around with them in a government car so they can get some sleep after the day they had. Or how they get yelled at by the parents, judges, kiddos and foster parents, all for opposing things, all out of their control. The scapegoat, every day. And every day they show up, toughen up and get shit done. Every. Day. I learned first hand that there are two options: harden up (which will get you labeled “uncaring”) or burn out. The latter is the norm.
5. They’re just kids, guys.
No, they aren’t fire starters or future delinquents. They aren’t going to kill you in your sleep. They aren’t going to hurt your kiddos. (disclaimer: you do need to be diligent if you signup for this walk, but I think parents need to be diligent no matter what, anyway) You will hear things that make your jaw drop and heart hurt, and you will also be reminded a dozen times a day that they are just regular kiddos, raised with values and love, too. They have parents. Their parents love them and have (almost always) done their best to teach them right and wrong and to say “please.” They celebrated birthdays and cheered when they got honor roll. They have traditions and secret family recipes. Their parents are just like you and me. No “buts”. We’ve all made mistakes… and perhaps they are on different levels, but it’s not our place to compare our mistakes to theirs to congratulate ourselves on our parenting skills. Because their parents are like us, their kids are like ours, too. These aren’t feral kids that want to hurt you.. they are kiddos that need a soft spot to land. Wouldn’t you want that for your own kids if the worst events ever happened in your family?
6. Foster parents are just regular people. Stop thinking we are amazing.
We fight with our spouses and skip mopping the floor. We wish we didn’t have to go to therapy. We forget to check our kid’s homework and we ask them if they could please stop talking to us for just one minute. We drive through McDonalds and forget to buy toilet paper. We get PMS and have shitty days at work. We forget to brush our kid’s teeth some nights and don’t care when we wake up and remember. I am not humble bragging. It makes me super uncomfortable to be told how great we are, because the implication is that we have to be really special to put up with these kids. And it is 100% completely the reverse. They are really special and we get to be a part of their story. The implication, too, is that ‘foster parent’ is a role for the super great. It’s not. Moderately okay is perfectly acceptable.