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:

 

 

The Most Important Day for an Adoptive Parent

Nate cake

Mr. Ornery’s whale picture turned into his birthday cake

It has been a week of celebration. The anniversary of Mr. Ornery’s adoption was on Tuesday and his birthday was on Thursday with a party on Saturday. Super Tall Guy was adopted seven years ago on Friday. And The Little Guy’s “Adoption Day” was on February 12th. These are all big milestones in the lives of these boys. Not ones that they really understand yet, but ones that they currently look forward to solely by virtue of the fact that there are “gifts” involved! And that, as we all know, is really the key way to celebrate a momentous occasion!

But to me, the real “celebration” day was yesterday, two days after Mr. Ornery’s birthday. It was on that day seven years ago that my sister received a call from the foster agency that Super Tall Guy had a younger brother who needed a home and would we be available to get to the hospital in 15 minutes to pick him up?

You see, that’s how life functioned in the world of foster parenting. The phone was always nearby in case there was a call. And if we didn’t answer or weren’t available for a child, the next family was called. Some people have eight months or more to prepare for a child. We responded to a phone call, went out and bought diapers and formula, and spent the next few months without sleep at night. Life was chaotic, but exciting and good.

Yesterday, I quietly honored the day I met Mr. Ornery. That’s his birthday to me. That’s the day I looked into his small eyes and stroked his soft skin and said “hello.” That’s the day I lifted him into my arms and breathed in the secret baby smell. That’s the day I introduced him to his older brother and said, “Look who just arrived.” That’s the day my heart jumped and the journey began. The wait. The stress. The worry that he wouldn’t stay with us, that a biological family member might claim him. The long nights and the never-knowing. The ache to claim him as my son and the reluctance to grab onto that hope.

Yet for this child, the family court judge was realistic. She had seen this too many times. She offered birth mom her chance and when she didn’t respond at all, the judge moved the process along so fast that the Adoption Day happened two days before his first birthday!

And on that day, I welcomed my second son a second time.

You see, there are Birthdays and Adoption Days and in foster parenting there are “Change of Goal” days and “Termination of Parental Rights” days, but really in the life of an adoptive parent, the important ones are the “I just met you” Days. That’s where the story begins.

I am so glad to have met you, Mr. Ornery.

Thank you for becoming my little boy.

 

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.

Stress fracture = boot = big adjustment

A local community advocate that I know from running the non-profit circles suggested that I embellish my story a bit rather than my version – “I was wrestling around with Super Tall Guy trying a little stuffed-animal soccer when my foot hit the bed frame.” It seemed mild enough. In fact, I was shocked to find a little bruise in the morning and it took a minute to figure out why it was there. But when the foot was still hurting 2 weeks later, I visited a very friendly sports medicine doc (and might have talked her into becoming a foster parent! I mean, why not? I’m always encouraging!).

She looked at the x-ray. She looked at my foot. She pushed on the bones – “does this hurt?” – “well, yes!” She looked at me. “Uh, what were you planning to be doing for the next few weeks?” Well….I was planning to run the JP5K for the crisis nursery we just opened up (and I wrote a little piece for)! Ahhh!the boot

Instead, I now hear:

“Mommy, you got a boot?”

“Mommy, why you got a boot?”

“Mommy, why you not carrying me down the steps?”

“Mommy, where’s my boot?”

“Mommy, you got a boot?”

“Mommy, CARRY ME DOWN THE STEPS!!!!”

Pain-free, functional use of both my feet is certainly something I’ve taken for granted for, well, my whole life. And the ability to run after my boys is something that I’ve just assumed for the past almost 8 years….which means I’ve had to learn a few lessons this week.

1. Slow down – actually, it’s okay to sit on the couch a moment longer and put your foot up.

2. Do not kick immobile large metal objects.

3. Be patient – and try to answer the 2-year-old’s same questions over and over.

4. Take care of yourself – such an age-old mothering challenge and a huge struggle for me, despite how often I’ve heard the advice given. By day 4 of the boot, I was ready to kick it off and move on. Then I reminded myself how important it is to make sure that I heal as much as possible so that I would be healthy again for my boys.

Even if the 5-year-old does want to win against Mommy....might still not be the best idea!

Even if the 5-year-old does want to win against Mommy….might still not be the best idea!

So, how to “Take care of yourself”….

1. Exercise – keep the body healthy and limber and strong and has excellent benefits for mental health as well (but running to the point of stress fracture is not necessary).

2. Eat a varied and balanced diet – food intake affects more than weight, it affects mood and health.

3. Sleep – it’s okay to nap and get to bed shortly after the kids do (rather than stay up into the wee hours blogging …).

4. Schedule and go to appointments for your own health – not just those of the kids.

5. Let people help you, especially if they offer….and use the kids if no one has (“hey, Mr. Ornery, can you please run upstairs and get…”).

