9 Tips for Successfully Navigating the Child Welfare System as a Foster Parent

If there is one thing most people involved with child welfare can say about the foster care system (US), it is this: The system is complicated. But there ARE things that foster parents can do to more effectively navigate it. Here are just a few:

1) Don’t buy into the myths. There are many negative opinions about foster parents, case managers, attorneys, biological parents, and the system as a whole. Unfortunately, some of these opinions have turned into myths about the system. Take the initiative to learn the facts about foster parenting and the way the system functions.

2) Know your rights and learn about the policies, laws, and statutes that drive the legal and case management decisions for children in care. As a foster parent, you have rights. It is important to know what they are.

3) Get involved in a foster parent board or advocacy group. Groups such as these help foster families identify needs within the foster community and advocate for change. Being involving in groups like these is a powerful way to have your voice heard!

4) Attend support group meetings. There is something quite kindred about the connection and support from others who share similar life experiences. Foster parent support groups are a great way to find friendship, potential respite providers, and knowledge. Connecting with other foster parents allows for you to seek answers as to how to handle difficult behaviors and situations, as well as have a shoulder to cry on when necessary.

5) Utilize email as a one of your main means of communication. One thing that foster parents get frustrated by is the delay in call-backs from case management teams. Case managers often have high caseloads, are out onhome visits, attending meetings or court hearings, and trying to diminish the mountain of paperwork on their desk. They are also “putting out fires” when needed. These things can delay their ability to call people back in a timely manner. It is an unintended consequence of a demanding job. Email is a great way to quickly communicate a question or need and it also serves as a source of documentation. Most case managers would rather receive emails than phone calls. One warning, though: make sure your emails are professional!

6) Try not to take decisions made by teams personally (meaning a dig at you or against you). This one is really hard. After all, you have opened your home and heart to a child in need. Please try and understand that case management teams are legally bound to make decisions as they pertain to the laws that dictate child welfare. Even if they know that a child may have more opportunities in life if he or she is adopted, the legal directive is to reunify. If the biological parents are meeting their own goals, and improving their situations, the case management team should support them and put all efforts towards reunification. Even if this is not occurring, they will have opinions about the case that you may not agree with. Try not to take it personally. Remember that this is about the child, and not about you. (Again, this can be so hard!)

7) Stay involved in the case. This cannot be stressed enough. It is imperative that you involve yourself as much as you can in meetings, court hearings, and visits. You have the right to be involved in these things, and you have valuable input to share. Staying involved serves as a way to get first-hand information about the progress of the case, as opposed to hearing it second-hand from the case manager or others.

8) Don’t be afraid to ask questions! As a foster parent, you are a teacher to the child. However, you are also a student. It is imperative that you approach your role with the understanding that you have much to learn. Never stop learning and asking questions. The needs of children are complex and diverse, and it is an ever-growing challenge to find ways to meet their needs. Become a student!

9) Be yourself. Let case managers and teams get to know you and what works or doesn’t work in your family. Be authentic and honest about your talents and pitfalls. Don’t say “yes” to a situation that you know in your heart is not a right thing. On the flip side, don’t say “no” all of the time either. Sometimes you literally need to take a leap of faith!

Foster parenting is a journey unlike any other. There are plenty of opinions about it, and sometimes these opinions come from people who have never walked a mile in a foster parent’s shoes. The system can be challenging, it’s true. It is an imperfect system that involves vulnerable people. But remember, as a foster parent, you are incredibly important. The system depends on you and the children need you. Don’t forget that!