A Place To Call Home
The elephant in the room… Maybe the topic people want to avoid talking about, avoid admitting that it has happened in their home or avoid discussing that they have considered it. Some families are positive that they will never disrupt a placement…. Maybe, maybe not.
To avoid disrupting a child we need to discuss it, to move past considering disruption, we need to discuss it and to understand the impact of disruption on the child and family, it needs to be discussed.
The impact of disruption on the child.
With every unplanned move the short and long term affects can’t fully be measured however, we do know a few things:
“I no longer unpack my bags. I never actually felt comfortable because I knew it wasn’t forever. I’ve never actually been somewhere that I could say; this is home and I have been here for this many years“.
I keep a ‘quick-bag’ always in the closet, I always know that someday they might just get mad and say; we want you out, because I’m not their kid and they can kick me out, they have the authority just with one phone call if they’re mad enough”.
“I learned never to make friends in foster care, because if you do you just move again and then you have to start all over”.
--Voice of Youth, Separated in foster care.
The Impact on the family
Families that have disrupted have written that they felt immense guilt, shame and loss over their decision to disrupt. They have noted that it took a long time for them to get over that decision and that they were left with a feeling of failure and lost confidence in their abilities to successfully foster children going forward. Some families closed their license.
Our training prepped us to expect some challenges, and intellectually we knew that kids who are afraid and away from their comforts aren't always "easy to handle" (sometimes they are!). A foster parent of 30 years told me, "It's like childbirth. You can learn about it, but nothing will ever prepare you for actually doing it."
After we admitted we couldn’t keep it up, I grieved those girls. Even as my son & husband recovered from the vicarious trauma, it took nine months to stop my heart from sinking every morning: “I promised they’d be safe, that I wouldn’t leave her alone like their mom did. I’m a hypocrite.” Less than two months after jumping in with an open, hopeful heart, I was the foster mom I self-righteously swore I’d never be. The one who “gave up” & “couldn’t handle it."
We almost quit fostering. But after re-evaluating our vision, allowing real life, not marketing or recruitment techniques, to inform our goals for our family, we adjusted our expectations (on ourselves and the kids) and said yes to a newborn, then to a preteen boy. Our whole team (including our agency and our friends and family, who I'll write about next week) joined us in a steely commitment to stick with them as long as they needed a safe place to live.
One of the most common causes of disruption is the enhanced needs of a child that foster parents are unprepared for.
Children come into care with a wide variety of trauma.
Children and teens are trying to make sense of their lives and can act out in anger, rage and disrespect of authority. They can be sullen, withdrawn and refuse to trust or attach to others. These behaviors can be overwhelming for the foster family they are placed with. The family becomes worn out and frustrated, till finally they feel like they are not able to meet the needs of these children and give up.
Children need one stable home to be given the best chance of thriving and growing up healthy. Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, these children have been bounced, once and possibly several times. The question is; how can we dam the tide?? How can foster parents gain resilience, manage their expectations and connect with enough support and resources to keep children with challenging emotional and / or behavioral problems in their care, without adding to their trauma through disruption?
There are several tips I will list here:
1. Manage Expectations.
Many families have noble aspirations of filling the gap and sharing their home with a child to keep them safe till they can be returned home. Other families have the goal of growing their own family through adoption. These are great goals and our vulnerable children need safe homes. Families spend weeks training and learning about foster parenting to become licensed, but families also need to prepare themselves before, during and after this process and evaluate, honestly, their expectations and their limitations. Do they expect the rewarding feeling of giving back to society and receiving love from the child and their families for opening their home? Do they expect some behaviors, but nothing they can’t handle and work through? Do they expect a tough, frustrating, heartbreaking, stressful and at times overwhelming process of fostering a child which will drive them to engage in the training process, seek counseling, seek out further education that will add to their skills toolbox and proactively seek out supports and resources that they will need when they begin fostering?
The key here lies in preparation.
Maybe your family gets a placement that is low needs, fits in relatively well and things are smooth. Great!
Maybe you get a placement that is a bit closed off and withdrawn and refuses to attach, trust or connect, ok… You can deal with that, because you learned all about it in FPC training.
Finally, maybe you get a placement that is very traumatized: PTSD, nightmares that wake him up all through the night, he has a hard time managing his emotions, he struggles with high anxiety and can’t make sense of his anger and confusion due to his current circumstances.
This is a bit tougher. This requires confidence, patients, the ability to handle crisis situations without panicking and the ability to be up all night and still get up and do it again the next day. This requires that support system and the extra education / skills that you have added to your knowledge base. This also requires the ability to take care of yourself and your partners, so that you have the strength you will need. This is a well prepared, resilient family who took the time to manage their expectations and prepare for any situation.
This kind of situation will also require a licensing agency, such as APTCH, who is willing and able to provide the extra supports that foster families and the children may need, on an ongoing basis.
2. Know your Family and Start Small.
Know your limits, both for you and your children. Keep in mind that you may not get all the information on the child coming into care, therefore it is important to start small.
Accept only single placements until you get your feet wet and you understand the impact of the commitment that you are making.
There are many aspects to the level of commitment you will be making, such as:
There are many things to consider in preparing your family and it should be highlighted that you need to have these honest and open conversations with your own children prior to placements. As your family becomes more confident in your ability to handle the time and emotional commitment, as well as your abilities to handle the increased responsibility, and any behavioral issues you will then be able to gage when you are ready to take on more children or a sibling group successfully.
3. Prepare Your Own Children Very Well
This is a commitment that has a huge family impact. Biological children are the #1 reason why families disrupt.
Your family has roles and understands each-others idiosyncrasies, habits and moods, when one is down the others step in to fill the gap. Your family has its own routine and balance. You enjoy the stability you have in that knowledge.
Adding a child to this well-oiled family machine will require a re-balance. Your children will have to adjust their own role in the family. If they were the oldest or youngest, they may now be the middle child. They may have been an only child and now they have one or two siblings with whom they need to share their toys with and compete for attention from Mom and Dad. It cannot be understated how important it is to prepare your children and help them to understand that it won’t be easy, there will be challenges. Children may think it will be cool to have a new friend to play with, but then it becomes more real when the child is there 24 / 7. The child may have needs beyond what was expected. Suddenly there are people in and out of the home. Mom and Dad are driving around to appointments, meetings and hearings and this all takes away from life as they knew it before. It’s not so fun anymore. The placement may be moody and needy, they may have behavioral issues, they may lie and manipulate. Life can be difficult to balance time with your own child and the placement you have in your home. This will take a very prepared and resilient family. This will take a family that communicates exceptionally well, provides excellent supervision and finds ways to joke and have fun together. This takes a very stable and self-aware family who is continually learning and growing in order to be successful.
“I’m a firm believer that my parents fostering made me who I am today—and I don’t mind this person! There are definitely some things it left me more vulnerable to—we saw some ugly parts of the world my parents probably could have sheltered us from if not for foster care. And we had some really hard, heart-wrenching goodbyes.”
“foster care also showed me some of the most beautiful things. It opened my eyes to the gospel, of caring so deeply without clutching your hands around what you loved. It gave me a chance to accept and love people I never would have known otherwise. It taught me about redemption and how strong the human spirit can be. And most importantly, it gave me two forever siblings and four kids I wouldn’t trade for the world.”
Serving children and becoming a successful foster family takes a very well informed, well prepared and resilient family who is willing to take the time to continually learn, grow and adjust with the challenges of raising foster children, without disruption. This family will be advocates, take care of themselves and each other, they will seek resources and have supports in their back pocket. This is the family that fuels up and goes the extra mile.
A Place to Call Home