It is a recurring theme to hear this statement:
“I would totally consider becoming a foster parent, but I worry for my permanent [biological or adopted] children. How will it affect them? Will they remain safe? Can they handle getting attached to siblings only to say goodbye?
I am absolutely thrilled to share with you this series where a number of adults share their perspectives of growing up in a family that fostered. There will be links to the next experience at the bottom.
I asked them all the same questions, and their responses vary. Here are pieces of Paul’s experience that he has shared with me:
NB: At what age did your family begin fostering children?
“My grandmother started fostering children with special needs before I was born. She passed away when I was 9 years old, and my mother took on the role of foster parent. Her rationale was that it was a great way to help these kids, considered the hardest cases in the system. This also allowed her to spend time with me as opposed to having to get a 9:00-5:00 job. She specialized in boys because they were easier for my mother to work with. She told me that she did not want a coed home because of the potential for serious problems emerging from that. Some of them had boundary problems and could not be in with members of the opposite sex.”
NB: Are you biological or adopted into your family?
“I was adopted into the family from birth. I was adopted by a single mother, which I am given to understand was uncommon in the mid-1980s. My biological mother could not afford to care for me and my older brother, so she offered me to my adoptive mother.”
NB: Did your parents ask you or bring you into the conversation about fostering other kids, or did they just tell you it was happening?
“One of the unfortunate features about being a child in my family was that they did not really consider the feelings or opinions of myself or my cousins when making big decisions. They had a sort of “children are meant to be seen, not heard” mentality. They already had foster parenting underway when I came into the picture, so they figured they knew what to do. They did, however, listen to my concerns as I got older and those in their care became more interactive.”
NB: How were your relationships with foster kids/siblings? Did it differ per child?
“My family had a businesslike approach to fostering. For my mother and grandmother, it was something that they did because they genuinely loved the task, but they also knew and reminded themselves constantly that they were not going to be there forever. There was always a bit of distance between them and the children they raised, but there was always laughter, comfort, games, and at times, above and beyond care given.
Remember, these were kids with profound mental illnesses, so they could not be dealt with in the same manner as other children. They came from broken homes and had many of the same hurts as neuro-typical children, but there were some serious impediments in communication, physical abilities, and boundaries. Some could not speak; others could not walk. Some had been victims of sexual or other forms abuse, so we had to be vigilant. We did have a few neuro-typical children over the years, but normally they had some kind of mobility issue or problems with authority. In nearly every case when we had a child come into the home, they would come in with anger, reticence, or resentment for being there. By the time they left both my mother and the children would be in tears because bonds had been forged.
Generally, my relationship with them was amiable. I had few instances where I was concerned for something happening between myself and them. In those cases, they were already heavily monitored by my mother or by frequent visits by caseworkers. Some of them were disabled to the point that I could not feasibly relate to them. Even so, I learned a great deal about compassion and sacrifice from spending time with them. Moreover, we did not just stay home all the time. Because of the freedom offered by doing this, my mother was able to pack us all up in the van and take us places like the Oregon coast fairly frequently.”
NB: Did you ever fear if you were going to be “sent back or taken away” or something like that since your foster siblings were removed? Or did you understand what foster care was?
“When kids would be sent away, it always had the effect of making me question my own security in the home. I often found myself wondering if I would sufficiently annoy my mother to the point she would tell the caseworker, ‘Here, take this one, too.’
This, of course, was an irrational fear, and I was cognizant of the difference in status between myself and those coming into our home. I was told that a given child would be there for X-amount of time and then they would go home or to a more specialized care home.
Frequently, they would stay considerably longer than was stated, which suited us just fine. I had a clear grasp of the foster care system, yet irrational fears never quite left me.”
NB: What was it like when children transitioned to their permanent home and out of your home? Did you grieve? Were you sad? Was it relief? Different each time?
“When a child transitioned from our home, it invariably left a hole in the home. Even if the child was there for a week, their voice was still heard, and we ate together. When they would leave, I would stand by the door of the room they occupied and listen to the silence that followed. Where just minutes prior, there was heavy activity within. Now there was the deafening quiet and an empty bed.
Sometimes, a child would be there for long enough that I would grow to think of him as family. I actually am still connected to a couple of them to this day. For most of them, it would be impossible to carry on in familial relationships since they were unable to really interact with us.
I would say that, for the most part, my responses to transitions depended on the time the child spent in the home.”
NB: Because of that experience, have you or would you ever consider becoming a foster or adoptive parent?
“My wife and I have talked about it over the years. I am not vehemently opposed to fostering. I have already adopted one child. We made the choice together rather reflexively. It was a situation where we knew the baby’s mother, and we felt we had enough room to add another name to our tribe.”
NB: Many adults are open to fostering vulnerable children but already have permanent kids (adopted or bio) and fear the effect it will have one them. What would you share with them after your experience?
“I would say a few things.
1) Think first about the potential effects on your own (biological or adopted) children. If you have a hard enough time managing your home as is, it would be unwise to take on additional children, even on a temporary basis. If this is not a problem, then proceed to fostering.
2) Be certain to set requisite boundaries for those in your care. If the child comes from an abusive home, you will likely have problems stemming from that. Those could be angry outbursts, recoiling out of fear at your approach, trouble expressing emotions, inappropriate touch, and so on.
3) Encourage your children to play with them and be friendly. A sense of normalcy can go a long way in helping them. A child’s (in foster care) world is in terrible upheaval, and they need to feel welcome wherever they happen to be.”
NB: Is there anything you’d like to add?
“I would say in the main that foster parenting is a brave and empowering thing to do. It takes a good deal of courage and trust to open your home to other people’s children. It is empowering because it gives you and your children (if you have any) an opportunity to learn and show compassion and love to some of the most vulnerable and needy people in our society.
It is not all sunshine and roses, but the chances are higher for foster children to fall into some messy situations. Good, loving foster parents are a potential way to break vicious cycles which gave rise to the situations these children are in.”