My Advice to Foster Parents
I firmly believe that the hardest and most rewarding job in the world is parenting. Fortunately, with birth children, parents at least know where their children have been and what they have gone through. All too often, however, foster and adoptive parents count themselves lucky just to know what vaccinations their child has had and the names of a few birth relatives.
Foster and adoptive parents can and should get information about children in their care. Social workers, birth family members and former foster parents all hold puzzle pieces of that child's life. Though none is likely to know everything about a child, each has the potential to provide valuable tidbits and offer support to the child later in life.
I joined my first foster family at age eight. By then I had a pretty good idea of who I was and where I came from. I could tell my foster parents a lot of things about myself and my experiences. At the same time, though, there were things I could not tell them, either because I did not know or because I was afraid to speak up. Now that I am an adult, I would like to share some things I wish my foster parents had known.
• You cannot and do not need to replace the parents who came before you. My birth mom and each of my foster parents hold unique places in my heart, even to this day. The foster parents of my second placement, who took me back for my sixth placement, earned the special title of Mom and Dad by being there for me and parenting the best they could with what they knew at the time. They were not perfect, but they loved me and never tried to compete with my mom.
• Do not break a child's spirit just to make her more docile. The outspoken nature of some foster children is a sign of intelligence and confidence, and they will need these tools to make it through foster care emotionally intact. At some point in time, children may have to advocate for themselves because of incompetent professionals or abusive adults in their lives. One thing I could have used as I tried to leave a bad placement at 15 was the big mouth I had at 10. Unfortunately, it took me years to get back to that level of self-advocacy after being taught that I would get along better if I just kept my mouth shut.
• Foster kids think about moving all the time. If they are happy, they worry that they will be moved. If they are unhappy, they think about asking to be moved or running away. When I was in care, I felt that everything was contingent upon where I would be when things happened. For example, I never let myself get excited about family vacations until just before they happened because in the back of my mind I knew I might move by then.
• Children have opinions about services they receive. Listen to what they say, even if you do not agree. If a child says he does not like his in-home therapist, find out why. The child may have a valid complaint. I once had a psychologist who fell asleep during sessions, but no one listened when I said I did not want to go to appointments until my foster dad witnessed one of the catnaps for himself.
• Foster children are who they are. Forcing children to be like you or someone else in your family offends them and suppresses greatness they already possess. Instead of trying to turn a child into someone else and being disappointed when it does not work, encourage each child to be - and be proud of - the best person he or she can be. One of the ways my foster parents did this was to tell me how smart I was and that I could go to college if I wanted. Though they would have liked me to get into sports, they learned that I was a brainiac and came to embrace that.
• Children need to identify talents and be something special. Help them find what they are good at and reassure them that they can keep doing it even if they leave your home. As a foster child, my biggest fear was not that I would be good at something, but that I would be good at it and then have to move to a family who would not let me do what I loved. One of the greatest services anyone ever did for me was to point out my talent as a writer. It was a gift no one could take away or stop me from developing.
• Kids who live in a foster home together become close. Denying a child the opportunity to see their foster siblings is one of the most hurtful things a foster parent can do. There is seldom an excuse for it and when it happened to me I felt the foster parents were only trying to hurt me. Consequently, I chose to never have contact with those parents again.
• Your foster child is just a kid and kids will make mistakes. Like all children, foster kids need to know that you will still love them when they mess up. This does not mean there cannot be consequences; it just means you will forgive them. Never assume they know this. Even after 10 years and dozens of trials, it is always good to hear it again.
• After foster children leave, they will not forget you or anything that happened in your home. If you loved a child and gave her good memories, she will recall that later. By the same token, if you hurt a child do not expect that he will forget and be unfazed by it later. Childhood memories follow us all and shape who we are as adults. This is no different for children in foster care.
• When foster children become adults, they are not under your control anymore. The things you teach them in the meantime, however, are crucial. While it is important to teach your foster children practical things like how to keep a clean home and manage money, it is more important still to convey lessons about accountability, forgiveness, love and respect. You can do that by being accountable for your own actions, forgiving their mistakes and showing them - and the rest of your family - love and respect.
Though every foster parent I lived with made his or her share of mistakes, I am grateful each day that they chose to become foster parents. Had I not had places to call home or people who facilitated good medical care and encouraged me to pursue good grades, I might never have finished high school, let alone gone on to college and earned a degree. I want to thank every foster parent who reads this for continuing to suffer the heartache that goes along with helping children in foster care. As one of those children, let me just say that your efforts can make a world of difference.
Jackie Hammers-Crowell spent 10 years in Iowa's foster care system. Since aging out in 1999, she has earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Iowa, trained hundreds of foster and adoptive parents, and volunteered with assorted foster care related initiatives. Jackie is employed by Children and Families of Iowa as the Communications Coordinator for Elevate and facilitates a local support group for Elevate teens. She and her husband plan to become foster and adoptive parents.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of the Adoptalk newsletter, published by the North American Council on Adoptable Children.