I have to introduce you to the foster dad I know best.
After an unsatisfactory case, Justin and Megan didn’t quit.
When I was 12, two little girls came into our home. They were distant relatives of a Hollywood actor, and my mom's first comment was, "Rich people don't even want their own relatives." Now if I remember that comment, I GUARANTEE, that comment went straight into the hearts of those little girls who were 7 and 11.
My family was not very connected [or trauma-informed] and honestly, should have never fostered.
Why is it important to recruit foster parents of all races and cultures?
We talked about:
Joy on her first round of raising little kids, 2007
- What made her decide to be a foster mom
- What's been most challenging and most joyful
- Whether she asked her daughters permission to open their home to new kids
- Whether she has the support she needs as a foster mom
- How she chose a foster care agency
- How she keeps in touch with kids' parents
- Semper Gumby! Why "foster parent chill" is everything
A kid might not feel lucky to be in my home. (And she shouldn't be expected to.)
If you read our story last week, we hope you felt the weight of asking for a child to be moved from a foster home.
Could this situation have been prevented? Is it possible to prevent moving kids from foster home to foster home, and adding to their trauma?
We call it bouncing. Or disrupting. Or "putting in notice."
These words can make something that would otherwise horrify us seem like part of the expectation.
Here's the rub for me: I would never accept that kind of treatment for my son, who was born to me, and I want to people to share that same concern for the kids in Colorado foster care. Against all odds, how can we hold back the fast and furious crisis management of foster care, for more stability?
Kids should have one home. These kids already have at least two. Let's not add trauma to trauma.
To do better, we need to step back. We need to think, listen, and challenge "the way we do things."
Foster parents, along with every other child welfare professional, can set patterns and boundaries to decrease the risk of moving a child.
If I could go back in time, I think the following four things would have given the girls the stability they deserve.
1) I would start small.
We figured we already had one kid (our toddler son), so what's one more? And if we're fostering anyway, why not siblings?
Knowing what I know now, I encourage new foster families to start fostering one child, and accept more children as they are confident in their capacity. Think about the intensity that comes along with each age-range: sleepless newborn, nonverbal toddlers, active preschoolers, school-age kids, teens with more freedom and long-term weight on their decisions. Kids in foster care can have PTSD rates higher than United States military veterans. To love them well, we may need to adjust our sense of normal, and our expectations of day to day life, in order to prepare our homes for their healing process.
I know the need is great, and foster homes often take multiple kids to help keep them out of institutions, but I'd rather not send a kid away from my home, and risk traumatizing them more. I'd rather work harder to recruit my friends in caring for children, than put too much strain within one home.
My friend, Melissa, asks families to consider only adding one child with trauma to a family at a time. Of course, siblings are a special consideration here. But her stories help me understand that it's okay to know our limits. (I also talked with Melissa here.)
If we set our limit at only one child at a time (my family's current standard), the girls may have gone first to a home more adequately prepared for siblings, not needing to move multiple times before going home forever.
Disclaimer: You may have a much higher threshold in your family. We've found that fostering one at a time is what we, as young professionals with a young son, can handle. We have several friends with happy houses FULL of kids, and it works for them. But foster parents who foster one at a time are needed, too.
2) I would build my village and prepare support for our family.
We naively moved 60 miles from home weeks before bringing these girls to our home. New city, few friends, higher cost of living. Stress upon stress. We didn't have an easy place to send our son when he needed to play with toys without fear of being pushed or bitten. We didn't know what childcare centers might have an opening. We didn't have our network of 20 or so friends in our former neighborhood who would have loved to help us. More stories soon on how to build your village, but this article is a great approach for anyone who wants to help a foster parent.
3) I would have met their parents.
I was scared of parents, that first time. I heard intimidating rumors (which would not phase me now) and figured it was best to stay away. I never met them face to face, even though their daughters lived in my home for seven weeks, and visited them twice a week. Frankly, I'm now horrified by the idea that I was acting as mother to someone else's children and never took the opportunity to meet their mom and dad. Regardless of almost any "scary tendencies," I could have requested a safe way to meet and talk with their parents. The older sister told me every day that she missed her mommy, and I wish I'd given her the reassurance that I personally knew how much mommy missed her, too. I remember one day she sent the girls home from a visit with a bag full of gifts and a note that said, "Say thank you to the family who is taking care of you, and be good." She could tell the girls were taken care of. I could have sent a note back, at the very least.
