10 Things I Never Knew About Foster Care

10ThingsINeverKnewAboutFosterCare

(You can see a recent update/followup to this post here)

1. When it comes to your kid’s background and story, you will be the last to know about almost everything. It’s frustrating, to be sure, because as the foster parent, you want to know what you’re in for, right? But confidentiality takes precedent. I know someone who didn’t even know the name of the child’s birth parents until months after the placement began. You definitely won’t know who the prior placements were or why they left unless you do some of your own digging.

2. You will often feel very alone and like there’s no one who understands, even other parents. Foster parenting is so different than normal parenting, and there’s so little that you can share with others. On top of it all, parenting a traumatized child (every foster child is traumatized, in some sense, because leaving one’s home is terrible, no matter how bad of a situation they were in) is extremely different than normal parenting. You can’t operate using normal parenting tactics, because you could be triggering a past memory. The pressure is also a lot greater, as there are many cooks in the kitchen. When you make a big decision for that child, 5 other people have to also give their input and approval.
You also won’t be able to compare notes with other parents, even if their kids are similar in age. Kids who have undergone trauma develop at a different rate. While they may not have the ability to focus and sit still like other kids their age, they also have hyper aware capabilities that could rival those of an FBI agent. They won’t follow the normal patterns for growth and development.
3. Expect hours of phone calls and logistics every single week. On top of all the normal phone calls that one has to make for kids (school, doctor, dentist, after school activities) you also need to coordinate with a therapist, CASA worker, social worker, CSA visitation workers, birth parents and any TBS workers (special behavioral mentors). In our case, we times that by two since we have brothers. Last Friday, I counted the amount of business related text messages I made in a SINGLE afternoon– TWENTY-FIVE. If your child has any medical needs (most do, in some form), expect 6-8 hours worth of phone communication per child, per week. I’m not joking.
4. Expect little to no control. This is a large one. It’s very easy to experience foster-parent-burnout trying to control all the factors. The truth is, foster care is a huge lesson in letting go. You will hardly be able to predict the child you have, much less control anything about them. You won’t know when or if they’re being returned to their family, and you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to put a timeline on it. Come up with a few plans and contingencies, and then forget about it and focus on the day to day task of loving them. If you’re anxious about controlling things, the child will be too.
That being said, it’s easy to lose sight of what “normal” used to mean for you and your family once your foster care placement begins. Before it all begins, come up with 3 things you won’t budge on (special time once a week with your bio kids, quality of life, how far or how often you’re willing to drive to visits, etc.) and then consider everything else part of the “gray” area that you’re willing to let slide, if need be.
5. Don’t expect appreciation or affirmation from the kids. This may seem obvious, but after a while, when you’ve been “in the trenches” for a while, it’s easy to feel resentful towards your placements. Don’t they know how much you’ve done for them? But biological kids don’t know that they’re supposed to thank their mom for giving birth to them. Why should foster kids be any different? Kids are supposed to be hardwired to trust their caregivers and focus on other things. If they’re not thanking you, they’re probably comfortable and it’s a good sign.
6. Get ready to ask for help. Have a huge support system lined up ahead of time, because you’re going to need it. Foster parenting is a lot more exhausting than normal parenting, and there is no shame in asking for as much help as you can get your hands on. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed.
7. Plan in breaks. Have the names of family, friends, or official respite care ready to go ahead of time. Don’t feel guilty for needing a break to recharge your batteries. Attaching to kids placed in your home is incredibly draining, like trying to grow a limb overnight. It’s also exhausting for the kids! They probably need a break from you too.
8. Kids will try to exert control over something as a way to process the changes in their life. They just will. The trick is, are you going to control what it is that they get to control? Find things to give them choices about, and make sure you like the outcomes. For instance, if you’re serving vegetables for dinner, give them a choice between two of them so that they’re less likely to fight you. Food will almost always be the thing they try to control, because it’s such a basic part of everyday survival. Don’t go head to head with them, or it will turn into a long and ugly power struggle. Just give choices that you can live with. Having some measure of control will make the child feel safe. If you don’t give them something to exert control over, they will find it in some way or another. I know someone whose foster kid would resort to wetting the bed, just to have something they could control.
9. Never assume a child’s behavior is due to any one thing in particular. Ask don’t assume. You could not make up the stories that some of these kids have for their bizarre habits or actions.
In our training, we heard about a kid who refused to eat dinner at the same time as her foster family. The parents were angry, and kept trying to force her to eat with the family as a house rule, thinking she was being obstinate. Turns out, she came from a home where there was never enough to eat. She always ate last because she wanted to make sure her younger siblings had eaten enough first. It was a habit that she couldn’t break, and she was ashamed to talk about it.
I know of another kid who refused to pick up his toys and would always say, “throw them away!”  Turns out, he wasn’t being obstinate– his previous foster parent used to punish him for everything by throwing away his toys. He was saving his feelings and pre-empting the strike.
10. Have a therapist or confidant on speed dial– for YOU. We’ve been to over 60 hours of foster care training, and without fail, there’s always been that one parent who cannot shut up about their case. They are so torn up inside, that the moment they get into a room where they can talk, they NEVER STOP. They hijack the session and do more talking than the instructor!
And I completely understand– there’s SO much to talk about and process! Foster parenting is an incredible journey, but it’s a marathon. You need someone to talk to. If you’re married, prepare for foster parenting to be the hardest thing you’ve ever experienced together. Before you know it, the miscommunications pile up and can begin ripping a marriage apart. I’ve heard this from 99.9% of the foster parents I’ve talked to. Are you the 1% that’s above it all? If you’re thinking that way, you probably aren’t. Get a therapist ready to go. The success of the child in your care depends on it.
Did I miss any? Feel free to leave other helpful pieces of advice in the comments!
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  • http://www.thatmamagretchen.com/ Gretchen

