At its most basic definition, respite care is temporary care of a child or an adult, in place of that child or adult’s normal caregiver. In the foster care world, this is a support service typically available to foster parents through their licensing agency, and allows for the temporary placement of a foster child with another foster family. Exact rules may vary by state, but in most cases, only another foster family is an option for overnight care.
There are a lot of reasons why a foster family may need to use respite. They may have had existing vacation plans before accepting a placement, and adding the child to the vacation is not possible. They may not have permission to take the foster child with them, or the vacation may not be easily adjusted to accommodate the child’s needs.
As a single foster mom, I’ve also used respite when I needed to travel out of town for work or when I was recovering from surgery. In each of these situations, I needed other foster parents to help care for my foster children for a time so that I could continue to do it later.
But there’s another reason why foster parents may choose to use respite, whether for an evening or for a few days: they simply need a break. This seems to be the most controversial reason, as though foster parents shouldn’t ever need a break from their foster children, or as though they are not treating their foster children as equal members of the family by utilizing respite. I don’t believe this is true.
I love all of my children dearly, no matter how they came to our family or how long we expect them to stay. But parenting is hard, exhausting work. And parenting kids from hard places is another level of difficult. I don’t love them less because I occasionally need time away, and it doesn’t make me a bad mom to make sure I get that time. In fact, it’s quite the opposite—I’m a better mom when I’m making sure that I’m taking care of myself and doing things that feed my soul.
One foster parent told me that they were hesitant to request respite because they thought it sent a message that they couldn’t handle their foster child, or that they couldn’t handle being a foster parent in general. This is not the case! The burnout rate for foster parents is so high, but respite care is one of the supports in place to help prevent burnout. More than that, foster parents demonstrate that they can handle the demands of foster care when they know how and when to ask for help.
Sometimes the idea of respite is portrayed as though a foster child is shipped off to strangers for a week, but this doesn’t have to be the case. When I need to request respite, my agency makes every attempt to place my foster children with a family that they already know (and because I work hard to build relationships with their foster parents, my foster children know a lot of other foster families). In cases where that isn’t possible, I make plans to meet the family with my kids beforehand. Respite doesn’t have to be a second-best option for kids. It can be a fun experience in and of itself.
This is the bottom line: respite is a resource, a support system put in place to help foster parents for whatever reason they may need it. And if you are that foster parent who needs it, and especially if you need it because you’re overwhelmed and burned out and need a break, please take advantage of it. There is no shame in taking a step back, resting and recharging until you’re ready to jump back into the fray again.