How YOU can Help Foster Children

How You can Help Foster Children

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.

My 10 Year Reunion

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This past weekend was my 10 year High School reunion. Actually, it wasn’t really even mine, technically. Not many people know that I combined four years of high school into three in order to graduate early. So, if you want to get technical, this was more like my 11 year reunion. But since this was my class for many years, they were kind enough to let me crash it.

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I had my reasons for wanting to graduate early. Academically, my parents considered bumping me up a few grades a few times during my childhood, but always decided that it would be harmful to my development. That all changed when I came to them and said that I was DONE with high school drama and wanted out. I graduated when I was barely 17, headed off to college in the big bad city of Los Angeles. I almost always hung out with people who were older than me anyways (which is how I became best friends with Jesse, who is three years older than me) so it only felt natural to graduate early.

My barely 13 baby-self, attending my first high school dance

My barely 13 baby-self, attending my first high school dance

But there were significant downsides. Being super young for my grade was rather embarrassing at times. I entered high school having just turned 13. I was also a firstborn, which means that my parents were very protective. I remember going to my first high school BBQ with my new classmates (at a tiny Christian school, mind you) and dying of embarrassment as my dad checked every cooler for beer. My parents chaperoned quite a few dances, just to make sure that I didn’t go as anyone’s date behind their backs.

Then there were other things, like being a senior and having to take Driver’s Ed with the freshmen. When I got to college, I needed parental signatures before doing things like using the fitness center or attending all-hall events with my dorm. I remember jumping for joy when I turned 18 at the end of my first year of college, because it meant I was finally a “real” adult (haha).

The biggest downside, however, was having to leave my class behind. Most of the people in this class had been my friends since I was a baby. I got along with them so well, in fact, that here we are, 11 years later, still good friends. Many people say that this class was one of the best our small school has ever had. The wonderful loving and cheerful atmosphere at this reunion was evidence of this.

After the reunion, we had over 30 people over to our house for a late night “after party”. Originally, we told people that they had to leave by 10:30 so we could clean and stage the house for a few showings today, but everyone was having such a good time, there were people hanging out until long past midnight. It was an absolute blast!

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I’m so grateful that I got such a wonderful time to reconnect with and see such good friends again.

Discussion Panel of Prison Inmates

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About a week ago, I mentioned that part of our foster care training included a discussion panel of prison inmates, all of whom either had kids in foster care or had themselves been a child in foster care. It was absolutely fascinating, and definitely moved me. I got lots of emails asking me to write about it, but it’s taken me a while just to digest it all.

At first glance, I don’t have much in common with prison inmates, right? I mean, in all seriousness, I’ve never even smoked. Not a cigar, not a cigarette, not even once. I’ve been offered drugs only twice in my life, but never done them. None of my close friends have ever done drugs. I grew up sheltered at a private Christian high school and went to a private Christian college. I did have one year of teaching, my first, wherein 90% of my students were on drugs at all hours of the day. I had to confiscate a few cigarettes from junior highers in class. One of my students was in and out of juvi most of the semester.

But it’s safe to say I didn’t have a context for this experience. And yet, I was shocked because of how it touched on and related to so many aspects of my life thus far.

How does one begin?

A large transport van pulled up into the church parking lot. 4 inmates dressed in blue filed in. One by one, they told us their stories, not in an effort to make us feel sorry for them, but just to explain where they were coming from. We could tell that they were used to talking in front of crowds. Apparently, they come once a month to these trainings, along with speaking openly at high schools around the county.

The first story was easy enough for me to listen to. She was older, and her kids were grown and about to graduate from high school. She had missed 90% of their lives while behind bars. She seemed tough, but honest. She never blamed anyone else for her mistakes, and in the end she said that after nearly 2 decades of prison, she was finally able to say that she would never touch drugs again, and that this was a very recent resolve. Our moderator later said that this was the first time she’d heard this woman say she was done using.