6. Keep up with a hobby or something you enjoy.

7. Smile often, laugh more.

8. Be present in as many moments as you can and enjoy them.

9. Love matters – so don’t just give it, receive it as well.

10. And before you fall asleep each night, tell yourself “You did good!” (and if necessary, stop worrying….. for tomorrow is another day).

 

In the Beginning: Part 0.5

I know you are all waiting for Part 2….and yes, I will write more of THE story. But it just seemed important to back up to Part 0.5 (and maybe even fill in 1.5 at some point), because there’s quite a bit that shaped us before Super Tall Guy arrived.

So….I take you back to the beginning. Back to early 2005 when I stumbled off an airplane after spending a month on rotation during residency in Kenya. Emotionally exhausted from a month of international medicine and more childhood death than I had ever witnessed, physically exhausted from staying up night after night for a month prior to journeying home, yet so delighted to be back to friends and family. I was greeted at the airport by my wonderful sister. “Hello,” she said excitedly…. “so, while you were away, (I think she forgot to say “hey, how are you? how was the trip?)…. I was contemplating the Biblical principle of ‘taking care of the widows and children’….and since we don’t really care about old ladies (ironic, as we had just had a widow in our house for 4-5 months before she left for the mission field), I signed us up for Foster Parenting classes….which begin next week.” Next week….right. Okay.

And that’s how it began.yarn bridge-wp

We sat in classes week after week, confirming again and again that we were in the “foster parent” track and not the “foster-to-adopt” track (you know how that ended) and learning all we could from the Children, Youth and Families (CYF) caseworkers who stood in front of us. There were probably 7 or 8 other couples in the class and I think we were among the few professionals. We were certainly the only sister pair. And some of the trainees were family members of children that were already living in their homes. When classes ended in June, we had our “Home inspection” and passed. Naturally, Kathy then left on a business trip, and our caseworker called. Little Girl S (age 3) and Baby Sister V (age 2) came to spend two nights with us for what is called “shelter placement” (did I mention Kathy was out of town?), that is, temporary care of children while suitable family members are sought. The two were incredibly delayed in development, cowering and shy little blond-haired girls who sparkled after some food, clean clothes and a bath. They went to live with a doting aunt who kept in touch for about a year.

The day after they left, we were called for our “first true” foster child. Sometimes CYF caseworkers bring the children to you. Sometimes you go to pick them up. I drove to the other side of town to pick up The First from his aunt’s house. I knew he was a couple days away from his first birthday and I pictured a crawling cute little helpless baby. I couldn’t wait to meet him.

Knocking on the door, I entered into a world of clutter and confusion, and a little toddler literally running through the house with a bottle of grape kool-aid dangling from his mouth (I knew that instant that we were in trouble 🙂 ….. but I got the cute part right). He was being chased delightedly by the aunts’ older children as she tried to collect some toys and clothes to send along with him. She explained that much as she loved the little guy and appreciated watching him for the past three months, her multiple sclerosis illness and the needs of her 3 biological children were getting to be too much. She handed me the belongings and gathered The First into her arms to walk to my car.

As we approached, a pick-up truck skidded to a halt and the little boy’s biological father jumped out. He shouted expletives and grabbed The First into his arms. The aunt whispered that we were going to tell him I was the CYF case worker (if he asked) for it was apparent that he was intoxicated. The man squeezed The First tightly in his arms, mumbled a bit, and then flung his sun-glasses to the ground in frustration. (At this point, it dawned on me the potential danger in these situations, but I was strangely not fearful.) The aunt took back the child and buckled him into my car seat. She kissed him good-bye and promised to call us and visit him often. A week later, The First returned to spend the weekend with his aunt, but the visit ended early due to his multiple episodes of diarrhea. That was the last time we heard from the aunt and the father’s side of the family.

This little guy was adorable. We loved him. But I was a fourth-year resident and had some rotations where I spent every 3rd night in the hospital and I barely saw his chubby face. My sister, though, bonded immediately. She took The First with her everywhere. They shopped. They went to the park. They hung out at the mall playground. They visited friends and lounged at my parent’s house. They went on trips together and he came on our annual beach vacation. The two were inseparable….. until CYF called. The mother had completed her “checklist” of “things you must do to get your child back”…. and he returned home. I could hear my sister’s tears late into the night some nights. We knew it was going to happen. We knew that The First had weekly and sometimes 3-times-a-week visits with his mother. We knew that she was “making progress on her goals.” We knew that foster children are supposed to reunite with their parents.  Yet we didn’t know the pain of releasing a beautiful, giggling, joyful boy back to his mother.

And we didn’t know if we’d ever see him again.

But we did.

Love at Christmas

Love – the final candle in the Advent wreath. Each week I’ve been writing around the themes of Advent, and this week I kept thinking what I would write about in terms of love.

It’s actually more complicated that one would imagine. Probably because love is actually really complicated.

