Sunday, June 11, 2017

Foster care 101

You can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can't make her stop teaching!

(...I have edited this post and agonized over it so many times...I have prayed over it and shortened it and added to it and thought of deleting it...I have wanted to write something like it for so long though, so I finally decided to publish it!  As it is!  I won't re-write it again!  I just wanted to make sure you know that I don't pretend to be perfect or know all the answers...but since I/we have some experience in foster care, I thought it might be useful to share some of it.)

A while ago, I posted in my various social media accounts that I was taking questions about foster care and adoption.  Any kinds of questions!  So many people come up to us and say that they've thought about doing it, but...OR they say they want to talk to us about it and they're curious but for whatever reason it doesn't happen.  Sometimes it's hard to find time in our schedules or people are intimidated or maybe they are afraid to ask questions...?  Don't worry, it takes a lot to offend me!!  One thing I have learned from talking to people about foster care (and from my own personal background), is that there are a lot of misconceptions and misinformation floating around out there.  I thought I would take this opportunity to write up a primer, of sorts, for foster care and adoption, for those of you who are too chicken to talk to me!  KIDDING!!  In all seriousness, though, please let me know if you have more questions or if I missed something.  Now there's a couple of things we should get out of the way before I address some of the comments/questions I received...

The first thing I need to point out here is that I am not an expert.  I am doing my best to provide info but also to share some real life experiences.  I am a current foster mom, an adoptive mom, and a REAL MOM.  But I do have to give this disclaimer - our experiences are just that - OUR experiences.  You might know someone who had a different experience.  That's ok.  You might know someone who lives in a different state, where the rules are different.  That's ok.  You might find your experiences to be different that ours.  That's ok.  We have so far only done foster care through the public system, in our county and through the state.  We have so far only adopted through our state's public system (WI).  I may not have info on private agencies, but I would be THRILLED if you asked and I could help you!  Please know that most of the data, facts, info etc I have included in this post is based off the the WI public system of foster care.  Alright, now that we've got that straight...let's get to it!

Next - some practical info.  If you are interested in foster care, you probably wonder where to start.  A really great resource can be found here - the WI Department of Children and Family Services website.  If you are looking for specific county by county info, you can find each county's foster care coordinator's contact info here.  Keep in mind that Milwaukee County is separate/different from all the others.  You can find more info about Milw Co. by visiting this site - BE A KID HERO!  There are various private agencies and I apologize that I don't know much about them.  (I've seen ads in the newspaper, so I know they are out there.)  If you or someone you know is interested in foster care but do not live in WI, I can still help you find that info - just let me know.  (Side note, I am not focusing much on adoption in this post, so I'll save those links for another time, but please know that I have tons of both private and public adoption contacts if you are interested!)  Most people start their foster care journey by either making a phone call to the foster care coordinator or they see a poster about an informational meeting and decide to attend.  Once you've made your intentions known to the Dept. of Family Services (or whatever your local agency is called), you will receive a fat packet of paperwork to fill out!  Don't be scared...there's background checks, a list of the regulations, medical forms, etc.  Nothing too serious.  After you turn your packet in, you will be contacted to set up an interview, where they will ask you questions about why you want to do foster care or about your childhood.  I remember being really nervous, but honestly, it's no big deal!  There is also a home study, where a worker will walk through your house and check that things are legal.  (Medications are locked up, there's a railing on the stairs, etc...)  We fretted so much that our house was clean and super safe but padded bumpers on coffee tables are not necessary!!  If something is found to be out of order, you are given a chance to fix it =)  After a bit of back and forth, if everything is set, you will receive your license and your home will be considered 'open'!  Then the fun begins!  You will receive calls about kids and after hearing some details, you can say yes or no to the placement of the child/ren in your home.  Most likely the kids will arrive with a file, which you will stay up reading the first night.  Chances are you'll need to make a run to the big box store to get some things or pull a few things out of storage.  Some people ask friends if they can borrow some things until they can get what they need too.  There's so much I could say about this stage, but there are lots of other things to talk about too, so let's move on.

