Foster Parenting in 5 “Easy” Steps – Think about it!

It’s Mother’s Day. My eldest woke me up at 6:38 to ask if he drawing2could give me his gift yet. I said “A gift would be leaving me alone and letting me sleep in.” He asked, “Why isn’t there a Children’s Day? Can’t I just go downstairs and get your present? Are you ready to get up yet? Okay, I’ll wait until 7:00.”

He will be ten in twelve days, but I met him two days after his birth when he became my “foster son.” A couple years later, he became my son and I was a mother for the first time! May is National Foster Care Month; a time to raise awareness about foster children and their need to be loved and cared for in their moments of transition.

Foster children range in age from newborn to the late teen years. They may stay in a placement for one day or for a couple years. They are like every other kid. They play, eat and sleep. They have fears, hopes and dreams. And like any child, they need someone to love them, encourage them and guide them as they grow.

There are few things more challenging, and yet more rewarding, than being a foster parent. Almost anyone can become a foster parent. Foster parents can be single or married. They live in apartments, homes and town homes. They live in the city, suburbs and the country. They come from every walk of life and are alike solely in their desire to make a difference in the life of a child by providing a home of comfort and love.

And there are children right now hoping for a family, especially the older children (Check out the Foster Goodness project). If you’re ready to consider foster parenting, here’s how to start in five “easy” steps:

  1. Consider whether you’re ready and your network of family and friends is supporting you. According to one foster parent, “Adding a foster child to your family is like adding THREE new kids at once.” Generally you will be spending more one-on-one time with the foster child and juggling new schedules and new needs. Be ready to accept these new challenges.

Consider your physical and social-emotional health in terms of whether you’re able to meet the physical and developmental needs of a child. It helps to have a sense of humor, a willingness to be very flexible, and an ability to work well with others. You also need to know that you are able to “let go” of the children after their stay with you. They might stay two days or two years, but in general the goal will be to reunify the child with his/her biological family and you must be willing to help with that reunification.

It’s also important to make sure that your family is ready. If applicable, is your spouse or partner as eager and willing as you are? How is your family structured and will adding new children fit into your current life and daily routine?

Finally, strengthen your support group. Garner the support of any family around you. Find other foster parents to connect with, ask questions of and learn from them. Talk about your plans with your friends and ask them to support and help you.

  1. Evaluate and organize your house. Every foster family will have to pass a “home inspection” and have at least one empty bedroom for a foster child. In addition, the house must meet sanitary and safety standards, such as child-proofing, smoke alarms (which work!) and fire extinguishers. While many people might take the following items for granted, every foster home must have a toilet, running water, a working heating system, and a telephone.
  1. Choose a foster care agency and apply to become a foster parent. Every county in the state of Pennsylvania has its own Office of Children and Youth/Family (CYF) which manages the foster care system. In Allegheny County, the CYF office contracts with individual agencies to recruit, train and maintain foster families. When CYF needs to find a home for a child, they call one of the agencies and that agency then calls a potential foster family that they think would be a good fit for the child. (Click here for a list of agencies in Allegheny County.)

There are numerous agencies that recruit and maintain foster families. Each agency has a slightly different “flavor” in terms of its initial training of foster families and the amount of support provided along the way to foster families. It is generally recommended that interested individuals call at least three or four agencies and attend “open house” or orientation events to get a feeling of which agency might be a good match for them.

  1. Undergo training to become a foster parent. Usually each agency provides its own training and there can be a wide range of time commitment, typically between twelve and thirty hours. In addition to the training to become a “certified foster parent,” each year foster parents are required complete a certain number of “maintenance” training hours. Training covers such topics as expectations for foster parents, child development and discipline techniques, first aid and CPR training and much more.
  1. Keep your phone with you at all times in anticipation. You have absolutely no idea when it will ring with the question, “Hello. We have a ___ age little boy/girl. Would you be interested?”

The fact that the child can arrive within a 15-30 minute window, makes you want to have some essential items available. If you’ve decided to foster infants, having some diapers in various sizes, basic clothing, and bottles sitting around can be helpful. For preschool and school-age children, it helps to have a “welcome bag” for the child with some toys to engage them when they arrive. Have your family and support group on stand-by to jump in and help you the moment that you get a call.

Most importantly….

Be ready.

Be ready to hurt. Be ready to cry. Be ready to love and to let go.

Be ready for intense joy and deep sorrow.

Be excited.

Be humbled.

Be strong.

Be brave.

Be courageous.

Be there for a child who needs you.

