Foster Parenting Missteps

Mistakes (That Even Well-Intentioned) Foster Parents Make

There are a lot of good people out there who want to be foster parents. Foster care is often stereotyped. Think of the movie, Moonrise Kingdom. Ironically, I liked this picture, but the foster parent in the film was an uncaring oaf who caustically turned out his child when the going got tough. There are foster parents who warehouse children for the money, and there are abusive people to be found in foster care, as there are in all walks of life. I want to focus on the people who want to make the world a better place and have a rough time of it. I asked around and dredged up some of my own recollections and came up with some common problem areas for foster parents.

(Not Knowing How to Deal with) The Biological Parents

This tends to fall into two categories: getting too close, not getting close enough.

Getting too close to the biological parents. This one isn’t all bad. You may be one of the few voices of reason in the lives of the child’s parents. Your advice and friendship may give them hope to continue their state mandated rehab programs and to keep them from despair. Watch out. You are in a different world, a world of frequently clever people who use their talents for manipulation and intimidation. In other words, keep your BS detector turned on at all times.

Not getting close enough to the birth parents. This is often unavoidable. Many biological parents view you as the enemy, as the person who stole their children. They may be mortified that you know their dark secrets. There may be hostility from the start, but you may be able to turn this around. Good luck. Many states and counties require you to mentor the birth parents. Learn your limitations and capabilities and the five magic words, “I’ll get back to you,” useful when they make a request that doesn’t sound right.

Get Ready for This… (Not Being Ready for a Child’s Outrageous Acting Out/Behavior)

Some people we know took in a four-year-old girl. There was sexual abuse in the biological family, and the little girl started acting out sexually, simulating sex acts and attempting inappropriate touching with family members. The relatives who took care of this girl didn’t think they could handle this and relinquished their role as kinship care providers. She was placed in the care of an older couple with a lot of fostering experience that were able to handle her behavior.

It is so difficult to realize the scale of problems the children may have. Get ready for some shocks. Most foster parents will come across stories that would make the most sensationalistic screenwriters blush. I remember more than one set of grandparents in their thirties and a mother who had eight children by the age of twenty-four (and one miscarriage). One day you may be taking a toddler to the doctor to be examined for possible anal rape, and the next day watching the child hitting or biting themselves.

Do You Want to Foster or Adopt?

This is a potential road to heartbreak for you and the kids. Brace yourself and be ready to be crushed by the vast indifference of the legal system. Ashley Rhodes Carter reports fostering over twenty-five children when only a few came up for adoption, and she was only able to adopt one. In our case we fostered eighteen children. Two became available, and we were lucky enough to be able to adopt one of them. Some foster parents only take in children who are up for adoption. This may be an option for those steely, resilient individuals with abnormal amounts of patience. Be prepared to have relatives come out of the woodwork at the last minute and upset your family planning.

Do Not Foster to Grow Your Family. 

Foster parenting is all about providing a home for a child, not bringing a child into your home. As Rhodes-Carter told me, “This process is all about the KIDS. As a foster parent, you will constantly be swallowing your frustration, pride, ego, hurt, and heartbreak for the sake of the kiddo.”

Think about Your Own Kids

Do not be such a crusader that you ignore the struggles in your own household. Remember that fostering takes a toll on everyone. You can make the world a better place, but fostering isn’t for the squeamish.

Ask yourselves if your own family relationships can stand the strain. Make sure your kids and spouse are on board.

I believe that having foster siblings can be a positive experience. Children can grow in wisdom and empathy. Knowing that others have problems can be an eye-opener, however there is always a potential for overwhelm. Intrapersonal skills as well as interpersonal knowledge are vital. Know your own limitations and those of your family. Be attuned to small changes in relational dynamics. Think how some people believe they can revitalize their marriage if they have a child. Often this backfires on a marriage. The same can be true for families involved in foster care.

Don’t expect your family to emerge unchanged. I think back to a toddler named Ronnie who came to us when he was fourteen months old. Foster-Toddler Ronnie arrived with a Mohawk and banged his head hard on tile floors when he was frustrated. Our three and a half year old daughter, April, had to get used to the new kid on the block who followed her around constantly. She was used to being the apple of our eye, and now there was competition. Soon, she learned how to be a concerned, big sister, playing with the boy, watching him in her own protective way and “arguing” with me over nicknames we gave him. He stayed with us for seven months until he was adopted. April did not understand what was happening, although we tried out best to explain things to her. Well… we thought we explained things. A few weeks after his departure, April was chatting happily in the back of the car about all the wonderful things we could do, “…when Ronnie comes back.” We told her Ronnie would never be coming back, that we would never see him again. What followed was a combination of frenzied weeping and fierce wailing. She cried like she had never cried before. We had to pull over and comfort her. It’s hard for kids to understand this kind of thing. Hell, it’s hard for me to make sense of the chaotic riot of dysfunctional domestic discord.

Your biological children will struggle with jealousy regarding the time and energy you give to your foster children. They will also experience the pain and suffering and joy of their new but special personal connections.

Getting Too Attached

I believe this is truly unavoidable, but you should be warned. How can you not fall in love with a child who needs you? I believe that it is impossible to come out of this process without any heartbreaks.

To be continued…

Note to readers: Writing is rarely a solitary endeavor, in spite of the stereotypes associated with professional scribbling. I had a tremendous amount of help and advice on this column from:
Liz Hunter
Ashley Rhodes-Courter
Rhonda Sciortino and
Trisha Kay Surbrug Adams, foster parent at large
And others, lurking in the background, who do not wish to be mentioned. (All hail, the lurkers)!