Often people ask how we came to the decision to do foster I should probably start there.  When I was small, I loved kids!  I couldn't wait to grow up and babysit!!  Sometime in the middle of grade school, I read the book Cheaper by the Dozen.  In no time at all, I made it a life goal to have 12 kids, no 13!  Depending on when you asked me, it was either 12 or 13.  Fast forward to college, when I met a guy who didn't flinch when I told him my life goal of having a large family.  We married and bam - infertility.  I'll spare the details...we had a biological child but UGH.  It was hard.  My pregnancy was difficult, it took so much to get pregnant, and I was sick of being a science experiment.  So many nights crying, yelling at God, asking why He would give me this HUGE desire for a HUGE family but then basically a point 1 percent chance of getting pregnant...!!!  Yep, I was exhausted, probably suffering from post-partum and just generally over dramatic.  My husband had brought up foster care/adoption before we had a bio kid and when he asked again - I freaked out a little.  OVER MY DEAD BODY would I ever give a kid back...once they're mine, they're mine and I would NEVER EVER EVER do that!  (Side note - I have a lot to say about spouses not being in agreement on this topic, but that feels like a whole 'nother post.  I think that both halves of the couple should independently talk to people who are already foster parents separately.  I think they should both do their own 'research'...maybe attend a training or Q&A session...this is just my opinion.  A lot depends on why one person is not on the same page as the other.  Feel free to contact me to talk if you want more suggestions or ideas!  Maybe I'll write a future post...)  So anyway - adoption crossed my mind but that seemed really hard too - I mean, some people go broke trying to do that!  I just couldn't see it.  It was nuts that he even brought it up.  BUT - he made me promise that we'd look into it.  Then....I'm not really sure what happened.  One night I was crying again....and it hit me.  The whole point of foster care wasn't to build/grow MY family - it was to care for a child for a while, so that another family could be built up and restored!  I almost fell out of bed, it was like God hit me w/a 2x4!!  If you knew you could make your community a better place by helping families grow and flourish, wouldn't you try to help?  I love going places and seeing families at the park, at festivals, or other events around town!  Some families need extra time and help to better themselves, and we could be a part of that process.  We didn't jump in right away...but we continued to collect information...we went to an informational meeting on adoption, hosted by a private agency and all I could think of was the ever changing rules, regulations and financial component.  Then we went to an informational meeting for foster care and adoption through the state and I'm not going to lie, the comparison was DRASTIC.  There are so many kids waiting in 'the system', it really tugged at my heart I was back to the thought of filling my house w/foster kids.  =)  Long story short (or medium?), we fostered a handful of kids before being approached about adopting a child through the state.  Our first adoption was relatively quick, considering everything we have learned since then, and we went back to fostering for a while.  At the moment we are in the process of adopting siblings through the state again, but we are most likely not going back to fostering.  So that's a bit of our back story (I obviously shortened it!) and it should bring you up to speed as to where we are in the process now.

