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Many foster parents will tell you this work is the most important they’ve ever done. Roughly 50%–60% of children entering the foster system have significant emotional or behavioral issues.
Once they leave the system, prospects aren’t much brighter. For context, foster children are more likely to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than war veterans.
This is why the work of a foster parent is both so important and so hard. On one hand, if you can be a foster child’s “final stop” and provide them a wonderful home, you may be diffusing the risk that they transition from the foster care system to the criminal justice system. Below is data from investigators at the University of Illinois on foster care children in Chicago from 1995 to 2000. As you can see, there is a clear correlation between how many homes a child has lived in and the odds of future arrests.
On the other hand, caring for children who have suffered emotional and physical trauma at formative stages is enormously challenging. Many foster parents find they encounter a level of depression that manifests itself as hostility and disrespect, for which they weren’t prepared.
The work can feel “thankless” and most every foster parent we’ve met has told us at times the responsibility has weighed on their own mental health, domestic relationships and career.
Generally speaking, it appears that foster parents are three times more likely to insist the child be “returned” as the child is to insist upon a new home.
The best analysis on the subject we’ve seen tracked 400+ foster children in San Diego over 18 months. The authors tested the children’s behavior at the beginning of the 18 months, again at the end of the 18 months and ran regressions against how many times children were displaced in that period. They made two observations:
Foster children who exhibited “externalizing behavior” (e.g disruptive, aggressive) at the start of the 18 months stretch were more likely to be displaced.
Foster children who didn’t show such behavior at the start of the 18 months were far more likely to exhibit it at the end of the 18 months if they’d been displaced.
This elegant study reveals obvious but powerful truths: it’s easier to “give up” on disruptive kids. This is especially true if you view the child as “not your own” and their challenges as “not your problem”.
And yet, by giving up on a foster child and “sending them back”, you’re exacerbating the problem you set out to address. In the process, you may imperil that child’s longterm prospects.
There’s no “playbook” to being a great foster parent, but experts will tell you a few tactical steps will go a long way.
If your goal is solely to help a child, and you don’t require any appreciation or recognition, that’s a good sign. If you tend to expect gratitude, you may want to rethink this.
As we showed, foster care has a spectrum of ages, races, special needs and more. You need to really explore your inherent biases and fear around certain options. While you may select “preferences” those will be repeatedly tested. You’ll be continually asked to take on children that don’t fit with your preferences. Unless you’re really in touch with why you’d prefer to help raise a certain type of child, you may get worn down and make a decision you’ll regret.
Catalogue what makes you angry and where in your development those feelings originate. By doing this, we often come to see our rules and expectations as arbitrary, idiosyncratic or existing on a continuum. When a foster child breaks your rules, it will be easier to understand why it happened and respond in a way that promotes a healthy relationship.
Try to develop a rapport with your child before rushing to establish rules and schedules. Your foster child wants to see if you're capable of caring for them. Listening to your child and allowing them to open up should be your primary objective.
Your foster child has likely experienced abuse, neglect and other traumatic experiences that affect their growth and development. Make an effort to learn about commonly experienced behaviors from children who have experienced trauma. Children who have experienced food scarcity, for example, may hide or steal food. Learning about these trauma response behaviors ahead of time will help you be more prepared to respond empathetically to your child when situations arise.
Kids are sensitive to changes in diet and most foster children will seek out food that is familiar to them. Resist the urge to ban all sodas or favorite snacks or to force your preferences onto their plate. Ask your foster child what foods they like, offer to let them come to the store with you and gradually work in your ideas. If someone in their family used to cook a meal they loved, try to get the recipe or improvise yourself.
While foster children demand extra patience and flexibility, a key is to look after your foster child as if they were your “own” child. Ask them their opinion, take them with you to run errands and with friends out to dinner, ask them their opinion, tell them you love them, tuck them in at night, prove to them you won’t easily fold.