I have been a foster parent off and on for over 25 years, and so I know a little about child welfare. Additionally, I have been a social worker, aka licensing specialist, for over 10 years. My duties are to recruit, train, license, and monitor foster parents; I know the stress involved. Many of our social workers (aka. state case managers) have been great! They place foster kids in our home, act as the legal guardian for the child, provide medical insurance for the child, provide subsidies on the way of reimbursement, and point to valued resources. In Arizona, they are called case managers, and they are the key figures in the life of a foster child and make decisions as to whether the child is reunified, adopted, are placed in guardianship or independent living.
Though I am a licensing social worker myself, I can identify with the stresses of a state case manager: the high caseloads. The long hours for little pay. The secondary trauma. The high turnover. The tug-of-war of trying to please multiple people at the same time. And all the while, trying to keep the child safe and do what is in the best interest of the child. It can be overwhelming at times. I get it. Social workers see and hear things that no human being ever should. Some of them put their lives on the line when trying to remove a child from a potentially dangerous situation. They should be commended for that.
However, there have been times when I and many other foster parents have been frustrated. The unreturned phone calls. The miscommunication. The high turnover in case managers. Having different values. Making decisions without the foster family’s input. All of these can be highly frustrating. There is often a disconnect between the goals of the foster family and the goals of the child welfare system. And it needs to improve.
The purpose of this article is not to bash social workers. We need them! In a perfect world, there would be no dads who shake their babies and no moms who do drugs while pregnant. In a perfect world, there would be no orphans. However, this is not a perfect world. We do need local governments to help biological families get rehabilitated, to protect children from abuse and neglect, and to support foster families who care for these children on a temporary basis. This article is to help social workers see things from the foster parents’ perspective.
1. We love kids! As a foster parent, we got into this because we love kids. Speaking for myself, I have been a coach, a youth pastor, a teacher, a limo driver, a motivational speaker, a cook, and a disciplinarian for my children. I have also taught all my older children to drive, how to fill out a job application, and how to apply for college. I have filed taxes for my children, opened their bank accounts, and helped them to buy cars. This kind of love for kids cannot be taught or bought. You either have a passion for pouring your life into the life of a child, or you don’t. Foster parents have this passion.
2. We need a break. Imagine working 24 hour a day, 7 days a week, for six months straight with no breaks! That’s how it feels to many foster parents. Foster care is different from regular parenting because we must partner with the child welfare system, the behavioral health system, and the court system. This is in addition to school appointments, doctor’s appointments, dental appointments, and extra-curricular activities that most parents are involved in with their children. They do this all while trying to share parenting with the biological family, which can be contentious at times. Now imagine if I have two foster children from two different families! Wouldn’t I need a break at some point from foster parenting?
3. We’re tired. In conjunction with the above point, foster parents are tired! Imagine if I were to care for a substance-exposed newborn. They may be medically fragile and have a feeding tube or may need oxygen. We would need to be trained, and the baby would need our care for 24/7. In addition, these types of children do not sleep well. So, 2-4 hours of sleep at a time is the best we could hope for! How would I feel in the morning when I must get the other kids ready for school? One word: TIRED! Imagine if I have two special needs children. “Exhausted” would be more to the point.
4. We sometimes have compassion fatigue. This is not quite the same as physical fatigue but is emotional fatigue or what used to be called “burnout.” Compassion fatigue is when a foster parent spends so much time caring for the needs of others that she spends little time caring for herself. We foster parents are helpers and caretakers by nature. It’s hard for us to say “no” when we know someone is in need. So, it’s not unusual to see foster parents caring for not only their own children, but also foster children, their next-door neighbors’ children, their elderly parents, and one or two pets…or three!
Because of this, self-care cannot be underestimated. Think of it this way: when you prepare to fly on an airline trip, the stewardess always emphasizes to parents the need to put on their own oxygen mask first, in case of an emergency, and then to help their child with their mask. Why? Because if you pass out first, you won’t be able to help your child. The same can be said of taking care of yourself in foster care. You won’t have anything to give your foster child if you are running on “E.”