The second was harder for me. The girl was middle aged, sweet but definitely the “Miss Congeniality” type. She explained how she had moved from the Central Coast to Sacramento and got sucked into the seedy drug scene. She said that going from her sheltered life to such a big pond was what did it for her. I couldn’t help but think of our first foster placement who is currently placed up in Sacramento and has recently been experimenting more with drugs. It made me feel sick to hear this woman say that Sacramento was the absolute worst possible place for her to be during her rebellious years.

Then came the third. She was only 22, already finishing a 3 year sentence. Her experience sounded so much like our first foster placement that I felt like the air had been sucked out me. She went from knowing nothing about drugs at 15 years old to being arrested for dealing meth and heroin at 18. She talked about bouncing around from group home to group home, unable to stay anywhere for long, acting out as a way to fill a void inside her. The comparison to our first foster placement was so uncanny. She even looked like she could be related to her.

And then the fourth. She was MY age and had two kids, both of whom were living with their bio father. She was so high when her kids were taken by CPS that she didn’t even know they were gone for days.

Once the stories were done, the Q & A began. I waited until a few questions had been raised and answered, took a deep breath, and raised my hand.

I directed my question at the 22 year old. I briefly described our experience with our first foster placement, then said, “I know that one can always look back, hindsight being 20/20, and wish there had been something someone who could’ve said something to get through to us and change our course. But really. IS there anything anyone could’ve said? What would you tell someone, another young girl in your position, to keep her from ending up in the same situation?”

Her answer surprised me. She didn’t talk about magic solutions. She asked if we still kept in contact with her.

I said yes, barely, but that she told us she’d “moved on” and didn’t care about us that way.

This 22 year old looked me right in the eye and said, “She does care. She’s pretending that she doesn’t, but she does. She wants you to reject her because it feels normal.”

A wave of emotion hit me. I knew the words were true, deep down, but hearing someone say them hurt.

Suddenly, I found myself pouring my heart out in a room full of strangers.”B-but we needed time too. It’s hard to be there for someone when your heart hurts too. I mean, I couldn’t even go in her room for weeks after she left because I missed her so much. It felt like she’d died.”

I’ll never forget it. Even Jesse noticed how zeroed in we both were. This girl’s eyes softened, her voice was quiet, and she was staring at me so intently. “Does she know how much you hurt too? Does she know how much you miss her? Have you told her?”

And I realized I hadn’t told her. I realized that to be vulnerable and tell her how much she had hurt me was the farthest thing from what I wanted to do. I realized I didn’t have the kind of honesty or courage to do so.

I couldn’t believe it. In less than 2 minutes, this young stranger had diagnosed a vital part of the equation. She wasn’t trying to help fix some girl she’d never seen. She was trying to help fix me.

I think this was the main thing that was apparent to both Jesse and I throughout this afternoon. These inmates weren’t giving mushy devotionals or scare stories, they were deep. Their pain had broken right through the B.S. and carved out an understanding of life and it’s value that many of us never have the time to realize.

But they also had hope and they had love. They cared for every single one of us in that room, as inane as some of our questions must have sounded. They had been through the system, and they wanted to help us make it better. A few of them even talked with Jesse for quite a while afterwards during the lunch hour (unfortunately, I had to leave and find gluten free food, which kills me, looking back!).

Overall, there were a few key points that stuck with me over this past week, things that the women said to help us not only understand and humanize the birth parents of our foster children, but also to help us make the kids themselves feel comfortable and safe.

1. Drugs are almost always a part of the story. No one wakes up one day and says, “I want to be a bad parent” or “I want to abandon my children with scary strangers today.” It happens gradually, as things get worse and worse. Many of these women were clean for a few years, had one relapse incident, and were back to their worst addictive state within days. Many times, when their kids got taken, they grieved for what felt like a few days, woke up from a few benders, then realized a whole year had gone by and they’d lost custody forever.