Frequently we hear, "Oh I could never do that (foster care)....!"  To be honest, that WAS me.  The thought of saying goodbye to kids was SCARY and grief is a huge part of foster care, for both the foster parents and the kids in care.  Think of this though - they are taken from the only family/house they know (often by a police officer and series of strangers/social workers) and brought to a new home, filled with strangers.  They truly grieve this and often have no idea how to process these changes.  I tell you this not to scare you away, but to be honest.  My grief of saying goodbye when it's all over, said and done, is nothing compared to what I presume they are feeling when they first come to my home.  I am an adult, I can process my grief, I have an established support system and skills to deal with it.  If I feel it is too overwhelming, I know where to go to get help.  (Side note - call me if you don't.  I know people =)  I can hook you up w/some amazing resources!)  Anyway - yes, saying goodbye is hard. We have had placements come for a weekend, and others that were in our home for two years!!  We made awesome memories, made photo albums for them...we loved and cherished our time together!!  We were sad when they went home but absolutely thrilled that a family was put back together and doing well!!!  That's the real joy of foster care, the hope that can blanket over your grief!!  You get to share the joys of raising a kid!!  One thing I'd like to point out is the fact that Moses was already born when we started.  Which means, he, too, was going through all of this.  He bonded w/our first placement, a boy about 2 years younger than him - we bought matching shirts!  They were so adorable!!!  We told him that we would be A's family for a while and that we would treat him as our son, brother and friend.  We explained that at the end of A's time w/us, we would say goodbye but that he would always be considered family in our hearts.  We talked about families helping families and that to us, that's what makes a strong community.  Honestly, Moses didn't think twice about it.  Obviously there were sibling 'spats' and the usual amount of sibling jealousy, but I don't think Moses ever thought that we were anything but a 'normal' family.  Now Moses is almost 12 and loving 'extra' people comes quite naturally to him.  In my opinion, we don't give our kids enough credit.  First of all, they have no reason NOT to love someone.  They don't ever seem to notice physical differences or care about a person's housing situation or how many items of clothing they have, etc.  They follow our lead, they love easily and are far more generous and gracious than we tend to be.  Yes, we all shed tears when we said goodbyes, yes we all spent time remembering and processing together.  My job as his parent, is to help him do that.  I'm not saying every kid can find it as easy as he does, but you know your kids.  You are the best person for them to take their cues from and you can give them the tools they need to handle the changing shape and size of a foster home.  (Again, I'm not an expert or psychologist, these are my opinions, but I think other foster parents would tell you the same.)

(Remember - if you want to chat more about any topic, if you want to talk further about something I have moved on from, please comment, email, call or ask me in person.  I'm trying to keep this from being the world's longest blog post!!)

Another comment we hear from people is that they are 'too old' to do foster care.  Have you ever had a car that was so old or junky, but you still drove it b/c it was better than no car at all?  (Oh dear, did I just compare more experienced humans who have been on this earth longer than me to a junky car?  That is NOT how I feel about you, but I need this analogy to work, so bear w/me!)  For a child, having no parent is worse than having a loving parent who might not be able to run fast or sit on the floor or do 'new math'.  It really doesn't matter if you can do those things - can you love someone?  Can you give them guidance, feed them, provide them a place to sleep, play games w/them, hug them, laugh w/them, hold their hand when they go to the doctor, tell them stories about how the world works, protect them, pray for them, pick them up from school, cheer them on at their activities, etc?  There are so many things you can do AT ANY AGE that would be beneficial for a child.  I know people who were in their 50s or 60s who have adopted young children just beginning school.  Having a strong community/village around you is a tremendous help!  But it's still possible!!  Now I completely understand if that's just not your thing...but maybe you could be a respite provider?  Respite is the word for short term care.  For instance, when we would go on vacations, there were times the kids were not allowed to come w/us.  In those cases, we set up respite care for the kids.  They spent the weekend w/a family who was fully certified in foster care and were willing to love on 'our' kids for a short time.  There are a lot of people of all ages that do this - they love the short term nature!  They are able to help kids and foster families, supporting them and filling a real need.  Many people enjoy this b/c they don't need all kinds of baby stuff in storage (most foster families send along everything the child would need) or supplies for every age.  They just open their home for a short time (from a few hours to a week, for example) and then go back to their daily lives.  This is a valuable resource for foster families!!!  There is a HUGE NEED for respite providers around here...

