In my job, I often speak to families who are curious about foster parenting. Some of them come to the decision to foster as a way to fulfill what they believe to be a calling in their lives. Others have adult children, are now empty-nesters, and continue to have the desire to parent. There are also many who start the journey of foster parenting after years of infertility, and in hopes that fostering might eventually lead to adoption. All of these reasons are significant. They all carry a deep motivation to help meet the needs of at-risk children in our communities. However, not everyone is right for foster parenting.
To be brutally honest, I cringe a bit when I hear people speak about their desire to be foster parents. I hear them say, “We really want a baby that is ready to be adopted, and does not have any major issues…” I just want to say, “Bless your heart”. And, I mean it. I really do.
However, there is a great distance between the desire to foster/adopt and the knowledge of what all it will take out of you to do so. And, that’s okay. The first step is to ask questions. The second step is to listen. I mean…really listen to what professionals, foster parents, and others in the field are saying.
Entering into the world of foster parenting is exciting, but definitely presents a huge learning curve. Because of this, let’s take off our rose-colored glasses for a bit, and get real.
Presenting my list: “You Are Not Ready To Be a Foster Parent If…”
(Disclaimer: I had some help from other foster/adoptive parents with this one…just want you to know that these opinions are not just my own; although, I agree with all of them. Also, this list pertains to foster parenting in the United States. Other countries/areas of the world may have different laws/expectations of foster families.)
- You are not ready to be a foster parent if you do not see the value of the required training. Most agencies/governments require training in order to be approved as a foster parent. If you believe that “I’ve raised children and it is common sense”, I would challenge you to consider that the training is not only required, it is important. Of course, you understand basic child development because you have parented, but you need to understand that the children who are in foster care have experienced trauma, separation from family of origin, and lots of changes. Parenting a foster child IS different than parenting a child you have raised from birth. The training does not stop when your license is approved. You will be asked to participate in on-going training. Even after adoption, you may need to seek additional training, information, and resources. Trust me on this. My husband and I have both attended various training in order to give us better insight into our kids, and our last adoption occurred in 2013. Adoption really is a lifelong learning process.
- If you desire to find a child for your family instead of offering your family to a child, then you are not ready to be a foster parent. Children who have been brought into the system because of abuse and neglect may not match your expectations of an “ideal” child. Switch your thinking from finding the right child for your family to giving your family to a child, despite the history and issues the child is facing. It may not feel perfect (because parenting never is), but foster children should never have to live up to the standards of your home that is hopefully free of abuse and neglect.
- You are not ready to be a foster parent if you believe that love fixes everything. Please don’t get me wrong. Love does help, and I’m all about love, peace, and rainbows, but if love was enough to undo the trauma, then social workers would be spending less time finding new placements for foster children who have disrupted, and I dare say that abuse and neglect would not be an issue. Pouring love into a child goes a long way, but fostering takes so much more. Love is also not always about feeling good all of the time. Love takes it all…the sweat, the tears, the hard work, and the dirt. It takes tenacity, resourcefulness, humility, understanding, and humor. If it didn’t, would it even be called love?
- If you have firmly picked a side in nature versus nurture debate, then you are not ready to be a foster parent. Oh, this one. I’ve been asked about a gazillion times where I stand on this debate. In my twenties/early thirties and before parenting through adoption came around, I was headstrong about nurture. However, as a parent, I know that nature and nurture are equally important. I also know that children who have experienced trauma, have on-going developmental delays, or come from high-risk situations need extra nurturing, patience, and stability. I cannot tell you the number of foster and adoptive parents who, after having children in their homes, shake their heads with a fervent “YES” that genetics and nature are incredibly important and absolutely impact a child’s development. For example, one of my kids does this certain little thing with his mouth, and I recognize it immediately as resembling the same thing his birth mother does. He has never lived a day of life with her, except in the womb.
- You are not ready to be a foster parent if you believe that children should not have a connection with their birth parents in some way. Even if adoption has occurred, you must remember that your children have a history that does not include you. I know that does not feel good, but that is the reality. For my children, their primary histories only include being in the wombs of their biological mothers. However, these histories are important, and so is the fact that they all have biological parents who love them, think about them and miss them. Regardless of how you feel about your child’s biological parents, it is your responsibility to share with your children what you can about their biological families.