 

And, if you know foster parenting is not a commitment you can make, there are many other ways that you help. Consider supporting agencies that are doing the work by visiting their websites and making a donation or becoming a volunteer. You might also reach out to families in your community who are foster parenting. You can help by providing meals, offering to provide childcare or run kids to activities. Or consider becoming an advocate for foster children by becoming a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer.

It takes a village to raise up the next generation and there is a place in a child’s life for you.

 

Additional resources:

 

 

Ten reasons why foster parenting is so hard

  1. You just have no idea when your phone is going to ring and a caseworker is going to ask if you’d like to take on a kid. Sometimes you’re just waiting and waiting eagerly. Sometimes you’re crossing your fingers saying “I’ve got three right now, I’m feeling a bit busy, thank you, but….” And sometimes they ask if you can pick up a kid within 15 minutes!
  1. You just have no idea how long a kid is going to stay with you. It might be three days for a “shelter hearing” when a relative or someone else is found to take the foster child, or it might be 6 months and 2 days, or 18 months and 9 days, or at least 18 years and the rest of the kids’ life once you’ve adopted the child.
  1. You just have no idea when they are going to schedule a “visit” for the child to see his or her biological parent and once the child goes off in a stranger’s car, when the child will return to you. If the parent shows up for the visit, it might be a couple hours. If the parent doesn’t show, it might be just a round-trip in a car. You just have no idea how truly irksome this is to have little control over your schedule.
  1. You just have no idea whether to get rid of some of the 3T boy clothes you still have in boxes or whether you should keep them just in case another kid comes along. Do you take the carseats out of the car or shove them in the trunk?
  1. You just have no idea how much paperwork you’re going to have each time the caseworker stops by for a visit. And when one agency decides to stop their foster care services and you have to switch to another agency, you have another thousand and five pages to complete, and clearances to run, and home inspections to prepare for.
  1. You just have no idea how each child is going to respond to arriving in your house. You can’t predict if they’ll cuddle right in or scream for hours. You don’t know if they’ll throw punches at the wall or help with the dishes. You don’t know if the other children are going to be thrilled with a new “friend” or wish that they were gone. The uncertainty is huge because everyone is reacting to a major unexpected change.
  1. You just have no idea how painful it is to have a child leave your house with only a few hours notice and realizing that you likely will never see that child again in your life, despite being the one and only parent the child has had in the past 10 months. The empty space hurts.
  1. You just have no idea how protective you can become of a child, caring for them the best you can and wanting so badly to advocate for their well-being.
  1. You just have no idea how frustrating it is to not really have a voice for a child. You provide the 24-hour a day love and care but have no influence over the bigger picture. You wash and feed the child, watch them grow, encourage their development, treat the fevers, but no one wants to hear your point of view.
  1. You just have no idea how quickly your heart is going to fall in love with the child in your home as you rock them to sleep and kiss their scrapes and bumps. You tell yourself that you’re keeping a distance, that you’re not really attached, that this is just “foster love,” but your heart never listens to that anyway.

You just have no idea how your love and your hugs and your home can make all the difference in a child’s life, comforting them in a moment of chaos and giving them layers and layers of love to buffer them through life’s future troubles. They may stay with you. They may return home. They may more on. But your touch is always written upon their life.foster

You just have no idea how wonderful it can be to be a foster parent.

Think about it.

Some kid somewhere out there needs you to be brave enough, strong enough, creative enough to say, “I just have no idea….and you know what? That’s okay.”

 

 

On Mothering and Foster Parenting for Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day and Foster Parenting Awareness Month coming together kind of makes me reflective – though not reflective enough to type through the exhaustion of Mother’s Day evening! It might have been the four hours of shadeless, 92 degree sun while the boys practiced and played flag football that got to me. Yes, that is what mothers do on “their” day, apply SPF 70 sunscreen to survive the brutal battlefields of youth sports. And yet, when I turned to the mother beside me and said, “This is what makes mothering fun – watching your kid run and jump and cheer and smile,” she smiled and nodded in agreement.

And these rare moments are a good thing because those little beings don’t always make you proud to be their mother. Take their recent rock launching incident at a friend’s house, for example. Or the kicking out of the stained glass window! Or a host of other ways they torture mothers!

Mothering is one of life’s biggest challenges and it starts right from the beginning. For some, mothering appears suddenly, unexpectedly with cheers or big sighs. For others, it might be the joyous moment at the end of a long wait or years of careful planning. It might stop and restart to the dismay of the expectant heart for some.