Now I know that meeting the parents can help a case in a few ways.
First, when kids see a positive relationship between their current caretaker (foster parent) and their primary attachment figure (often mom or dad), they can relax, feeling a little less blind-sided by the sudden change. If mom or dad is positive in response to the foster parent's outreach, the child might see that trust as "permission" from mom or dad to develop and grow in the foster home.
Second, when foster parents know the child's parents, they can have a clearer view of the trajectory of the case. I now meet the parents every time, and advocate for services that will help the family. With their focus on one or two families (unlike other professionals on the case with 10+ families), foster parents can speak up for the long term needs and benefit of the family. With teamwork like this, parents of children in foster care often get the help they need more quickly, and they feel supported, not like villains, in their difficult task of stabilizing and preparing to parent again.
Third, if the parents do not prove themselves safe and regain custody, the child is more likely to understand, and feel grounded in, their personal history if the foster/adoptive parents showed effort and camaraderie toward the parents.
The Annie E Casey Foundation offers a framework for connecting the foster family to the child's family here. If you're unsure whether contact is allowed in your area, I encourage you to ask persistently for a meeting with the child's parents. Use the research linked to advocate for the good outcomes for the child and family.
4) I would make their arrival in our home contingent on treatment.
Not because I want to place a clinical qualification over the kids we foster, but because without that pressure, the system is less timely in connecting kids with the services they need.
Because I assumed they would fit right in with our family, play with our son, and roll with life, I thought we wouldn't need therapy. I assumed if they needed therapy, we could get them an appointment on the spot. But five weeks in, after we'd asked the county to start looking for a new home, the case manager observed their needs as "more challenging than most" and put the toddler on the waiting list for treatment at the Kempe Center. I wonder, if we would have started therapy on day one, could we have given them stability?
We recently accepted a preteen boy into our home, and required that his team get therapy on the calendar before he moved in. Not because we were afraid of him, but because we knew the system needs deadlines and incentives to keep kids from falling through the cracks. He remained with us until his mom was ready for him (to his delight!) to move back home. It wasn't an easy case for anyone, but the teamwork and clear communication kept us empowered to stick with him. Better yet, his therapy continues as a support to his stability at home with mom. My favorite resource for those "How can I prepare for THIS child?" questions is the Facebook group, Parenting with Connection. Locally in Colorado, you can get personal feedback from other licensed foster parents at Parents with Altitude (a service of the Colorado State Foster Parent Association).
I'm the Adult
By most standards, I was justified in asking the county to find a new home for the girls. My son was in danger and my family was not able to rise under that level of pressure. But I don't want to defend my decision, focusing on my reasons, rather than their equally real pain.
After all, I'm the adult.
I would rather spend my words on helping families avoid moving a child.
Together, let's hold back the dam of additional trauma for kids in the system.
Photos by Hilltop Willow Photography. Thank you Steph and Praj for letting us spend the morning with your family.
P.S. If you're in Colorado Springs, join us for a fundraiser and chance to meet local foster parents on March 28.
We sent them away. Two little girls.
Every time I meet with a Foster Together donor or helper, I leave with a full heart. My whole idea with Foster Together was to show the average person how to meet needs in foster care, and each of our team members bring their specific angle and history into caring for kids and families.
I don't want to keep the privilege of knowing them to myself. For Foster Together, our "success stories" are always in the context of relationships.
Read their stories, and consider joining us!