- If you cannot find it in your heart to forgive the birth parents for what they may have done to the children, then you are not ready to be a foster parent. Forgiveness is one of those things that we love to soak up, but man, we have a hard time dishing it out. When you think about the drug exposure, the lack of supervision or protection, the physical and sexual abuse, or the chronic neglect of children, the first thing that does not come to your mind is “Let’s just forgive them for what they have done.” I know what you are thinking because I have thought the same thing! More than once! However, if we take a step back and remember that the biological parents were also children who had dreams for their futures or who may histories full of abuse, it is much easier to be empathetic to them. I’m not saying to forget what has happened, but I am saying that you have to get past it, reconcile with it, and choose to reach out in support to the birth parents.
- You are not ready to be a foster parent if you do not have a support system. Fostering can take a lot out of you. With natural childbirth, you have leave time, people bringing dinner over, others offering to clean your house and lots of support. With fostering, you may not have any of these things. I have spoken to so many foster parents who, in their first few months of fostering, were completely worn out. They cannot go on date nights because they cannot just drop the kids off at a family member’s or friend’s house without prior approval. They may not be approved for leave from work. It can be quite overwhelming. You need to build a support system that includes approved childcare and someone to just let you unload your frustrations on. It is so important.
- If your only goal is adoption, and you are not willing to help parents get their kids back, then you are not ready to be a foster parent. If this is the case, then there are a tremendous amount of children (necessarily, not babies) in need of adoption in the United States. There is a federal law that mandates states to work towards reunification with biological families when children are brought into custody. This is not just something that is taken into consideration or viewed as a recommendation. It is expected to be upheld by the courts, caseworkers, and foster parents, and this can be a very difficult pill to swallow. I’ve been there and done that. I know how hard it can be, but it is not impossible. Like a lot of things in life, we cannot control how other people respond to circumstances, but we can control how we respond. I just know that if my children were in care, I would certainly want and need foster families who supported me and the goal to reunify with my children. I suspect you probably feel the same way.
- You are not ready to be a foster parent if you are not willing to accept ambivalence and lack of gratitude from the children in your care. Children who end up in foster care are generally not happy about it. Why would they be? Even with the tough situations they are in, they love their parents and want to be home. Because of this, it is completely unrealistic to expect a child in your home to appreciate what you are doing for him or her. The same goes with their feelings towards you. Children and youth might be ambivalent about how they feel about you. If you are a “feely” kind of person, it can hurt…a lot…to think that the child you are caring for may never (or, at least not for a long time) show you affection and concern. My advice on this: Don’t take it personally.
- If you lack patience with people and processes, then you are not ready to be a foster parent. When asked what the average length of time a child is in care before potentially being available for adoption, I usually let people know that there is no average. Each case and situation are different. The US federal law dictates a length of time (typically between 15 to 22 months) that the birth parents can work towards reunifying with their children. It is also important to remember that there is a ton of paperwork involved. Most caseworkers and court officials are overloaded with cases. Attorneys are also extremely busy. All of these players and their workloads absolutely can affect how quickly or slowly things progress on the case. Also, the biological parents deserve the time to rectify the situation that brought their children into care. Again, if the tables were turned, I suspect we would all feel the same way.
- You are not ready to be a foster parent if you are not willing to remember that God loves the biological parents, whose children are in foster care, as much as He loves you. Ouch, right? It is super easy as a human being to administer our own versions of grace, or what we think God should feel about people who abuse/neglect children, or live a different lifestyle (whatever it is) than us. Jesus entered into places where others did not want to go. He offered care, compassion, and hope to the people who society disregarded. He also gave instruction. When we learn about the details of why a child enters foster care, it is hard not to get angry. However, the passion of Christ was for us all…everyone. Let us not forget that.
I hope this list informs and inspires you about foster parenting. I certainly do not want it to dissuade anyone from foster parenting, or seeking information about it. However, one must remember that when you choose to become a foster parent, you are choosing to jump into a world of many imperfections. It is not a fair system. Not for anyone.
Biological parents are faced with quite difficult circumstances. They absolutely need our concern and compassion. Foster families will also deal with frustrating situations beyond their control.
For the children and youth who fall into the system, life is anything but fair. At the very least, they deserve foster families who are willing to commit to the goal of reunification or permanency through adoption (if this is what the court decides), who understand the need for children to have a connection to their biological families, and who realize that trauma can present many challenges both in the present and the future.
So, are you ready to be a foster parent? Oh, friend. I hope so.