We just got back from vacation - it wasn't the first time we took our foster children along. Many people have asked if that's even possible and others have asked if it's advisable. All I know is from my own experiences, which I'm happy to share. I'm not an expert nor do I know everything, but we have taken many trips and I've learned a few things along the way. Keep in mind that our experiences are all with the county/state public system, so your experiences might be different than ours. Many of our children have or have had special needs, so our traveling advice is sort of focused in that direction, which might also be new for you. Feel free to use some of our 10 basic ideas or add your own in the comments!
1) First of all, yes, it is possible to take foster children on vacation with you. Begin by telling the caseworkers of your travel plans and of course ask if you can take the child/ren along. It helps if you provide very specific details. The goal is for the CW to present this to the bio parents and have them sign permission, but in every case so far, our CWs have told us they would go over their heads if need be and get a judge to sign. A few parents signed yes, a few didn't care and the judge signed. No one so far has put up much objection, to my knowledge. The kids might miss visits but those hours can be made up before you leave or when you get back.
2) You really have to evaluate your family and the foster children's case to see if it's advisable. When we were first approached about Colleen joining our family, we felt awful because we had a trip planned for that week and didn't want her going to respite for her first week home from the hospital. The CWs made it possible for her to come along, if we wanted. Of course we did!! Now looking back on it, we were a little 'leap before you look'-ish because we didn't know the full extent of her medical needs. It worked out fine though...we did visit an ER in Delaware for her feeding tube, but hey, it was a learning experience for all of us! This time around, Bert and Ernie don't have medical needs, but they do have many emotional needs. We prayed about it, talked about it and decided to give it a try. We stayed with family, so that made it easier in a lot of ways. We had help! If the trip was solely us in a hotel, I'm not sure we'd have been ready to take them along. Either way, keep in mind that time on vacation is great bonding between you and your foster child/ren. That being said, there have been a number of times we have gone somewhere and found respite for our foster children. We had plans before we knew about the kids and could not include them, we needed some self-care time, our activities would not be possible with a child of that age, etc. There is nothing wrong with getting respite if you need it!
3) If your child has special needs and you are flying, be sure to tell the airline. It helps tremendously!! If you are just camping or something, like we have done in the past, make sure you take in account things like the noise of a campground or hotel. Bring a noise machine from home to help them settle in at bedtime or bring extra blankets to make the camper/tent/hotel room darker if needed. Consider the routine you have at home and find a way to duplicate it on vacation. We have a rocking lawn chair and I'm totally planning to put that in the camper this summer. We rock at home and I know how much my kids would miss it when we are on a camping vacation!
4) Hydrate and have lots of snacks. This is huge!!! Little people need to fuel up often and if your kids are like mine, food can often spell love and security. The snacks they have in another state might not be the same you have at home, so your foster children might find great comfort in the fact that you packed their favorite granola bar or brand of cracker.
5) Don't plan any super expensive all day stuff until your family is ready. Again, what works for you might be different than what works for us, but we have found that the best laid plans are easily disrupted. If your foster child is overwhelmed, tired or feeling triggered, a whole day's worth of entrance fees to something can be lost. If you have a membership to a local zoo, museum or garden, check to see if there are reciprocal venues that would allow you free or reduced membership. We have done this many times!! We have a science museum membership, a garden membership and at times a kids' museum or zoo membership and over the years it has saved us tons of money in different states!! That way, if we need to cut our day short, we don't feel like we lost money. Often times, though, we will just stick to low key or free things and the children are just as happy. On the most recent vacation, we went to a free spray ground/splash pad and the kids had a blast! Other examples would be things like Storybook Gardens in South Dakota or local county and state parks, small amusement parks like Bay Beach in Green Bay, or even local libraries! My kids love spending the afternoon scoping out books in a new community! You could also go geo-caching or just visit a school playground.
6) Be prepared to do a little extra advance planning or research. If you have a foster child who is known to run off, you might want to see how many entrances or exits there are to a place. Do your best to consider any triggers or uncomfortable situations ahead of time. I think I'm preaching to the choir on this one, but sometimes in the hustle of getting everything ready, this can get overlooked.