Nicole is one of our most active Foster Together champions. We've been communicating for months, but only met in person last week at our first Denver "Thank You Party" for donors and helpers. Nicole emailed me a few months back: "I heard you on Colorado Matters on NPR today. I want to know if there's a way to get personally involved." I ran her background check, reviewed some etiquette and expectations with her and a foster mom (who is a single parent, works full time, and fosters a two-year-old) in her zip code, and set them up on a "blind date." They answered the questions I'd prepared for them and decided to move forward as a "foster-helper match." Nicole drops off a homemade dinner once a week, and babysits to allow the foster mom a few hours of quiet time. When she told her story at our party, she said doubling a recipe or taking a walk to the park with her new little friend doesn't take much extra effort, compared to the satisfaction of investing in her neighbors.
Brooke, the foster mom who I matched Nicole with, wrote to me. "L (child) loves playing with Nicole and the break for me is so important at a time when financial and emotional resources are thin. And on top of that, she makes us the BEST food!"
Sara owns a photography business in Castle Rock. She's proud of her two kids (11 and 9), and she enthusiastically started donating $20 a month at Christmas time. Through emails, I could tell her heart is big, and when I got to hug her in person, I she asked, "What more can I do? I love the way these families provide stability and comfort. Can I babysit? Can I drop off meals?"
Kristin grew up as a foster-sister to dozens of kids. Now? She's a second-generation foster mom, supported by her roommates and fiancé. Through weekend trips to Breckenridge, a carefully crafted carpool schedule, and constantly being the youngest caregivers on Parents' Night, they create a stable, extended family for one sixteen year old girl who adores belonging to this unconventional village. (Sidenote: Kristin and her sister, Michelle, started fostering as a team two years ago. Michelle serves as a board member for Foster Together while she completes her MBA at Kellogg.) Kristin received a Panera gift card during our Feast to the Families project, and took her teenager on a special outing. She regularly connects me with new foster families and friends who want to find a way to help kids, but feel overwhelmed by the system.
-Hope, Founding Foster Mom
Honestly, I could tell you a cool story about every single person who gives to Foster Together. (A few favorites here and here.) We are foster parents, caring neighbors, business owners, teachers, grandparents.
Some of us spend hours every day in contact with kids and families at-risk, and others support that work financially.
In six months, we've accomplished plenty, and one of my greatest joys along the way is meeting amazing people who share my concern for kids and families.
And we need to grow our team by 100 people investing $10 every month. Every dollar helps us build a clear way to help kids and families (Want examples? see below).
Here's what we're working on.
- Captivating Colorado's attention with real stories. Humanity motivates action.
- Making it EASY (without compromising kids' safety) to become a foster care babysitter.
- Connecting excellent foster care nonprofits around CO, to make sure they are seen and heard by their target audiences.
I know you care, too. When we meet, or email, or connect on Facebook, you might say, "I really admire what you do..."
But this is not about me doing my project.
This is about us refusing to leave kids to fend for themselves in a "broken system." Community for kids. That is the point.
And now there's a simple way for you to join us.
It's easy. It's not expensive. And we need a bigger team.
Huge thanks to Colorado Public Radio for inviting Foster Together to tell our story across the airwaves of Colorado. This segment brought us dozens of new friends, telling us, "I never thought about foster care like this before. How can I help?" They've become advocates in telling the truth about foster care, investing in and volunteering with our families.
You can listen to the whole interview here.
Scarcity mentality is a weakness of foster care. I often find broken-record phrases like "the system is broken" or “respite is hard to find” to overpower imaginative solutions. The status quo and the overwhelm blinds us to human, neighborly problem-solving.
My husband and I always chuckle when we hear him practicing in the bathroom. Yeah, sure: "troubled preteen, emotionally disturbed." We marvel at the label he's often given.
The foster parents I know don't want the spotlight. They don't want to be known as saints or superheroes.
And the foster parents we work with? They don't want money. In Colorado, foster parents have to prove that they can get by without the stipend of 50 cents - $1 per hour (to cover the child's food, clothes, transportation, and extra needs).
What do foster parents want? They want to keep kids safe. They want to meet a kid's needs. They want enough energy and attention to focus on helping kids thrive and heal in their homes.
Because that's what parents do.
They want to make sure kids aren't left alone in a broken system.
They want to stand up and say, "Not on my watch." when the system forgets the child.
Because that's what parents do.