    You are such a source of wisdom! Your transparency is super encouraging and I know you are a impacting many parents and children by sharing your journey! xoxo

    • themrscone

      Thank you, Gretchen!

  • http://www.a-life-from-scratch.com A Life From Scratch

    This is wonderfully honest and true. I admire what you’re doing. You are making a MASSIVE difference!

    • themrscone

      Thanks, Courtney!

  • http://www.theseanamethod.com Seana Turner

    So, my question after reading this is: “Do you think this is a good system?” An outsider’s perspective is that the system is not set up to make the foster parent be able to do all that she wishes to do… and I’d be curious if you had thoughts on how to change it to make it better.

    • themrscone

      It’s hard to determine what would make things better, other than fewer caseloads for social workers so they had time to be proactive instead of just putting out fires. We’ve dealt with 3 social workers, only one of whom has been competent. But it’s a broken system because it is dealing with a broken thing. Parents aren’t supposed to become drug addicts and endanger their children (75% of cases in our county). It’s not the way things were meant to be. Anything that we do to clean up the mess is going to be less than perfect when dealing with such a messed up situation.

      • K.S

        Competent social worker…..that’s in the same category as a unicorn or the pot at the end of a rainbow.

  • http://sheswrite.net ShesWrite

    Wow. What a wonderful list, and your candidness, courage and grace come through so beautifully in this post. I remember when I was in college, I thought that it’d be a challenge, but one that I wanted when I became a parent to also have a foster home. Now that I’m older and have two small ones, I can’t imagine I’d be able to handle it with the grace necessary. My hats off to you for doing this. Such a big heart you must have. Visiting from SITS.

    • themrscone

      Thanks for stopping by! Part of me thinks that we’d be better at this once our kids are grown and moved out. We’ll see though!

  • http://www.inevitablysam.com Sam

    Wow! I appreciate this post more than I can put into words. Fostering and adoption is something that has been on my heart since I was a child. I grew up with friends that were fosters or adopted themselves so I learned a lot. Now it’s something we have at the forefront of our minds for our family in the future. A lot of our other plans and ideas are built around the hope to foster and/or adopt some day. Thank you for the straightforward truth!

    • themrscone

      Sam, I’m glad it was useful to you! Thanks for stopping by. Feel free to ask any questions!

  • http://www.hockeywifehockeylife.com Samantha Angell

    This is a great article! I’ve read some books on fostering, and I think this speaks true to a lot of the stories I have heard! Like another reader said, I admire what your doing. Good for you! Visiting from #letsbefriends today, and looking forward to following along with you!

    • themrscone

      Thank you for stopping by, Samantha!

  • Leslie Jennings

    It’s nice to hear the facts about foster care from someone who is being open and honest. Fostering twins is in my near future and it’s great to hear these things and know we’re not alone. Thanks for being candid & honest!

    • http://www.ourconezone.com Kelly Cone

      Leslie, glad to help! You can always email or ask questions. We’ve only been doing this for about a year and a half, but we’ve definitely been through the wringer 🙂

      • tjloftis

        About 17 or 18 months here and we’ve been through the wringer many times. It seem like when we have to go to family/DCS meetings the foster parents are the ones being attacked by the parents and other family members, their lawyers and DCS more than the real parents.