2. Deciding to be clean isn’t something that prison forces on you. All of the inmates said that it took them close to a year of being incarcerated before they stopped doing drugs. They had just as much access to drugs in the prison as they did on the streets. The fact that they were all currently clean was because of a choice, not a forced lifestyle change.

3. Prison was, in some ways, the best thing that ever happened to them. Many of these women described childhoods full of upheaval, family changes, huge unknowns. Prison was predictable and finally gave them the peace and structure they had been seeking their whole lives. It wasn’t until they were in the safety of prison that they were able to process the trauma they’d incurred throughout their lives.

4. These women weren’t trying to say that their pain was any greater than anyone else’s. They just lacked the support system and training to walk through it. Instead of processing the pain of what had happened to them, they ran from it time and time again, ruining relationship after relationship, sleeping with guy after guy, resorting to drugs to dull the pain. One actually said to us all, “Look, our pain is just as great as what you guys all have. We just don’t know how to deal with ours.”

5. Rock bottom doesn’t change anything. Many of the foster parents in the room kept asking the inmates, “When was your “rock bottom”? We keep wondering when “x” will reach rock bottom and turn around.” But these women stressed over and over again that rock bottom is actually one of the worst things that can happen. Rock bottom makes you use again, because you feel helpless and without hope. Reaching rock bottom just means that there will just be more rock bottoms to come. It takes a choice, and until that choice comes about, no bad situation, no penalty is bad enough to inspire change.

6. Along the same lines, these inmates encouraged the foster parents in the room to draw hard and fast lines with all the birth parents. “Don’t believe any of their lies,” they said. “They will say and do anything to manipulate more visits, few restrictions, etc. Believe us, we were those parents, and we did lie and do everything in our power to cheat the system.” They wanted to give foster parents the freedom to protect the children, first and foremost, even if it meant acting insensitively towards the birth parents.

7. As each of the women listed bad experience after bad experience, bad foster home after bad foster home, they always were able to recognize that “one” person who made a difference in their life, despite the fact that they ended in prison. They knew when they were part of a family who was in it for the paycheck, and they knew who truly cared about them. One big piece of advice they gave was to go to great lengths to treat any foster children like a part of the family, giving them both the perks and negatives. Even making a kid eat their vegetables or punishing them similarly to what one does with their own kids helps them feel less and less like an outsider.

 

There isn’t much else to say for now, other than it made a huge impact on me. I learned so much about the courage it takes to open one’s heart up in a room full of strangers, many of whom are probably judgmental, and demonstrate complete honesty and caring.

It makes me wonder about what it would take to produce this kind of open honesty on my own, without needing prison walls to hold me in.

Good Eats– Thomas Hill Organics, Paso Robles

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Jesse and I got one of those rare date nights, and GUYS. If you are ever anywhere NEAR the Central Coast, you need to stop by Thomas Hill Organics. Jesse and I were here once before on our 6th anniversary date for pizza, but this time we splurged and got the good stuff. These are small portions that focus on amazing taste over quantity (although it’s more than enough!), however, so be prepared to play $30+/plate, not including drinks or appetizers (we had a gift certificate, so…yippee!).

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Their menu is ever changing, since they only buy local and in season, so it wouldn’t do a whole lot of good for me to wax poetic about their AMAZING chicken soaked in bok choy curry, but man….it was better than any Thai restaurant I’ve ever been to, hands down. I also had French Onion soup for an appetizer, and it was the best I’ve ever had, completed with some brie cheese on the side.

And their wine list is above and beyond amazing. Since Paso is deep in the heart of wine country with some of the world’s best wines, why not showcase some of them with pride? I was able to try a few before settling on a glass of my favorite.

Last but not least, the ambiance of this little place is fantastic. Industrial Loft meets French market meets Anthropologie. Just fantastic.

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If you’re up for a cheaper option, they even have a wine/appetizer bar!

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Do yourself a favor– stop by and try it out!