4 Ways to Prevent Disruption
I am not into sugarcoating foster care. That's why I shared the story about my first big failure as a foster mom.
But I want to give people hope, and a better way. I want to share what I've learned since that time, asking, "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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
5) 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).
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.
What is one small reform you think would benefit the foster care community?
New foster parents should have to "apprentice" under well-seasoned foster parents, and lawmakers and child welfare professionals should have to serve a six month term as foster parents, every five years
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hope Forti is the Founding Foster Mom at Foster Together Colorado. Right now, she's taking a break from active foster parenting (still providing respite for other families) to build her nonprofit to make foster care approachable and accessible for the average person. She loves the way storytelling can make people think of getting involved in something that is otherwise untouchable.