...which is a nice segue into another topic.  Lots of people don't feel led to foster or adopt.  There are still many ways you can be supportive or be actively involved!  Besides respite, you could do things like donate suitcases or duffel bags to your local department of child protective services.  Many times when a child is removed from the home, their clothes or personal items (if there are any) are shoved into a trash bag.  Every child, w/the exception of 1, who has entered my home, came this way.  There are great organizations like Sweet Cases (I'm sure there are others!) who give you duffel bags to decorate and then get them in the hands of kids going into care.  I've seen lots of lists of what you could do for families, ranging from things like pray for them to pay for their family vacation!  That doesn't seem too practical for most people, but here are a few ideas that might be right up your alley...
- Ask to redecorate the 'visit room' - where birth parents and their children have supervised visits in the local department of health and human services (or whatever they call it where you are from).  Many times these rooms have a tired old couch/furniture and some outdated toys in them.  Kids go there once or more a week and see the same toys...I know a few of mine frequently complained that they didn't have anything new to do!  Like all kids, they wanted something fresh!  You could stock the room w/new crayons and coloring books, a few new or gently used toys, books or games or even ask if they would be open to craft projects the kids could do w/their parents!
- Bring the families a meal.  Lots of people bring new moms and dads a meal when they have a baby, but not many people think of it for foster parents.  When we get new kids, it's a little chaotic!  A meal would be nice - those having a baby had 9 months to prepare, sometimes all we get is 30 minutes and we are adding a new person (or even more than one person!) to our family.
- Buy them a case of toilet paper (or any common household supplies).  Ok, that sounds weird now that I typed it out, but seriously!  When you add new people to your family, you suddenly start using more toilet paper (or baby wipes).  This is something that sometimes gets left off the list when we make a late night run to the store...And well, we all use it!  It's a gift you don't have to worry about someone returning!
- Get certified to be a babysitter or respite care provider.  Different states/agencies have differing regulations, so check w/the foster parents.
- Ask to 'sponsor' a foster child's participation in an activity - maybe you could supply the child w/soccer shoes and shin guards, or pay an entrance fee to a camp or summer program.
- Offer to go along clothes shopping!  Many times it's overwhelming to take a child whom you have just received into care to the store since you don't know their sizes.  It involves a lot of trying things on and sometimes the kids get bored.  You could help organize the clothes and keep a parent company.
- Offer your photography services.  Only once did we pay for pictures to be taken w/kids in our care.  It's expensive and if kids are coming and going, it's hard to justify the cost.  I wish we had done it w/all of them!!  It didn't need to be professional, but having the advice or services of someone w/photography skills greater than mine (which is not much at all) would have been helpful.
- Use your hobby or interest (besides photography) to help a foster child. For example, if you're mechanically inclined, you might find good, used bicycles and repair and donate them to a foster care agency or a foster family you know.  If you are good at mending clothes, you could help patch the knees of pants (I could really use you right now!!).
- Throw special occasion parties for foster and adoptive children in your area. Help celebrate birthdays or adoption days!
- Truly, just checking in and listening is helpful.  Many times foster families feel isolated and like they don't 'fit in'.  They don't get as much time to practice 'self care' and something as simple as chatting for a few minutes can make them feel welcomed and relaxed.
That's about all I've got off the top of my head...but this list of 101 things is quite extensive.  The needs of a foster family change from time to time, so the best advice I could give is to ask a foster family if they need anything.  They might be to shy or humble to tell you anything, but at least you tried!

Alright, I think this is the world record for longest post...I had better stop here!!!  If you are curious about the length of placements we have had, you can check the 'Our Family' tab for a list of children (aliases used) who have been placed in our home and the dates when they were with us.  As I said before, our experiences may be different than that of others' you know, but it's a good way to quickly show what has happened on our foster care journey.  Thanks for reading all of this!  Thank you to those who have waited patiently - I had at least 3 people tell me they I needed to hurry and finish writing it already!!

One final note - we have found a great network or community of foster care families and we have benefitted greatly from the friendships formed.  We'd like to think that we have contributed in some small way to the growth of that community in our area.  In writing this post, I only hope to encourage and support others who are interested in both joining and building this community further.  If that person is you, dear reader, I would be overjoyed!!  I said it before, but it bears repeating - if we can help in any way along your journey, please ask!  But for now - class dismissed!!