Want to hear straight from them? Come behind the scenes with me. As Foster Together gets in touch with foster parents around Colorado, we ask them to fill out a basic form. This gives us a clear look at what great stories need to be told in Colorado foster care.
When we ask, "What do you love most about being a foster parent?" they say:
- The sweet little guy we get to care for!
- Seeing children begin to thrive, and their parents grow.
- Providing love, safety and structure, one child at a time.
- Building a relationship with a child and their family. I feel like offering hope, stability, love, and concern to individuals who need it can make a world of difference.
When we ask, "What's the hardest thing about being a foster parent?" they say:
- Watching the system, in being overwhelmed, make poor choices with children's cases.
- Meal prep
- Finding time alone with each child.
- Court system
- Defiance and regression during stress.
- Not much time with my spouse
- Appointment pick-up and drop-off. (Most kids have therapy and visits with their parents multiple times each week.)
- He's been through trauma. I must meet him where he is not where I expect or wish him to be.
- Keeping up with appointments and housework.
Just like any loving parent, foster parents want to remove obstacles to a child's thriving. They want to be guides, comforters, safety-nets. Because that's what parents do. They know that kids need dedicated care and attention: from the regular, every-kid needs, to the unique requirements of foster care.
And just like any parent with special needs kids, they are exhausted. With the intensity of life at home (from PTSD symptoms to daily appointments), foster parents want a quiet evening to simply enjoy the kids, and let the kids know they're loved and valued. Because that's what parents do. When we share the load with them, they get to be foster parents: not just administrators, or frenzied drivers, or behavior interventionists, but nurturers of children.
Sending a meal is one easy way to give them that gift. Just as foster parents want to give the dedicated attention of regular parents, we can step in as we would for any friend welcoming a new baby or battling illness.
Because that's what neighbors do.
If you aren't a foster parent, but want to give the gift of a calm evening to a foster family, sponsor a meal now. It takes thirty seconds and you can choose your family type here: send a meal
40 meals sponsored. Will you be #41?
FOSTER CARE SHOWED ME THAT GOOD NEIGHBORS ARE THE RICHNESS OF LIFE.
See part 1: Disasters bring out the best in a community.
This week, as Foster Together Colorado is ramping up our program plans and fundraising, Hope compares disaster relief efforts to the crisis of foster care.
CONNECTION #2. PEOPLE LIKE TO GIVE TANGIBLE ITEMS
Last week, during news coverage for Hurricane Harvey, I heard multiple pleas from nonprofits asking donors to stop sending boxes of relief items. Instead, they asked for financial donations to allow them to buy exactly what people needed, and not leave them with warehouses of un-sorted toothbrushes and tshirts on the wrong side of town.
Some of the most successful foster care support events are backpack or suitcase stuffing parties. I know why. I have a three-year-old. How gratifying to take him to Walmart and spend $30 on some of his favorite necessities, imagining together the child who will receive our gift. An afternoon well spent. I can feel good about that. With a strategic distribution plan, backpacks with school supplies and suitcases with fresh pajamas give kids (and their caregivers) relief and normalcy.
It's easy to see a “big problem” rather than a person.
But, when that strategy isn’t clear ahead of time, I have to remind myself of the Hurricane Harvey (and now Irma, too) donation warnings. I've seen the situation parallelled in foster agencies and nonprofit basements: dozens of backpacks and suitcases needing storage and labeling, with plenty of effort ahead to get the supplies to the right child.
My first time as a foster mom, I cared for a toddler and a five-year old for seven weeks. Our home felt like a drive-by stuffed animal donation center. The girls received stuffed bears, puppies, even a monkey, from our agency, DHS intake office, DHS visit supervisor, and others. I think they collected a dozen stuffed animals in less than two months. The girls were excited (for a few minutes) by each new lovie. I was grateful for the kindness they represented.
Here’s what we can learn from this. People like giving something tangible. It makes them feel good. It’s simple. They put themselves in a place of tragedy and imagine the comfort of something small like a toothbrush or stuffed animal. We know people have good intentions. From the natural disaster relief staffers, we know that the general public tends to see a “big problem” rather than the needs of an individual. When imagining a child’s nightmare of abuse, we want to give comfort, but don’t always know a specific child to give to. Comfort without necessitating personal connection? Stuffed animal.