Or it might putter down the long road of foster parenting. “Hi, I’m his foster mom,” is the awkward phrase that tries to encapsulate one’s care of and affection for a child and yet a distance that is forced to exist. The foster mother has all the responsibility for caretaking of the child – feeding, clothing, bathing, sleeping, getting homework done, reading, worrying, laughing, crying and treating the fevers. Yet the mother has no true responsibility in terms of decision-making. The foster mother asks for permission to take the child on vacation. She asks for medical decisions on his/her behalf. She can’t speak up in court to inform the judge on what’s really in the best interest of the child. When it comes to what will really affect the child’s future, the foster mother is silenced. “Love her, but don’t get attached.” “Treat him like he’s your own child, but don’t make any decisions.” It’s a hard space to be in and sometimes it doesn’t feel at all like mothering. But to the child – it is everything that is important. And for 27,419 children in 2012 – the foster family became the forever family.

Yes, mothering is a journey. It is not an arrival. The path is pretty wide and there’s a lot of leeway for stumbling along and doing things your own way or for trying something new. There are smooth parts and bumpy parts and lots of hiccups along the way. There’s singing and dancing and laughing and crying. And there’s certainly a great deal of pain ground deep within the furrows of the path. There’s distractions and dead ends and wrong turns and celebrations. So it’s pretty important to travel along in the company of other women. Sometimes, they’ll help you carry some things to lighten the load. Sometimes they’ll jostle you a bit to get the smile back on your face. And sometimes they’ll pull you back onto the path when you’ve gone a little over the edge and you reach back for a strong hand. Travel among the women. It’s your only hope.

So whatever the type of mother – bio mother, adoptive mother, step-mother, his mother, her mother, tiger mother, tired mother, lax mother, strict mother, helicopter mother, world’s best mother – take care of yourself, take care of each other, and hang on. The road continues on.

“Legally Free For Adoption”

Her name is Jaleah. Her video on the PA Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network Facebook post caught my eye last week. I stared at her profile late into the night. She’s 15 years old, a beautiful girl, and is “legally free for adoption!” With the exclamation point! The phrase bothers me. It’s not like she’s a dog in a shelter (though she could very well be living in a shelter).

 

She’s a girl in the process of becoming a woman. She’s a dreamer envisioning her future. She’s a child craving a family, wishing for someone to sit in the audience to clap and scream her name as she bounces through her cheerleading routine. She’s a fragile, vulnerable teen looking for a family.

I’ve heard teens are hard. I’ve heard that teen girls can have so much “attitude” as they push and strain and yearn for independence. I’ve joked that I’m happy to have boys so that I won’t go through the teen girl “drama” phase.

And yet, it seems to me that this is such a crucial time in a child’s life. As they push and shove and strive for independence, they still cling to the comfort of knowing they are loved and that someone will always be there for them….no matter what they do.

But what about Jaleah?

Her profile weighed upon my heart this week. Jaleah and all the teens who are waiting for a family (almost 21,000 teens across the states in 2013). Maybe they pushed too far for independence and crossed the line they didn’t intend to and find themselves without that family they thought would always be there for them. Maybe they made a bad choice which led to another and then to another and before they knew it they were in over their heads and yet fighting the consequences so hard they couldn’t see the shovel digging deeper. Maybe it had nothing to do with them and their family imploded or fractured and they found themselves drifting in the hull of the “system” coasting further and further from the world they once knew.

Do you know that if no one steps up and says “I will” in front of a judge in a courtroom and becomes her Forever Family, Jaleah will never have someone cheering her along? She will stop her gymnastics and cheer activities without someone to drop her off and pick her up. She will walk onto the stage to receive her diploma and throw her mortar board into the air with lackluster enthusiasm. She will struggle with college applications and give up when it’s becomes daunting. She will walk down an aisle in white without a man in black beside her to bless her new union. She will welcome a new baby into the world and dream of what it would be like to have a beaming grandmother cradle her newborn. She will sit with her loneliness and think of what might have been. “Aging Out” of the foster care system without a home is too costly when these children have lower rates of high school graduation, higher rates of homelessness and unemployment, and greater engagement in the judicial system.

Without a family, Jaleah might wilt. Or she might beat the odds and chart a completely different course.

But it just seems that life would be a little bit nicer if she had a family.

She wouldn’t mind having younger siblings (or a dog) it says in her profile. She’d like to continue her activities, it says. She’s going to have tough days like everyone else. I read the profile over and over and I sit. I have a set of three who might enjoy a big sister. But my house is so full. My heart is so stretched. My hands are so laden. My schedule is so packed. My boys are so demanding.  What am I to do?

What I can do is pray for a family for Jaleah. And what I can do is continue to tell everyone I meet about the children who are waiting. (Click here!)

The children who are “legally free.” The children who desperately want something that seems so simple. Their commitment and parenting needs would be costly, but their gratefulness would be huge.

They need someone who loves.