I could throw around a bunch of cliché’s about how I love my kids – how I love watching them engage in sports, love seeing twinkling smiles light up their faces, love their excitement about hunting for hidden Advent Gift Bags and the fight over who gets to open it tonight!  There is so much I love about the boys.

Yet, sometimes love is really hard. It started early with this crew – each of the boys came to me from hospital discharge – age 2 days, 2 days, and 5 weeks (for methadone withdrawal). Each boy was “placed” in my house as a “foster child,” which means I was tasked with “treating them as if they are your own child and yet be willing to give them up at the drop of a sudden phone call.”  So you try this odd sense of love – I love this little baby, but he is not “my” little baby, so I don’t want to get too attached in order to not break my heart too much when he leaves. Hmmmm.

And I ask you? How is it possible to love and not “love/attach” at the same time?  Because you do love – the soft skin, the first smiles, the nestling of the downy head in the crook of your neck. And you love watching the baby learn to coo and sit and crawl and walk and talk-back. You love it all….while you wait for the important “milestones” of foster-to-adopt: decrease parental visitations, “change of goal” (when the agency stops trying to get the baby back to a biological parent and instead starts making other long term plans), termination of parental rights, appeal period, and finally “cleared for adoption.”  And then you await the court date – and stand excitedly as the judge pronounces you mother for life!  And one day, a birth certificate arrives with the child’s (new) name and right under that:  Mother – Lynne Williams.  Wow.

That is patient love. That is love which has survived the trial period. Love which has built up strength and resilience. Love that is true.

Now that the boys are all moving out of the toddler period, a new kind of love is settling upon the household. The “I love you, but….” kind of love.  I love you, but wish you had not thrown that huge plastic car mountain down the staircase just because you liked the noise it made the first time The Rascal threw it down.  I love you, but could do without the whine, the screams, the deal-making attempts (which honestly, make no sense at all, Super Tall Guy). I love you, but would really like it if you stayed in your bed the whole night….rather than smothering me in my slumber.

This is also that true love. The love that says – no matter what you do, I still love you. And the love that says – no matter what I do (get mad, frown, discipline you, go to work, seem busy on the phone), no matter what, I still love you.

Each night as I tuck the boys into bed, I whisper to them, “I love you. Forever. For always, and no matter what.”

My gift to them each and every day – complete, unconditional love. Their gift to me – bouncy, bumbling, blubbering kisses and hugs and love.Nate-light-2013

Love at Christmas and every day of the year.

Visit from our first foster child!

I don’t know ­how you’re supposed to get anything done with 5 kids around. I don’t know why I ever expect to. I keep thinking that weekends should be “productive”….and then I’m in the middle of one and just hoping to survive!

I keep reminding myself that with five swirling storms, it’s pretty unlikely that I might sweep a floor or mop the kitchen. I mean, why even try? So this weekend, we decided to up the ante and try having 6 boys around – 8, 6, 6, 4, 2, 1!

Maddox, our first foster boy and now 8, spent the weekend with us while his adoptive parents were out of town. I remember the day I went to pick him up when we first met him. I had been thinking in my head “hmmmm, an almost 1 year old – how bad can that be?”  I opened the door and he was running around his aunt’s house with a bottle hanging from his teeth….and I knew right then he was going to be one active boy. He was a delight while he stayed with us.

He also showed us the classic case of foster parenting. He stayed with us for 10 months and then returned to his biological mother. A few months later, she would stress out and turn to drugs for comfort and he would be placed into foster care. After 10-12 months, he returned to his mother and months later, he and his sister came into our care (that’s when we lived for about 8 months with one 3-year-old and 3 one-year-olds!  And I’m complaining now about being busy??).  Again, the mother worked to get her kids back….again she lost them….but this time they were older and starting to act out themselves in more serious ways….and eventually were placed in “therapeutic foster homes.”  (It is this first foster family that popped into my head the moment I heard the concept of a crisis nursery – and thought that the biological mother just needed a crisis nursery – some place to take the kids for 2-3 days so that she could breathe and get things done…..and so began my quest to open Jeremiah’s Place).

It was hard to “lose” Maddox three years ago. It was hard to understand how a judge would decide to take this boy from his “biological” mother and the woman he thought was his “mother” (my sister) and place him with his 4th family in 4 years. And at the time, we had no idea what the future held….so it was amazing that as soon as he was adopted, the forever mother called to reconnect with Kathy and so began some visitations and then this weekend.

Over the past 2 years or so, Micah and Ryan have talked a lot about Maddox. They remember him and they also remember an idealized version of an “older brother.” This weekend was not anywhere close to an idealized existence as they all had to figure out how to share space and attention and the iPad and the rooms and the Wii remotes and the younger two boys who thought this strange new being was a super hero of some sort.

And Noah just walked around asking, “What’s his name again?”

Foster parenting asks you to hold a kids’ heart in yours so tightly for an unknown period of time and then let the child loose into the world without possibly ever knowing anything about him/her again.  But sometimes….sometimes you have the joy of loving them again.