7) Take a ton of pictures. (I'm guessing a lot of us already do this!) PRINT THEM. I am totally guilty of letting vacation photos languish in a drive on the computer....I need to take my own advice on this one!! I'm planning to print a bunch from our latest vacation to hang on the walls, tape to the kids' door and just put in one of those inexpensive photo books. They love flipping through those =)
8) Bring lots of activities. For my sensory kids, I brought these squishy dolls (like stress balls) that were a life saver! I brought a few other things I didn't use much, but that was the best idea. I also brought colored pencils (not crayons or markers which are known to wreck seats and windows and walls and oh just about anything) and big pads of paper. I made sure everyone had lots of things to do with their hands - you could also bring lacing cards, matchbox cars, curly shoe laces, ribbon balls knotted up, a bag full of beads or beans, tangles, etc...
9) Designate a spot on your person that when waiting or walking together, the child/ren will be able to put their hand. (Sounds weird but stay with me here...) I have always told my 4 kids that if I don't have a hand left for them to hold or if my hands are full, they should stick their fingers in my pocket. If I have no pockets, they should snag a corner of my shirt and hang on gently. This has worked wonders for me!! When we were in a hurry in the airport and I had a lot to carry, Bert stuck 2 fingers in my back pocket and we cruised along. (That stinker told me a week later that he pilfered my grocery list from that pocket!! Which explains why I thought I had lost it when we got to the grocery store that first night...oh well - at least he told me!) When we are waiting, it's helpful for my kids to put a hand on my waist or belt and it gives them a physical thing to hang on to instead of drifting off. I have found that it's hard for little people to stay close without a specific spot to focus on! This is also great for in parking lots. I know a friend who posted something about a magnet the shape of mom's hand. If you are busy getting other littles out of your vehicle, you can tell the older ones to keep their hand on the mom magnet until you are all ready to go. When I tried that trick, it rocked my world =)
10) Get books from the library about airports, camping or whatever kind of trip you are taking. It's possible that your foster children have never flown before. For us, it was really helpful to show pictures of the security check in, the baggage Xray process and the inside of the plane. I knew that at least one of my kids would have anxiety with all the unknown, new stuff. There are some really great books out there to help with this! Also, get some books about the area you are going to be in, if possible. If the weather will be different from where you live, maybe talk about that. Talk about the different kinds of plants you will see, if there are going to be mountains or beaches, or what some of the tourist attractions might be. Any advance info you can give the kids will be helpful. On some trips we have had to tell the kids what to do if they saw a bear! On another trip we told the kids about snakes and on another we made sure everyone could identify poison sumac. Good times!! All of these adventures are special treasured memories and I am so glad we have them!!
As I'm typing this, I realize a lot of it could be applied to people who go on vacations with their birth children...which is true, in part. In general, there are many similiarites, but depending on the foster child/ren, your trip might look very different than you expected. When we got ready to take our first vacation with a foster child, I remember feeling very overwhelmed! I felt like a pioneer - the first person to walk through an airport with a medical pole and other assorted supplies!! But then I got there and looked around...REALITY CHECK - there were lots of passengers of various abilities and needs that did not let their limitations get in the way of a vacation or disrupt their travel plans in any way. On this last trip, we were traveling with 3 kids who have a collection of needs like sensory processing issues, attachment issues, ADD and ADD/HD, feeding issues and anger issues (to name a few!). I will admit to feeling like it wasn't going to work, thus letting it all overwhelm me. Then I was reminded that if we were going to be together (we were) and if I didn't just stop being their mom (I wasn't) then it didn't have to be any different than being at home.
A few final comments on trips or vacations...please know that for some, even going to grandma's house an hour away can be a vacation or special trip, equally adventurous and difficult, depending on the child/ren. All of these tips could apply to trips like that too!!! No matter how big or small, trips with foster children are special and worth it. Remember to do something special or out of the ordinary to celebrate on longer trips - pass out temporary tattoos, eat ice cream for dinner one night, let the kids stay up late catching lightning bugs, go to that local festival with fireworks, etc....!! The one we do the most is eating ice cream for dinner after a full day of food and fun! We've found some really unique ice cream places on our trips and we look forward to this tradition each time!
Have you traveled with foster children? Do you have any tips to share? Thank you - I am always open to new ideas!