  • Jim Didion

    Great article. There are so many books and articles that sugar coat the system. Even the social workers can paint a little more rosy picture than what is reality. Be prepared for the unexpected and never forget to ask others for help. But with all the heartache, it’s a very rewarding experience if you do it for the right reasons.

    • http://www.ourconezone.com Kelly Cone

      Thanks! Social workers probably paint it a little rosy because it’s all relative, and what “normal” looks like gets so easy skewed when you deal with this stuff day in and out. What looks like a lot of work to a social worker means it’s a TON of work!

      • Jim Didion

        I agree 1000%. It is a matter of perspective. Foster parents, especially new foster parents, need to learn that normal to a social worker may still be a very challenging child.

  • Mary Chambers Bays

    This is all very true. We are a specialized foster home and on an average I take the kids to 3 doctor/dental appointments a week, this DOESN’T include their weekly therapy appointments. We will be adopting again next month and we are thinking about letting our license expire after that. Being a Foster Parent is so much harder than you can imagine but the littlest progress that the kids make like going a half of a school year without getting suspended is like winning the lottery. Baby steps, baby steps….

    • http://www.ourconezone.com Kelly Cone

      It’s true! Our siblings haven’t had a vicious fight in a few months, and this is enough to make me feel teary, it feels like such a victory.

      • http://www.ourconezone.com Kelly Cone

        And I totally know what you mean about letting your license expire. After these kids we have leave us for a permanent adoptive home, we’re thinking of taking a little break. The toll it’s taking on our very young bio kids is pretty rough.

        • tjloftis

          I’m don’t blame the children for having sorry parents and I feel sorry for them but it does take a big toll on the whole family.

  • terrilynnmerritts

    Good article. I think, despite the difficulties and challenges, that foster parenting and adoption are just two of the best things in life. You really make a difference and will never again sweat the small stuff because you can see where these kids have been in life and what they have faced and they enrich your life so much. My love to all of you who care enough to do this.

    • themrscone

      Thank you so much for your encouragement and support. Many things pale in comparison when faced with the reality of what these kids have had to deal with.

  • Lisa

    You forgot to add, don’t let these things stop you! Dealing with the state is as hard as dealing with the children, but foster care is addictive and desperately needed work. Don’t give up! Show those children there is something different out there than what they have known!

  • tjloftis

    Being a Resource Parent in Tenn. in which I believe is number 3 as DSC being the worse, all 10 of these are true but number 11 should be all the running around that a foster parent has to do, drive many miles to visited the children parents for 2 hours, having to watch bad parents treating their children badly, having a case worker that will not work with you on getting the children much needed medications because the bio-mom has to sign the paper’s to do it, having to drive to court many miles time after time just to watch it be put off, it took us over a year and we had to watch the children suffer and having put a lot of stress on our family, we’ve had as many as 8 with 3 having to be taken out of our home and another 12 year old boy is pushing us really hard to get out, if you are planning on doing it for the money well you add up the material things they tear up, the gas and wear and tear on the cars, the taking time to go to school because of the trouble they cause, wanting 3 meals a day, stress eating, taking them to counseling week after week that doesn’t do any good and seems to make things worse. Resource Parents have rights and a person should learn those rights before doing this and not depend on the case worker because most will not tell you your rights and most do not care about the mental state of the children, they want to get them back home for the bonus. Children these day’s have taken over the household and get any thing they want but we do not reward children for bad behavior, but we fight for the children and it’s worth it in the long run but this can affect your career big time.

  • Adria Murphy

    Hi, it’s Adria! I was perusing articles and tips on foster care on pinterest when I saw this post and got really excited: aaah! I know her! I’ve never before stumbled upon an article or post written by someone I know when randomly scrolling through pinterest! I recently became certified as a foster parent! I’ve read your blog before, when you’ve linked to it on FB. I’m so excited that I’ll be able to read your posts now, not just as an interested acquaintance, but as a fellow foster parent! Yay! Love and gratitude for your words, even the hard ones. It’s good to know what I’m getting into!

    • http://www.ourconezone.com Kelly Cone

      Wow, Adria! You’d be a great foster parent! Let me know if you ever need anything.

  • Deanna Willson Rounds

    I work for the “system” and you all have very valid complaints! I would ask that if things are getting to you or you feel overwhelmed let us know sooner rather than later! I am a resource coordinator and as such my job is to support foster parents. I am not sure if all states have this position but I have told my fosters that they can reach out to me and I will get them answers even if it takes a day or two. My state is also working on a mentoring program to connect new foster families with experienced ones. If you all have suggestions I would love to hear them – I want my fosters to feel as though they can come to me.