Apologies to Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel for stealing the title of their book, which I haven’t read. And also to the stars of the movie by the same name, which I haven’t watched.
Thankfully (because of the intense need for more foster parents), I have a couple friends who are getting close to becoming licensed as foster parents. Because of this, I thought it apropos to write about a few things I wish I had known prior to taking my first placement(s).
I went into foster care fully intending to start with just taking kids as emergency or respite placements. You know, “to get my feet wet.”
Well, the first ER kid ended up being my first long term placement! And a couple weeks later, my second ER kid became my second long term placement.
So there I was, a complete foster care greenhorn, with two teenage mouths to feed! And while I thought I was all set at the time, if I’m honest, I wasn’t really ready.
Here are a few things that Now-Me would tell About-To-Be-A-Foster-Parent-Me if I could go back in time.
Check your expectations.
Before the ink was dry on my license, the agency was talking to me about whether I could take a kid who was being disrupted on. Because of timing with a work camp I was working at, it was agreed that he’d move to my home on the Monday after I got back from camp.
We’d returned from the camp on Saturday afternoon and that evening some of the staff went out to eat and recover. I remember excitedly talking about how I was getting ready to take my very first placement in a couple days, and my boss joking about how this was probably the last time I’d go out not as a dad.
Just as I was heading to bed that night, I got a call asking if I’d take a 17 year old for the rest of the weekend as an emergency placement. I agreed, and when I was told they wouldn’t arrive until 4:00 am because his worker had to drive all the way from the home town to where he was placed, and then back to my place, I told them that was ridiculous and I would just go get him myself.
We talked on the hour drive back to my house and had fun together on Sunday. I remember being sad because that kid seemed nice but I was expecting another kid to move in the next day and I wasn’t confident that I could or should just start with two kids right out of the gate.
But as Monday morning rolled around, my worker called me asking if I’d actually taken a kid over the weekend. The other boy’s family had decided not to disrupt after all, she said, and would I consider keeping this boy instead? I happily agreed.
So I had gone to camp anticipating that I was going to get one kid, and ended up with another kid as my first placement. Your first placement may not end up at all like you imagined, but that is OK and to be expected. He was a great kid to start out with, and I’m so, so glad it worked out the way it did. Even though he aged out, finished high school, and moved from my home after a few months, we still maintain contact and I know he regards me as someone he can turn to for advice. And I got to know the other kid–the one I thought I was going to take–through other means and he ended up staying at that home until he aged out, and they remain a positive resource for him.
Have some money.
In my state, it is required that you have some source of income so that the foster care reimbursements aren’t your sole source of income. For most of us, that means having a job. Prior to becoming a foster parent I was probably working at least 20 extra hours a week of overtime. In fact my highest-earning year was probably the last full year prior to getting licensed. But all that OT and associated income stopped immediately upon taking that first kid.
And he needed a lot of stuff–he had very little clothing when he moved to my house.
Then a couple weeks later, I took a second boy (initially an emergency placement, too). This meant I had two extra (very hungry–teenage boys eat A LOT) mouths to feed along with needing some clothes and also stuff like laundry baskets, alarm clocks, school supplies, and all that. Even kids that come with a lot of stuff still need something. It seems like about half of what each kid has brought with them was either too small, too big, or they just hated it for one reason or another.
Meanwhile there was a glitch in the system and it took about a month and a half to get the first reimbursement payment. We were getting along with just my income from work, but things got REALLY tight for a while until that first check came in. I didn’t want to make the boys worry, but I sure was for a while.
Having a slush fund or sinking fund type account to help absorb some of that initial hit would have been very helpful as I got started.
Know what you can and can’t do, and do whatever you can to make sure you know what you’re getting into.
Even though I just got done writing about managing expectations and how sometimes surprise placements can work out great and all that, this is still an important point to consider. It is a bit of a balancing act, I suppose.
For example, I have a dog and a cat. I also spend a lot of time with good friends who have young children. So I know that kids who have a history of harming pets or acting out sexually inappropriately are not kids that I can provide appropriate care for. Also, being a single guy who has to have a job, a placement has to be able to have some “self-care” time.
You also should ask a lot of questions when considering taking a kid for placement. Think about behaviors and needs you can manage or not manage (balancing that with being open to potential personal growth and blessing for taking a risk). Keep in mind that all the workers don’t always know the full history, for a variety of reasons.
If you might be like me and “convert” emergency placements into long term placements, know that it isn’t uncommon for kids to be on-guard during the emergency placement period. That means you very likely won’t see many naughty behaviors.* Being on-guard and also being very charming is a kind of survival skill many children in foster care have, almost by necessity, honed and crafted. So you may be thinking about how nice and polite a kid is, but keep that in the back of your mind while talking to workers and asking questions. Do your best to objectively consider what you’re being told.
*Not a guarantee, of course. But that also means that (at least in my experience) you are pretty unlikely to have any really challenging behaviors during a short placement. Let that encourage anybody who might be considering licensing to provide short-term care.
Always be learning.
As I prepared to start fostering, I thought, “I’ve been a children’s mental health case manager for 4 years, I know what I’m doing!”
Boy, was I wrong.
While the experiences and training I had in my job were infinitely valuable, it is a whole other ball of wax when you’re living with the kid with mental health issues! (One great side effect of all this is I have a lot more empathy for my clients’ parents than I had before.)
Most states/agencies require annual training and also provide it. I encourage you to take advantage of whatever you can. Find books and resources on the mental health diagnoses you are or might be dealing with. (Hint: ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Reactive Attachment Disorders are great places to start because even if your child doesn’t meet full diagnostic criteria they probably will exhibit some symptoms of some of these.) Join Facebook parent support groups, all that.
Some people won’t get it. (But that’s ok.)
There are a variety of reasons, but some people won’t get why you are fostering. Even if they want to help out, they might not understand that before you start, there really isn’t a way to fully know what sort of kid you’ll have or what their needs will be. I don’t know if I have any real advice on this one, other than doing your best to communicate with these people. Thankfully, I personally have had the benefit of having parents who support me in all this and have done their best to love and accept all of the boys who have come through my house. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)
Actually, I do have some advice. Make sure you find people who do get it! Or at least are willing to do their best to help and support you. When you get into all this, everything can seem crazy and it can easily feel like you’re the only one going through all that nonsense. Go find some other people who get it and use them for support.
It is worth it.
So as you are getting ready to be a new foster dad (or mom!) and you’re feeling a little freaked out wondering if you have the wherewithal to do it, I want you to know that you’re going to be wading through a whole lot of crap at times, but it is going to be worth it!