Think about it.

Anatomy of a Mantel in the home of Five Young Boys

Every year, our home is “recertified” for foster care. I’m not entirely sure why we continue to stay “open” and “certified” since we’re both crazy busy with the five boys…..but we do.  We could discuss this for awhile, but let’s not. The wine is kicking in and I’m ready to get to bed.  Nonetheless, to keep our house certified, we have an annual visit by our Child, Youth and Family (local Child Protective Services) case worker. This year, it’s a new caseworker. The one we had for ten years just retired in January and we haven’t met the new one yet….so we’re a little nervous.  There might have been a bit more cleaning this weekend than typical….so much so that Super Tall Guy exclaimed, “Why do we have to still be cleaning?!?”

The “anatomy of the mantel” will give you a hint at why.  I don’t really want to be doing a PDF….but there were a lot of graphics and I’m still in the stone-age for them….so bear with me….and enjoy.  Anatomy of a Mantel 6-22-14

Finally writing Part 2: The Arrival of Mr. Ornery

There are three things that I remember about the arrival of Mr. Ornery (well, four if you include the fact that he wasn’t “ornery” from the beginning….it’s just that he’s earned the name from learning over time that he’s so stinkin’ cute that he tries to get away with things!).

1. You should never ask someone, “Are you sitting down?” unless you’re a bus driver about to take off and you genuinely want to make sure your passengers are safe. But if you’re my nate newsister and you’re calling my cell phone fifteen minutes before the start of my second-ever board meeting at my new job, I start panicking that something has happened to one of the two-year-olds at daycare! (At least our day care center has the courtesy to call and say, “Hi, this is KinderCare and the boys are fine. Now, could you please turn in that health physical form before our inspection next week!!)

My sister, however, asks, “Are you sitting down?” “Um, should I?” “Well, Super Tall Guy has a brother.” Then she paused. And it took a while….but then I got it! Oh, my goodness, a new baby was coming into the house!

2. Which leads me to “thing” number two about his arrival – I was about to go in to a 4-hour-long board meeting (oh, I’m sorry, a “strategic planning session”), and, I was just four months into the job and really worried about my role and what I was supposed to be doing. So when my sister said that they wanted us to pick up the baby in 15 minutes, I said that she should go (she was working from home at the time) and I’d get home as soon as I could. I have regretted that decision for 5 years now. I’m not entirely sure why….but it sort of feels like I missed his “birth.” I know that’s not the case, but I missed being “there” the very moment he joined our family and I mourn that in a way. And particularly because I have since figured out that my boss would have been fine with me taking off to go pick up my newest son….had we known all this looking back. I know it’s not that big of a deal in the scheme of things, but isn’t it funny what events really stand out to each of us in terms of wishing we had been present at that moment.

2.5 (I have trouble counting, so I like to sneak in numbers in my listings). Let me go back to that, “when do they want us to pick him up?” “In fifteen minutes, but I asked for an additional fifteen minutes to find the infant car seat.” Let’s think about this. The baby has been in the hospital for 2 full days. The mother is in the county jail (where children do NOT go), so we all know that the baby is not going home with her. And we know that the baby is going to foster care. And we know that the CYF agency is going to call the foster parents who have the sibling first in an attempt to keep siblings together. So, knowing all these facts….they still want to call FIFTEEN minutes before they would like this little tiny baby out of the hospital!?!? This is why I sometimes say that most people have around eight months to think about the fact that their family is about to expand….we have fifteen minutes!

3. The third thing that I remember about Mr. Ornery is walking into the house later that Friday afternoon and seeing Kathy holding him while sitting on the couch. I sat down beside her and she handed him over – my second son. A beautiful tiny little bundle with soft fine hair and a sweet sweet smell, and do you know the first thing I said to Kathy? “You put THAT outfit on him to bring him home??!?” Isn’t it funny – 5 years later, you could put all our newborn baby clothes of five boys in a pile and I could pick out that outfit. I see it in my mind still. Guess I didn’t like it much!.

Okay, one more thing that I remember about Mr. Ornery’s arrival. Kathy told me all the “facts” about the newborn….I vaguely remember that he was a little over 8 pounds (much heavier than the 6 pounds 4 oz of Super Tall Guy who rapidly grew into his enormous hands and feet). What stuck in my head, though, was that he was “white.” That made sense. He was fair and we knew the birth mother is white. A few days later, however, I took him in to the pediatrician’s for his first check-up. I told her the story of his arrival while she examined him. I was telling her how brown Super Tall is and that his brother is white….when she said, “Actually, I don’t think he is.” And that’s the moment I learned how to identify races in newborns (ahem, shading of the “privates”….if you’d like to know. So when they said the same thing when we picked up The Little Guy a couple years later, I just thought in my head, “I’ll see….wait till I get him home and undress him a little”). Of course, the skin coloring of the boys doesn’t matter to me at all. Their ethnicity doesn’t matter to me at all. The fact that they are beautiful and healthy boys… the fact that the brothers are growing up together….the fact that they are my sons…..that’s what matters to me. That’s what matters.

