There are currently nearly 400,000 children in foster care in the United States, with close to a third of them who are waiting to be adopted. The need is great.
And yet, we all know that not everyone is called to be a foster parent. I’ve written before about how taking children and then giving up midstream makes things worse, perpetuating their cycle of mistrust and abuse. Not everyone is ready for the challenge, the spiritual warfare (it’s a bloody battlefield, that one), the way foster care turns your life upside down and makes you feel as though your world just became a House of Mirrors.
But there are so many good people out there, just dying to help somehow.
And I’m here to let you know, there are things that you can do to help foster children that don’t include being an actual foster parent. In fact, if more people stepped up and helped foster kids (and parents!) in these ways, we wouldn’t see such a high attrition rate for placements. We wouldn’t see as many foster parents making the call to their social worker, saying, “I’ve had enough! I can’t take another day of this!” By helping and supporting foster children and foster parents in these ways, you could make a huge impact in the life of a child.
So, in a nutshell, here it is: How YOU Can Help Foster Children, without becoming an actual foster parent.
1. Bring a Meal: There’s a reason we have meal trains for families who just welcomed a newborn into their family. Adding anyone, no matter how big or small, shakes up the family dynamic and leaves everyone exhausted. If you can picture how tough it is adding a newborn, you can also imagine how hard it must be to add a 7 year old. These children have to figure out an entirely new way to deal with people they’ve never met before, and vice versa. If the child has any trauma or additional challenging behaviors, it’s all the more disorienting for everyone. There are so many logistics in the beginning of a placement, including piles and piles (about 2-3 hours worth) of papers to fill out, required doctor’s appointments to schedule, and shopping trips for necessary food and supplies.
Contact the foster parent (s) and ask when a good day is for you to bring a meal. Make sure to ask about allergies and what the foster child’s favorite food is, and bring that separately if it differs too greatly from what a foster parent would want to eat. Most of the foster kids we’ve encountered want only junk and comfort food– they often come from poverty, where junk food feels normal. They’ve also been through a lot, and you don’t want the new foster parents to have their first power struggle over trying to get them to eat what would be considered by most to be a healthy dinner. Different battle for a different day! Cheeseburgers, hot dogs, nachos and fast food have always been winners in our experience (as much as the organic foodie in me cringes!).
Even if a foster parent has had a child for a length of time, they would still appreciate having someone bring them a meal. Oftentimes, the first 30-60 days of a placement are what they call the “honeymoon phase”, and it isn’t until after that the real hard work begins. Taking the stress of making dinner for everyone “off the table”, so to speak, can be just what a foster parent needs to make it through the day.
Side Note: In our experience, it’s probably not a good idea to offer to take anyone out to dinner, especially not in the beginning. It’s very overwhelming to be suddenly placed in a new family and many foster children find a restaurant environment too challenging and overstimulating. With a few of our placements, we ditched the idea of eating out with them altogether, because we would spend the entire meal trying to handle their behavior, and it just didn’t seem fair to them.
2. Take the child on an outing: Many of the children in foster care miss out on some of childhood’s greatest moments because they spend all of their time in crisis or moving from place to place. Offering to take the children ice skating, hiking, to a movie, to the park, library, children’s museum, or even on a day trip not only gives them beautiful memories to look back on, it gives the foster parents a mini break. Most of the foster children we’ve met need distractions and need to feel like “normal kids”, despite the fact that their lives look nothing close to normal. I still remember every single person who volunteered their own time and money to take our foster children on outings, and I don’t think they realized what a huge gift that was.
3. Sign up for Respite: It’s no secret that being a foster parent is exhausting in every way possible. It’s a given that they will need a day or two break, usually once or twice a month. The catch-22 here is that while the foster parents need lots of resources, oftentimes the resources that the government provides do a lot to alienate the foster child. There is nothing that makes a foster child feel more like an outsider and “product of the system” than to be dropped off on a stranger’s doorstep for a weekend. For this reason, oftentimes, foster children get worse because of respite care.
But if you already know the child in some capacity, sign up to be an official respite caregiver. It’s not hard (usually just a few background checks). Block out a weekend every other month and let the foster parents know ahead of time that you’re willing to take the kids during that time. You never know– the promise of a break might be the only thing getting them through a hellish week. Volunteer to pick a child up from school on Friday and get them back to school on Monday morning. It will give the foster parents (and, oftentimes the foster child) a much much needed breather, especially if they are intending the placement to be permanent. Growing attachments, both for the foster parents and foster child is like trying to grow an extra limb overnight.
If there are other children in the home, respite care is especially important. In every case I’ve seen or heard about, a foster child will take the amount of attention and work of 2-3 kids. Many times, biological children feel neglected and start to feel resentful, which isn’t good for anyone. A foster parent needs a few days every month to set aside for their biological children and spouse to catch up on love and attention.
And, unlike a foster parent, after that three day commitment is up, you get to go back to your normal life. You don’t have the commitment of being a full time foster parent, but you get to uphold and sustain the ones who are. Not only that, but you also get paid for it– usually around $50/day.
A side note: there are hardly any respite caregivers out there. During our entire time of foster care, there were only 1 or 2 available in the entire county. We were constantly using our immediate family for help, which was draining for them as well. The need here is very very great!
