15 Things I Learned From Our First Foster Placement

foster care

I am convinced that no amount of training could ever prepare anyone for the realities of foster care.  We sat and listened to knowledgeable, wise, experienced people talk about fostering for hours ... and then we jumped in ... and I realized that listening and knowing are not at all the same.

We fostered our first little girl for 4.5 months, and I'm a completely different person after doing so.  There are a million things that I wish people would have told us at the beginning of our journey, and a million things that they probably did tell us before either of us truly had ears to hear them.  We are planning to regroup and do respite care before jumping back into fostering full time in the fall, but we will make some changes next time based on the lessons below that we learned from K.

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1. Ask for and accept help, including respite.  Foster care is a constant exercise in humility, and it is the first time that I have begun to understand the expression, "It takes a village to raise a child".  You cannot do this alone.  There are people who genuinely want to help, but they may not know how.  Ask for specifics, and graciously accept them when they come.  Some things that were especially helpful to us included meal trains, a housekeeper, practicalities for K including pull-ups and clothes, babysitting, random cups of coffee or bottles of wine, and time away from fostering.  We occasionally needed a date night to reconnect as a couple or a weekend to reconnect with our girls.  Everyone needs this.  Taking a break and leaning on others are not signs of weakness.

2. Don't expect people to understand foster care generally or your placement specifically.  This was a big one for me.  Sometimes when I would discuss the hard realities of living with K, people would only see the cute little pigtailed blonde and give me a blank stare ... or worse, a hurtful, unhelpful comment.  I viewed fostering with different eyes before we actually fostered, so I try to remember this and show grace to others.  I cannot expect people to comprehend a situation that they have never experienced.

3. Ask questions before accepting placement.  Our home had been approved for six days before we accepted placement for the first phone call from DHS.  Granted, K had never been in custody before, so many of the questions that we might have thought to ask possibly could not have been answered.  However, we will need to know more than the child's age and the reason that she was placed in custody before we move forward next time.  This is not being picky; this is being wise when there are other children in your home to consider.

4. Find other foster families.  Friends, family members, church members, and coworkers can give a certain degree of support on the journey, but no one can provide the same level of understanding or encouragement that other foster families can.  Get in a positive support group (not all are positive; some tend to turn into complaining sessions) and find another foster parent with whom you can safely vent and also rejoice weekly, daily, or as often as needed.

5. Just because a child needs a home does not mean that you have to give him one.  Guilt is not a good reason to do anything!  You must consider you own family and your mental health before you can think about providing a home for a child.  It really is okay (and best for the child, honestly) to say that you will not accept children of certain ages or with certain types of needs.  Your call to fostering does not imply that every child will be a good fit.

6. Let go of any and all illusions of control.  DHS and the court system do not care about you or your opinion as a foster parent, even though you are the one who spends more time with your foster child than anyone else.  You cannot control any of the decisions that are made about your foster child while she is in your care, and you do not get to determine how long she stays with you or where she goes next.  This can be maddening, but it is the way of the system.  The sooner you are able to accept that and move on, the better.

7. Have zero expectations.  Do not have expectations about your case worker, about which things will be hard, about how your foster child will wake up in the morning, about how helpful (or not) people will be, about how much information you will be given, or about anything else related to foster care.  More likely than not, your expectations will be incorrect.  And there is no quicker path to discouragement than unmet expectations.

8. It is okay to have limitations, and it is wise to know what they are.  Throughout our first placement, I had moments of feeling inferior to other foster parents who routinely accepted sibling groups, medically fragile children, and children with more significant special needs than the ones K had.  Everyone is wired differently, and everyone's family looks differently, so the person who is most capable of determining limits for your family is you.  Yes, that other foster family may have six children and be fostering a sibling group with medical needs.  They are not you.  You alone can determine how many and what type of children to accept.  If you can be a safe, loving space for one "typical" child, that is one child whose life will be forever changed because you said "yes".  

9. Use an agency.  I can't say this enough times.  Using an agency is no cost to you, and it is the agency's job to make sure that foster parents have what they need to be successful.  Not only did our agency provide us with tangible items that we needed for K, but they gave us a voice.  The state's job is to find safe homes for children, so DHS workers can have a way of putting pressure on foster parents to take in more children or to keep a child beyond the family's breaking point.  Our agency always made sure that we were informed and cared for so that we could continue providing for K, without falling apart ourselves.

10. Foster care is consuming.  Emotionally, financially, in regard to your schedule, physically, and in every other way possible ... foster care will impact your entire life.  There is no real way to prepare for this; you just have to know that it is true.

11. You will grow.  The child in your care will grow, too, but not nearly as much as you will.  I see so many things with new eyes, and my capacity to love and serve has grown infinitely in just a few months.  K taught me so much that I could not have learned any other way.

12. The daily sacrifices matter and are worth it, even if you don't ever see the results of them until the child leaves.  Actually, you might not ever see the results.  And that is not the point, because foster care is not about you.  

13. Self-care is actually important.  It is not selfish to get a pedicure or join a gym that has childcare.  You cannot take care of others unless you are in a healthy mental state.  Taking care of your core family is important, too.  It is not cruel to take your own children on a short trip or have a "family night in" while leaving your foster child in the hands of a capable caregiver.  As much as I always wanted K to feel included in our family, at the end of the day, she was not technically part of our family.  Our girls were often put on the back burner during the last few months so that we could take K to therapy and family visitation, and really just so that we could meet the basic and special needs of this child in our care.  Our girls are two and four, so we were asking a lot of them.  They, too, need to be in healthy mental states and feel connected to and loved by us.  We were given the task of parenting them long before we were called to parent K.

14. Goodbye will be hard.  When you love someone, it is inevitably difficult to let them go.  We knew that K's moving on was in the best interest of everyone, but watching her walk out of our front door was one of the most heartwrenching moments I've ever experienced.  I cried my eyes out that day, and I'm still crying about certain memories of her after a few days of her absence.  Even though the days felt impossibly trying and even though we are hopeful about her new home, we are grieving a great loss.  Maybe a few weeks down the road, I won't get teary when I find her tiny shirt in the laundry or when her name is mentioned, but for now, I'm going to let myself grieve.  {As a side note, I will always, always, always make sure that a child has his or her own suitcase before leaving my home.  Trash bags are not suitcases.} 

15. God always shows up.  I cannot tell you the amount of times when I thought that I could not possibly make it through another moment, yet He carried me through.  I also never doubted that K was supposed to be with us because of the way certain things about her placement were timed and orchestrated.  I do not have endless patience or wisdom, but He does, and He continued to make that evident through foster care.

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My husband and I have looked at each other multiple times in the last few days since K's departure and asked ourselves, "Are we crazy for wanting to do this again?"  Maybe we are.  Probably we are.  But as long as we both continue to feel called to this hard and beautiful adventure, we'll take what we have learned this time and continue to welcome children into our home.  I hope that we can teach them half as much as our first placement has taught us.