 

 

The continuation

Super Tall Guy was about to turn one and was already pushing past the 75%ile on his growth measures. The gap between him and The Flipper in size was beginning to widen, but The Flipper wasn’t going to give up anything in the abilities field. He was already wiry and muscular. The two of them were just beginning to toddle around the house, exploring, examining the rule of gravity, noting projectile velocities, rejecting a wide variety of foods, and communicating through basic signs.

The phone rang. Well, Kathy’s phone rang. I pretty much just got the gist of it. The First One (now age 34 months) and his younger sister, really “The Only Girl,” at age 18 months were going into foster care and would arrive soon at our house. Despite her physical age, The Only Girl had definite developmental delays that put her close to a one-year-old level….giving us 3 1-year-olds and 1 3-year-old in the house. The next day Kathy traded in her Honda station wagon for a minivan! (My CRV didn’t succumb until there were 5 kids to cart around).

I will confess the hard truth here. I was not ready for this sudden change and my grumpiness was likely evident at times. You see, I was delighted to have “a” baby and had finally adjusted to having two. But I’m an introverted, “slow-to-warm-up” type of person, and the doubling of children ages 3 and under was overwhelming. Looking back, I know I was not very helpful and supportive at the time. I would kind of “punish” Kathy by having her pretty much handle three kids on her own with an attitude of “well, you said yes to two more!!” I really don’t know how she did it all – but I’m mighty proud of her.

I think we survived the chaos only with the assistance of my mother. She would come over daily for the dinner-bath-bedtime routine. We had three high chairs and should have had a dog to clean up the spaghetti. The bathtub could hold three and the floor sure could hold a lot of splashed water. We had three cribs in the house and a toddler bed. And none of us slept.

The year was a blur and a huge juggling paradigm. As probably an attempt to cope with the chaos and laziness in truly baby-proofing a house, we spent most of the weekends outside of the house. We would take those kids anyway – mall play-yard, the zoo (almost every single weekend! Arrive when it first opened, hit the playgrounds and leave as others with “nice” sleeping kids would start to arrive.), the Children’s Museum, the Science Center. Anywhere. And then we’d end up at my mother’s for dinner on Saturday evenings….every single one…

The First Guy and The Only Girl were enrolled in a “therapeutic preschool” in a part of town that was not convenient for either Kathy or I. So Children, Youth & Families (CYF) would send a “driver” to our place every morning to pick them up and someone would bring them back every evening. They also had visits with their biological mother for a couple hours 2-3 times a week. This was an odd time. For the younger two kids, Kathy and I pretty much made all the decisions since the mothers were not really involved (though The Flipper was still having weekly visits with his mother). But for the older two, we had no say in their schedules and had to adjust. The First Guy was clearly happy to be back with Kathy as he had bonded to her the first time he was with us. And we were happy to be providing what the kids needed.

Again, the birth mother “met” her goals and the kids were reunited with her. Yet life remained difficult for her and The First Guy was a challenging creature as he worked through issues of independence and obedience. Eventually, even though the kids were living back at home, they were still with us for “weekend respite” as The First Guy grew even more difficult and eventually his explosive tirades were medicated. Kathy and I struggled with how to help him for clearly he was living under two (probably three) different sets of standards – ours, his mom’s and his childcare center’s. It broke our heart to see him struggle and you’d think it might have prepared me for Super Tall’s outbursts when he turned three, but it really didn’t. I probably blamed The First Guy’s behavior on “poor parenting” by his bio mother ….and Super Tall Guy’s on him.

Eventually, The First Guy’s behavioral problems escalated enough that by the time he was back into the foster care setting again, it was decided that he needed “therapeutic foster parents” and off he went to his “fourth” mother in his five years of life. It was a confusing time which included an inpatient psych stay for him, caseworkers essentially blackballing Kathy, and us all wishing there was something we could do.

We knew that The First Guy just needed love and stability and yet we were not allowed to have a voice into his life, despite the fact that we had cared for him more in his life than any other “parent.” It was years before we had any contact again. Yet he remains a part of the boys’ lives as does The Only Girl. To this day, Super Tall Guy will randomly sigh and say, “I wish I had my sister back.” Foster parenting affects everyone in very unpredictable ways.