Gimme a Break! The Benefits of Respite Care for Foster Parents

For months, now, the two foster parents had been taking care of three foster children in their home, as well s their own two children.  Of the three foster siblings, two of them were infants, aged six months and the other was eighteen months old, while the third was a seven year old.  All three were challenging in their own way; the baby was a Meth baby, born addicted to the drug.  The eighteen month was showing signs of Reactive Attachment Disorder, while the seven year old was struggling in school with both academics and behavior.  The three foster children took all of their time, including late nights, as the baby slept fitfully each night.  The parents were unable to devote much time to their own eleven and thirteen year old children.  After five months with the three children, the foster parents were worn out, exhausted, and in need of a break.  Along with this, there was a wedding that the family wanted to attend, though it was out of state.  As they were not permitted to take the three foster children over state lines, they placed the three in respite care for the weekend, taking their own two children with them to the wedding, a time they needed for themselves and for their own children.

Respite care refers to one foster family caring for another family's foster children for a short amount of time.   This type of short break gives the original foster family the opportunity to have a break. This type of foster care is especially helpful when foster children have behaviors such as seen in many therapeutic foster homes.

Respite can be used for a variety of reasons.  To begin with, a foster family may need to attend to a family emergency of some kind, and may not have the ability, opportunity, or permission to take the foster children with them.  Take for example a foster family of one foster child and a biological child of their own.  The family had a death in the family, and had to travel outside the state with only one day’s notice.  As the foster child was one who had severe social challenges and disabilities, it was deemed by both the foster family and the child welfare agency that a funeral was neither a healthy fit nor an appropriate environment for the child.  As a result, the child was placed in a respite home with another foster family during this time.

Another foster family was forced to place their foster child into respite for several weeks as the foster mother in the house battled an illness.  As the foster father was often away at work, the foster mother was unable to properly care for the child during this time, and the child was placed into another home in the community.  During this time, the original foster family remained in constant contact with the child, through phone calls and occasional visits with the child in the respite provider’s home, as well taking the child out to eat at a nearby restaraunt, By doing so, it helped to ensure that the bonds of attachment, security, and love they had created wit the child earlier were not separated throughout the respite placement during this difficult time.

There are those times, of course, when foster families simply become exhausted, or “burned out,” if you will.  Perhaps the foster child has been in the home for an extended period of time, and the family has grown mentally, emotionally, and physically weary from care.  To be sure, this is a very real possibility, and is one that should not be ignored for the health of all involved.  In order for the family to remain not only healthy foster parents, but a healthy family unit, they may merely need a break from care, an opportunity to “recharge their batteries” so to speak, and a chance to focus on their own family unit, lest it begin to suffer from exhaustion and lack of attention.  Respite may be the solution, as the child is placed into another foster home while the original foster family regains some of their strength.

When using respite as a foster parent, it is important to properly plan for it beforehand in order to avoid unnecessary stress for all involved; foster parents, foster children, caseworker, and respite provider.  To begin with, foster parents need to contact their caseworker as far in advance as possible with the dates that the family will need respite care.  Many times, foster parents find another foster family for respite on their own accord.  If so, provide the name of the provider to the caseworker.

If possible, allow the foster children the opportunity to meet the family providing respite beforehand.  Allow both the child and the provider the chance to get to know each other, as it may allow the opportunity to avoid any further trauma for the child. Clarify beforehand with the respite provider when you will drop off the child and when you will also pick up the child Provide any and all important information to the respite family about the child’s strengths, weaknesses, challenges, and other pertinent information that may help the respite provider better understand the child’s needs.  If there is any medication for the child, make sure the respite provider has enough, as well as instructions on the dosage and times for the medication.  Along with this, foster parents should also make sure that the respite provider has a list of emergency phone numbers in case the foster parents need to be contacted.  If there are any appointments for the child, such as a trip to the doctor, visitation with family members, school event, or another type of scheduled event, let the respite family know well beforehand.   If they cannot meet the demands of the child’s schedule, there will be time to find another family.  

To be sure, foster children need to be prepared before traveling to another home during this time of respite care.  If the child is old enough to understand, ensure that the child understands that this is a temporary placement, and that the child will return to your home after a brief passage of time.  If possible and if it is not emotionally damaging, explain why the respite care is being provided.  Allow your foster child to call you if there is an emergency, or if he is troubled or emotionally distraught in some way.  When packing for the visit, be sure to include clean clothes, and clothes that are weather appropriate, along with extra socks, underwear, diapers, wipes, etc.  If the child has a favorite toy or stuffed animal, include this, as well.  If the foster child has a Lifebook, include this, as well, and other important pictures of biological family members as well as the foster family.  If the pictures are not in a book, place them in an envelope, plastic bag, or something that will protect the pictures from harm.

Indeed, it is not healthy for a foster child to move from home to home to home, in what is known as “Multiple Displacement,” the placement of a child from one home to another.  Yet, there are those times when it might be necessary, whether this be due to unforeseen circumstances or to, as stated earlier, a time to “recharge those inner batteries.”  Respite can be an opportunity for foster parents to focus on their own family and their own challenges.  This short break usually results in a healthier relationship between the foster child and foster family when both are reunited.  To be sure, if you are considering respite care for your own family and foster child, whether it be for personal reasons or for reasons beyond one’s control, do not feel guilty about it, as it is a service that is provided to foster families in times of need.