So, foster parents should not be guilted or manipulated into taking yet another child. We already feel like we’re Superman or Wonder Woman! And deep down inside, we feel like, “If I don’t do it, who will?” We’re not going to say no, in many cases. Placing a foster child into a home with a foster mom who already has a lot of stressors could be detrimental to that child and the family unit.
5. We are sometimes unprepared. Sometimes, foster parents are not ready to care for the level of trauma that a child brings into their home. Foster children enter care, through no fault of their own, due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment. This causes great trauma to a child which sometimes leads to behaviors we may have never seen before: food hoarding, lying, feeding issues, self-harm, sleeping issues, etc. The child may look “normal” on the outside but, like an iceberg, has many underlying issues that go undetected underneath. Foster parents sometimes do not have adequate training to help them deal with these issues. Kinship families especially are unprepared. Many of them feel that, since they are related to the child, things should be okay and just a hug from grandma will make things better. Don’t get me wrong, hugs are a great start, but should be followed up with intensive training on the effects of trauma on small children.
6. We make great sacrifices. Lots of people assume, “Foster parents get paid; it must be easy!” My response is twofold: First, if it were that easy more people would be doing it. And two, no amount of money is worth foster parenting strictly for the money only! Foster parents make great sacrifices.
Not only do we open our homes up to strangers and divert many of our resources to caring for a traumatized child, but we also risk being the subject of false allegations, property damage, and the abuse of our own kids and pets.
7. We sometimes are afraid to ask for help. There is an underlying fear that if we ask for help then it is showing weakness. Foster parents need support, and sometimes we don’t know where to go. Therefore, we would rather go it alone and solve the problem ourselves than have the possibility of having that child removed or ourselves be “blacklisted” from having future kids placed with us.
8. We want to be treated as a professional part of the team. Oftentimes, child teams are made up of professionals who have multiple letters behind their names that signify their worthiness of their jobs. Many foster parents have no such thing. Sometimes, they feel as if they are viewed as glorified babysitters. That’s not the way we view ourselves. We are with the child 24/7 and know the child better than anyone else. We are the advocates for the child and are desperately trying to get what the child needs. We are the experts on this child, also. We should be taken seriously.
9. We sometimes experience trauma. Foster parents, as well as their families, experience trauma from time to time. There are two types that we experience. The first is direct trauma of reunification, disruption, false allegations, or the abuse of our own children. I could write a separate article on each of these things by themselves. However, sometimes our experiences with foster care can shake us to our very core and make us question our motivations from the very beginning. Whether it’s a good match with excellent attachment to a child that moves back home or a bad match that ends in an unexpected move, both can be disruptive to our family.
The other type of trauma is what is now being called secondary trauma. This is when a caregiver hears or sees the effects of abuse of the person whom they are caring for. Foster parents can sometimes be empathetic to the point where we feel we are experiencing the trauma. We want to heal the child so bad that we want to vicariously take away that child’s pain. But when that happens, we suffer the effects as well. Either way, foster families need help and support. We do not offer our homes in a vacuum. Our own family should not have to be sacrificed for the sake of one child who needs help.
10. We love foster kids! Despite all the challenges mentioned above, we foster because we love foster children. We take time off from work; we delay family vacations, and we arrange our weekly schedules around the care of these precious kiddos. We take great risks. We unconditionally take strangers into our home. We care for children with no previous file to review. We make them a part of our family. We make their crisis our crisis. We have hope that things will get better. And even if things don’t end well, we would do it all again! And in most, if not all cases, we would do it for free.
Most foster parents open their homes for only a year, on average, then close. Most foster children stay in the system for 1.5 years before obtaining permanency. You don’t have to be a genius to see the numbers don’t add up. Most foster parents quit due to the stress of foster parenting because of unrealistic expectations or because they felt their concerns were not being heard. Foster parents need better training, better mentoring, and more natural supports. Local child welfare workers need smaller caseloads, need to take foster parent concerns seriously, and need to focus on a person-centered approach to child welfare.
These precious little ones are more than just numbers on a report. They are unique, individual human beings who have a future and who need more than just a warm body to care for them. They need to be placed in a family who will love them, attach to them, are there for them to advocate for them, and fight for them–whether they are in a foster home for a day, a month, or a year. There needs to be a partnership between social workers and foster parents on a real level that works for the best interest of the child. They are the future.