A year and a half ago we started fostering. A lot has changed in that period. Three children have come through our home to date. Honestly, our opinion of foster care has shifted over that period. These days we are very much conflicted.
No Fostering Regrets
Now let me start by saying, we have no regrets about doing foster care. I have enjoyed every moment of the parenting aspect of it, we’ve helped some great kids, and enriched our own lives in the process. That part is not conflicted.
The Goal of Fostering is Reunification
No, the problem really comes with the goal of foster care, reunification. It is very clear this is always the goal of foster care at the onset. How to both help the bio parents get back on their feet while helping the child to have the best life possible given a difficult situation.
Over the last 3 children, that is what we have tried to do. From offering encouraging words to bio parents, to going out of our way to keep bio relations alive despite a widening gap. Besides taking care of the child it also feels good to help those that have fallen on hard times due to bad decisions turn it around.
Long Term Placements and Conflicting Emotions
But then we get to the concept of a long term placement. Before I continue I guess I should explain.
In my home state, a typical placement of a child lasts about a year. Our first 2 children were outliers in the sense that their placement with us was relatively short. Over the course of that year hopefully, the bio parents turn it around. In the interim, those parents are given regular visits with their kids.
Not All Foster Parents Visit their Kids
Except not all bio parents can visit with their kids. Some choose not too, some have circumstances where they can’t or are not allowed too. These visits though do not always play into whether the child gets reunified with parents or goes for adoption.
TPR, Termination of Parental Rights
If the parents don’t turn it around then what occurs first is a decision by the state to Terminate Parental Rights (TPR). This is the decision point where the goal shifts from reunification to permanently relocating the child. That decision in our state happens around 9 months for an infant or 1 year for an older child. When a child enters care the parent is given a plan to work to get their child back. The decision to TPR is a factor of whether there has been progress in working the plan.
A note before I leave the definition, the decision to TPR is not the point of adoption. Parents can contest the decision for years in some cases. Other relatives can still come out of the woodwork and the child would move on.
The Process of Adoption from Foster Care
No, the actual process of adoption out of foster care is a multi-year process, except in cases where the bio parents voluntarily gives up the child. That actually seems to be fairly common in cases where foster children are put up for adoption.
Anyway, I tell you all this to set the stage. It is possible and definitely does occur, that a bio parent does not see their child for months on end. It is also fairly common for the bio parent to begin working their plan right on the cusp of TPR. This of course resets the decision date.
The Conflicting Feelings of Wanting the Parent to Succeed But Not Wanting the Child to Go
And this is where the conflicting part comes in. On the one hand, you want to help the bio parents. When you see them turn the corner you are elated as they seem to finally be getting their life in order. Especially if you spent months seeing them regress. You know you helped as well.
But then you also have that child that’s lived with you for months or even years. That child may even call you mom or dad at this point. And your lizard brain says if the bio parents do make it all the way back then that child may leave your life forever.
What is Best For the Child?
And it’s not just that selfish thought of wanting that child to stay with you. No, there is also the impact on that child as well. If you had a particularly young child you might be the only parent they remember. Can you imagine if you had a 3-month-old placed with you and at 2 they sent the child back to the bio parents after minimal visits? What would that do to a child’s psyche? Probably similar to the trauma of being removed from the bio parents for older children. Which is a very real phenomenon that will have a lasting impact on a child for life.
Even worse than the actual event is the anxiety and fear that it can happen. At any moment a relative could come out of the woodwork or the parents can turn it around. Often times due to the overwhelmed foster workers you might not even know until it’s already been decided.
Conflicting Feelings, Should They Stay or Should They Go
So you are left with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, you want those bio parents to turn it around. On the other, you don’t want that child, and yourself to go through the trauma of separation. Along with the anxiety, it leads to some sleepless nights. And yet you know deep down you chose to do this and it’s the right thing to do.
But there is also a limit to how much of this you can take. In our experience, we connected and fell in love with all of the children placed in our home quickly, even though two of them were only with us for a short time. While having children move on to other family members or reunify with the bio parents is a very positive outcome for the child and is also celebrated by us as a foster family, there is also very real grief for our family as we adjust to their absence.
It’s Really Important to Take Care of Yourself While Fostering
In foster care, the number one thing they tell you to do is remember to take care of yourself. Fostering can eat you up inside if you are not careful. The stress and pain is very real. Many people associate this type of statement with taking older kids that might require more special attention to get over traumas. But the reality is that same statement is applicable to even young healthy children like the ones we take.
Which brings us to our decision, which I referenced a few weeks back. We still have our little girl as of the time of this writing. But we’ve put in place contingencies should that change. These are two-fold. The first is if the little girl ever leaves we will immediately go on a multi-week family vacation to escape the grief reality and focus on the positive.
The second is we will take a break from any long-term placements, and only accept respite (watching foster care kids for a few days while other foster parents get a rest) for a few months. This will allow us time to re-evaluate our journey in foster care and also be available in case the little girl regresses back into care.
We will See What Happens with Fostering
Normally when I put a contingency of this type I’d also say I hope I never have to use it. But in this case, I’m so conflicted emotionally over the subject I’ll just leave it at that. We’ll see what happens. Whatever does occur, let’s just hope it turns out for the best for the child in our charge. Please note due to confidentiality and safety reasons, I cannot share any specifics of our actual cases which is why this is relatively generic. I am more than happy to discuss our own personal feelings as foster parents, but I can’t get into specifics about the actual situations.