And I understand why. Big systems for disaster relief or child welfare sometimes operate under a one-size-fits-all solution. To counter this, Foster Together begins with an easy system to match specific foster family requests with a real-life neighbor to meet their tangible need. (If you want to help make this happen, leave a comment! Donations coming soon!) Child abuse and neglect is a “big problem,” but as long as the general public keeps hearing scary, depressing statistics instead of getting face-to-face with the people in need, we won’t be able to tailor our support to their needs.
Hear me out. I am grateful for every stuffed animal the kids received, for the school supplies that kept “our” 12-year-old coloring for hours. I am grateful for every box of canned goods and toothbrushes sent to fellow Americans along the coasts this week. And my goal is to take the kind intentions of every donor, give them an easy way to meet a specifically-requested, tangible need, WHILE inviting them into a relationship with the people they help. Yes, it’s the best way to make sure we’re giving what someone actually needs, but it’s also the best way to grow our souls by the challenges of helping real people.
“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy their community. But the person who loves those around them will create community.” D. Bonhoeffer
Continued tomorrow. Follow @fostertogether on Instagram to read the final disaster relief/foster care comparison this week.
Image credit to a local friend and fellow foster mom.
This week, a friend wrote, “It's amazing and encouraging to see the way people pull together and help after a disaster like #Harvey. I'm reading about long lines of people waiting to volunteer. A furniture store owner opening up his stores for displaced people. Celebrities donating millions. Hundreds of individual moments of bravery and goodness happening.
Imagine if we could live like this every day.”
Because I can’t stop myself from relating anything to foster care, I mentally inserted “...to relieve the disasters of child abuse and neglect” at the end of her paragraph. As I catch snippets about relief efforts on the radio this week, I think of the first-responders (grandparents, foster parents, CASA volunteers, caseworkers, lawyers, philanthropists, churches, teachers) who show up in the unnatural disasters forcing kids into foster care.
Even though I’m keeping my head down in the fundraising trenches for Foster Together this month, and hesitant to do much else, I’ll post a few times this week on the connections between foster care and Hurricane Harvey.
CONNECTION #1: Tragedies bring out the best in a community. People want to help. People get creative and collaborative to solve problems and get people out of harm's way. They don't always wait for a well-defined volunteer position, because they see how a pad of paper and a Facebook account are the tools they need to save a life. There's urgency. No time to waste. No time for staying in your lane.
I still remember the urgency of unity after 9/11, even as a young person afraid of the nightmare. It felt like, "If we don't have hearts to help now, what do we have?" It's the reason I hear a cheesy song like "Proud to be an American" and can't keep my eyes dry or my chest relaxed. Major national tragedies temporarily break through personal (sadly, still not systemic) prejudices and "bring people together."
"In the ongoing tragedy of foster care, we can choose shame and competition or humility."
I've seen foster care do the same thing, with the same urgency. When approached with wisdom and humanity, foster care is the only chance many of us will get to step out of our class and social circle (surprisingly strong forces, for this global age). Just last week, I sent out a message to my friends, asking for childcare help for a baby we fostered. His mom is working hard to build a safe life for him, but she (who, as a child, moved through 80 different foster placements) has challenges around every corner. Within a day, ten people stepped in and we're organizing a schedule to give her two weeks of free childcare and peace of mind while she's at work. Hundreds of nonprofits and official roles exist because people see the life saving work that needed to happen yesterday and aren't at peace leaving a child alone.
Of course, it can do the opposite, when volunteers and workers barge into family lives, attempting to shame parents into proper child-rearing. In the ongoing tragedy of foster care, we can choose "us v. them" or work humbly and realistically toward a unified goal of peaceful childhoods.
Continued tomorrow. Follow @fostertogether on Instagram to read two more comparisons this week.
Image credit to our friends, Rachel and Colt.
We believe that the broken system of child welfare is full of opportunities to creatively and efficiently solve problems to benefit the best cause: the life of another human being.