May is Foster Care Awareness Month. Foster care is a strong interest and personal cause of mine. I spent 17 years working with a specialized foster care agency in Pennsylvania. I loved the work and the kids I met during my tenure, even though there were some practices that created more harm than good.
It breaks my heart that children need to be taken from their families and placed in foster care. Your family is supposed to be the one group that guarantees a safe place, but that isn’t true for a lot of children in foster care.
Not all children are placed in foster care because of child abuse, but many are. Others get placed because they have a single parent with no family resources who gets sick or injured, or doesn’t have enough money to minimally care for their children. Some parents voluntarily relinquish care of their children because they don’t feel adequate to do the job for a temporary period of time. Some children are placed if their parent goes to jail because there is no one left to care for them. Other children are placed because their parents are addicted to drugs and have basically abdicated the care of the home and children to their oldest child.
Some people think foster parents become foster parents to get rich. While I imagine there are people who expect to make money from fostering children, the money foster parents receive to care for children is not nearly commensurate with the time, energy and personal resources they invest of their own. Most foster parents take care of other people’s children because they love children and want to help.
One of the practices I didn’t like about the foster care system is the message it sent to abused children. Specialized foster care agencies worked with hard-to-place children, usually with mental health diagnoses and difficult behaviors to manage. Not enough was known about trauma back then and the conventional wisdom at the time was that some children were just born with behavior problems, so it was understandable how parents could lose patience and hurt their children. We now understand a vast majority of mental health problems have their roots in repeated or ongoing trauma.
What I didn’t like is that, in most of the cases I saw, when there were two parents in the home and one was the perpetrator and the other was the knowing or unknowing bystander, the bystander didn’t stand up to the perpetrator to ask them to leave the home. The perpetrator stayed and the child was placed. You can imagine the message this sends to children: Don’t tell the truth or complain about what happens in our house because if you do, you’ll be taken away to live with strangers.
This is further compounded by the foster care practice of recruiting foster parents. Foster care agencies are always looking for foster parents. They do their best to match children with parents, so it’s a good practice to have more foster homes than you need. While this seems like a good idea, in essence, foster care agencies aren’t always honest about what to expect when you foster. Being a parent is the hardest job on the planet we receive no training for. Compound that job with caring for children who are not your own, and you have the challenging role of step-parenting. But add the histories of abuse and resulting challenging behaviors, along with the county holding legal guardianship of the child, and your job has job gotten exponentially more difficult. But most foster care agencies looking for foster parents won’t tell you all that; they are known to paint a very rosy picture of fostering children. They will downplay the behaviors the children exhibit while feeding into your desire to help by misleading you that all these children need is a loving home, which you are only too happy to provide.
A child who has endured abuse often suffers from enuresis and encopresis, meaning they have accidents of the liquid and solid varieties, day and night. If the abuse was sexual, they may be promiscuous or seductive toward men in the house. If you have children of your own, the foster children may educate them in ways no child should be educated. They will lie, they will steal and they may hurt your pets and small children.
This behavior is completely understandable when you consider what their small lives have consisted of. I can tell you some of the horrors I know about, but beyond that, there is so much that never makes it into the records the children won’t speak of. I have seen two-month-old babies with black eyes and broken bones for the crime of crying. We had a boy in care whose mother poured a pot of boiling water over his head when he was three and a seven-year-old girl who had been raped repeatedly by every male relative in the family while her mother not only watched, but held her down. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what some children have endured.
It is quite normal that they have challenging behaviors; these behaviors are the child’s way to survive. While being in your home should be a relief to these children, they aren’t able to relax enough to trust that your home may be wonderful. They instinctively know they will be going back and fear they will be punished for leaving, even though leaving home wasn’t their choice or their fault. Rather than having to cope with the pain of caring about you and having to leave, they will keep trying to get you to throw them out.
Being a foster parent means loving beyond measure. It means being hurt over and over again when your expectations are dashed. It means continuing to love, even when your foster child is unlovable. And most of all, it means never giving up. Be prepared, know what you are in for and do it anyway. Every child deserves to have parents who love like this. Not all children are dealt those cards, but you can right a horrible wrong by selflessly giving, giving and giving more. Love is one gift that doesn’t run out… you have an endless supply and foster children need it more than most.