4. Help with everyday logistics: I once wrote about how each foster child comes with around 10-20 hours a week of logistics. This doesn’t even include any actual parenting! Many foster children have additional medical needs due to neglect or abuse, and there are also mandatory meetings with the therapist, social workers, school, behavioral aids, and biological parents. The amount of appointments you have to make and keep is staggering, and many foster parents are not prepared for the “home invasion” of their time and resources.
Ask if you can help with logistics. Is there a doctor appointment where the foster parent doesn’t need to be present? Get a written permission slip and offer to transport the child and wait for them. Are there prescriptions to be picked up? Special groceries? Make it happen. Even just offering to take a child to and from school a few times a month will be a help.
5. Offer favors: This one is really the miscellaneous category. Get to know the foster parents and the foster children, and fill in whatever ways are possible. If it doesn’t come across as an offense or a statement, offer to clean the house while they’re at work. Offer to get their car washed or the oil changed. Pick up the batteries at the store that one of the foster children has been bugging the parent about for weeks. Return those library books that keep getting forgotten. These small acts of kindness will help the foster family not feel so overwhelmed and alone.
6. Offer practical gifts: Believe it or not, the foster children we’ve come across have more non-essential material possessions than most of the other children we knew. When we received two of our placements, they had 4 giant trash bags full of toys and stuffed animals, and an extra box of electronics. But they didn’t have jackets. Or shoes. Or toothpaste. Many times, this is because the biological parents are detached from reality and only know how to show their love and assuage their own guilt by buying presents. Toys and gifts were always very meaningless to our placements, for this reason, even perpetuating a nasty sort of emotionless greed that tied in with their trauma.
If money or gifts are your love language, do not, I repeat, DO NOT shower them with toys. Ask the foster parent (if you trust them) what the child needs. Usually, the government is giving enough money to help raise the kids (money is the one thing that the government can provide, when it comes to parenting) but sometimes it isn’t enough, especially if the child has great medical needs or needs special tutoring to catch up in school. Find out if the foster parents need furniture for their new placements, ask to help with school clothes or supplies, or offer to pay for their extracurricular activities.
7. Become a CASA worker: If you have a bit more time and energy to spare, becoming a CASA worker is the single greatest thing you can do aside from becoming an actual foster parent. The idea behind the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) program is that one person stays with the child from beginning to end, regardless of how many placements, social workers or therapists they go through. During our last placements, we had the most amazing CASA worker, who went above and beyond in every way possible. I don’t know where we would have been without her, honestly. Our placements were so attached to her, and she to them. She got to spend between 3-5 hours a week with the kids, taking them on special outings, buying them school supplies, taking them to appointments. A CASA worker also advocates for the child in a way that no one else can, since usually a CASA worker only has 2-3 kids on her plate, vs. a social worker who has 20-30. In many ways, the CASA worker is the next best thing to having a parent follow the child around in the system.
Last but not lease, here are a few things to avoid when trying to serve foster kids and parents:
1. Don’t ask for too much information about the kids: As much as the foster parent will want to talk about everything foster care related, they really can’t and shouldn’t. Don’t tempt them by asking for details, because in their loneliness, they might just slip up. Ask them how they are doing on a personal level, and just support them.
2. Never EVER introduce them as foster kids: If you are on an outing with one of the kids and someone asks who they are, NEVER call them a foster child. Introduce them as your special friend that you are spending time with, nothing more or less. You can never know how embarrassed and ashamed these kids are, and you don’t want the child to wrap their identity up with what they feel is their dirtiest secret. One of our placements was so ashamed of being a foster child that he asked if he could call us Aunt and Uncle at a Back To School Night (he actually had already told his entire class and teacher that Jesse was his step-dad, but we explained how that was problematic).
3. Be careful about giving money or gifts to the kids: Again, as I said above, money and gifts are worse than meaningless to most foster children (I can’t speak for all, however). If they’ve been in foster care for a while, money and gifts have always rained from the sky, and they start to expect it in weird ways. One of our foster children was so detached from reality that he would ask for a pack of gum and a dirt bike in the same sentence, because for him they cost the same. Don’t buy them a present thinking it will be the best thing they’ve ever received in their life, because usually they will throw it away or leave it somewhere intentionally. Their entire lives have been about trying to fill a huge void in their hearts with material possessions, and they will desperately crave something, only for it to disgust them a few days later.
You also never know if the foster parent is dealing with a difficult biological parent situation. There is a syndrome called “The Disneyland Parent”, where the biological parents try to make themselves out to be the good guys by buying all sorts of toys and junk food for the kids. Sadly, when our kids would go on their supervised visits, they would return with $50-100 worth of toys (yes, paid for with welfare checks!) and be so high on sugar that they would crash and have a horrible evening of tantrums. You don’t want your good intentions to perpetuate this problem, even though your instincts may be telling you to take them on a shopping spree!
4. DO NOT cancel or make empty promises: We once had a therapist who cancelled last minute at least 5 times on one of our placements. I could not fathom how a therapist, of all people, could be so heartless. These kids’ lives have been full of broken promises and lies, and the last thing you want to do is flake on them in any way, shape or form. If you say you are going on an outing, you GO on that outing, unless there is an emergency or death in the family. I cannot stress this one enough. If the foster parent is overwhelmed at all, a last minute cancellation or no-show will devastate them, I guarantee it. If you are the type to constantly forget commitments or cancel, stay clear.