No one stumbles into being a foster parent. In retrospect, I have to say that my pre-service training was very comprehensive (and surprisingly enjoyable). But there are some lessons I’ve learned the hard way, some really important things that I didn’t learn in my foster care training, but wish I had. Here are my top ten:
1. Go to court.
And doctor’s appointments. And visits. And family involvement meetings. If there is any possible way that you can arrange your schedule to make this happen, do it. Take off work, pay someone to watch your kids. You will learn more sitting in the courtroom lobby and the doctor’s waiting room than you ever will during “official” social worker visits. Plus, it’s an opportunity to show that you want to be (and stay) actively involved in your kids’ cases.
2. Write everything down.
Dates, times, places. How your kid acts after visits. Of course, we all hope that we have social workers involved in our cases who are also doing this. Sometimes we do. But honestly, lots of things fall through the cracks as people change positions and are asked to do more than is humanly possible. When I have a (non-emergency) question for a social worker, I always send an e-mail instead of making a phone call. That way I have a record of the response in writing.
3. Ask (and keep on asking).
It feels like everything in foster care requires permission. And sometimes it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. I always start by asking permission from my child’s worker. Many times, I have involved the worker’s supervisor, and twice (in my five years as a foster parent), I’ve called in the big boss. One time, he ruled in my favor and the other time he didn’t. Still, those odds are better than if I’d just swallowed the initial “no” from the worker.
4. You catch more flies with honey.
I always try to give the professionals involved in my kid’s cases the benefit of the doubt. When they go out of their way to help, I email their supervisor to express my appreciation. A little kindness can go a long way. This goes for your kid’s parents too. It’s always good to start with kindness.
5. . . . but you don’t have to be a pushover.
It’s also really important to set the boundaries that you need to keep your sanity (and take care of your whole family, not just your kids in care). It’s okay to say no to social worker requests. You don’t have to agree to hastily arranged visits. You don’t have to drop everything to accommodate someone else’s schedule.
6. Love is most definitely not all you need.
There is this narrative that inevitably plays when the public hears about a child in care. “Oh, that poor kid,” it goes, “All he needs is someone to love him.” Nope. Can love be a powerful force in the life of a child? Absolutely. But they also need structure and swimming lessons, educational advocates, someone to pick up the pieces after a visit, mental health services, and a ride to the mall.
7. It’s not about you.
So much in foster care is out of your control. Social workers will make decisions against your better judgment. Judges will send kids back into situations that hurt your heart. Kids will say stuff that cuts you to the core. It’s not about you. None of it. You didn’t create this broken situation. You are helping to heal it.
8. Take lots of pictures of the back of their heads.
Policies vary by agency, but generally there is a very high value placed on the privacy of kids in care (and their families). Especially if your kids are with you for a long time, you will get frustrated about not being able to post their names and pictures on social media. It’s okay. Give them a cute nickname. And take lots of pictures of the back of their heads. Often this non-identifying information is okay to share online.
9. Saying good-bye is tough, but you are tougher.
So many people who consider foster care but never get licensed get hung up here. Do you want to know the truth? Saying goodbye is terrible. It might be the hardest thing you ever do. But every child deserves to have the kind of love that makes saying good-bye terrible. As foster parents, we choose to do hard things because our kids never got the choice not to do them.
10. Find your tribe.
You cannot do this alone. Really. I know you’ve worked very hard to convince a lot of people that you will be a really, really good parent. You will. But you don’t have to do it alone. Find your tribe . . . the folks who can step in to help with childcare, meals, and a listening ear. Family members, friends, other foster parents, even professionals who get paid to be a part of your tribe all count (I can’t imagine my life without my amazing daycare provider or my kids’ excellent therapist).
So, there are my suggestions for things that should be taught in foster care training. What do you think? Did you learn about any of this in your training? What would you add to the list?