Wouldn’t it be great to have a straightforward answer to this question? If you’ve spent any time at all researching (or living) foster care, you know that there is no typical case. Every child, every family, every situation is different. And so the honest answer to this question is, “It depends.”
Often when children are first taken into care, very little information is available. Social workers move quickly to try to get children into homes that may be a good fit. When I get these kinds of calls, I ask one thousand questions. I don’t expect the social worker to be able to answer them all, but I want to gather all the information that I can, and sometimes social workers can find out a bit more if you ask the right questions. When I started the journey to foster care, I wondered whether this approach might mean that children would be less likely to be placed in my home because I seemed hesitant. As far as I know, this has never happened. There are too many kids in care and too few foster homes for social workers to worry about my overabundance of questions.
Usually when children come into care, they will have a doctor’s appointment and a court hearing within a day or so. If it is at all possible, go to these! You will likely learn more by showing up (even if you say almost nothing) than you will ever hear from your social worker. Another good source of information is the child’s family. Although it will likely feel awkward at first, it’s absolutely appropriate to try to build a positive relationship with family members. They can be a wealth of information about the child and family and may be more willing to work with you than you expect.
If children have been in care for a while, usually there is more information available. If a child is joining your family after living in another foster home, reach out to the other foster parents. They will likely share any information that they have about the child and the case. It’s a great idea to keep a line of communication open with them so that you can ask questions or solicit advice later as well.
Social workers can also be a great resource when children have been in care for a while. Although some children have several workers over the course of their time in foster care, other workers may have worked with the child (and family) for years. This was the case for one of my placements, and the social worker gave me tons of information before I ever met the child. She was also a great resource after placement as other questions arose.
Truthfully, for each of my placements, I think I’ve been given as much information as workers had available before the children came to me. Information is great. Gather everything you can. But don’t forget to listen to your kids, too! Even the littlest ones can “tell” you much of what you need to know. Pay attention to their words, their body language and the things they leave unsaid. They know their stories better than anyone. Make an effort not to talk to other adults about them when they are in the room. Include them in the conversation. Let them know that their voice is important and that you will always listen. And then listen—you’ll be just fine.