If you ask ten different foster parents, “What do foster parents do? or “What is it like to be a foster parent?” you will get many different answers. In many ways, parenting as a foster parent is similar to parenting a biological child and in other ways, it is much different.
Certainly, you will hear that foster parenting is both rewarding and stretching.
Your fostering experience will be dependent on the people you meet and the children entrusted to your care. Foster parenting has great potential to provide some of the most fulfilling experiences in your life as well as some challenges that may seem to be beyond your skillset.
Below we will share some constants in the common experience that can be identified which will help clarify how you might feel as a foster parent and help provide a better understanding of the everyday experience of a foster parent.
The Role of a Foster Parent
For starters, foster parents provide the parenting role with all its inherent obligations. What is not obvious, and sometimes overlooked, is how that role changes in the context of foster children (sometimes with difficult developmental histories) and what it is like to parent under the scrutiny of a supervising agency.
The following are some, but not all, very important roles and responsibilities of a foster parent.
Children in foster care need to be brought “to a place of safety” and therefore a key role of a foster parent is to provide that safety. Physical and emotional safety are essential.
Every child is an individual and different from others in many ways. Children with a trauma history are not all the same but they all have an altered developmental pathway. This altered development can make a connection with others difficult for them and for the foster parent. Making the necessary relational connections – attachments - requires a focused and informed effort.
Trauma interferes with the ability of the brain to develop and mature. Every child that is removed from their birth parent or primary attachments, suffers trauma. The interruption of attachments leaves a child with a need to protect their vulnerability.
A foster child is now more vigilant which Dr. Gordon Neufeld accurately describes as being in a state of “alarm.” The work and role of a foster parent are to establish and maintain an attachment that will allow the child to trust, rest, develop, and mature. This work is often done despite fear, mistrust, and anger on the part of the child.
Drawing the child close may involve pushing back from the child but it is the only sure way to grow the attachment and gain the power to parent.
Keep records and reports important moments in the child’s life
Foster parents are responsible caregivers. They keep in mind the policies and procedures of the supervising Agency and they assist in documenting the life and development of the child.
When a child is first placed in a foster home their needs must be assessed and a plan created which outlines strategies to meet those needs.
A document – called a plan of care – containing these strategies, is created. The foster parent must provide to the Agency content for this document at 30 days, and at a review every six months from the placement date.
Some agencies will ask that foster parents keep a log of important dates and incidents in the child’s life. The log will record any remarkable events or responses of the child to those events. Additionally, expenses must be tracked for reimbursement, and appointments with Agency workers must be scheduled and kept.
Follow legislative guidelines from the supervising foster agency and the Children’s Aid Society
The province has set guidelines in legislation that requires compliance and accountability. The supervising agency of a foster home must monitor the home. The foster family finds itself a part of a larger organization with expectations, policies, and structures which must be followed.
Create and Maintain new Relationships with other Important People in the Child’s Life
As a foster parent, you will need to maintain relationships with other people involved such as the resource workers and the biological parents.
Your primary relationship as a foster parent, other than with the child, will be with your Resource Worker. Different titles are given to this role, such as Family Supervisor, or Support Worker.
Your experience as a foster parent will greatly hinge on the quality of that relationship. You will receive your coaching and your information from this person. They will guide you through the structures of the Agency and help you understand your role in relation to the larger organization.
It is helpful if your Resource Worker can let you vent and be transparent with your feelings and opinions.
Another special relationship is the relationship with the biological parents. Your role here is to avoid judgment and to find empathy for them. Once they know you are not in competition with them as parents the possibility opens up for the foster parents to learn about the child from the biological parents and biological parents to observe (indirectly) an alternate parenting style. Everyone, including the child, benefits from this positive relationship.
Shared parenting is the goal. Both parties have to be willing to leave room for each other in the life of the child.
At the beginning of a placement, there is a lot of busywork to do. Clothing must be purchased; meetings must be attended with social workers and health professionals. Discussions, as a team, will be had around the child’s learning plan (choice of school, bussing, special requests to meet the child’s educational needs, the option to homeschool, etc). Once the initial flurry of activity is over the regular routine begins to emerge.
Developing Goals and Working Towards Them
As a team that includes the child, foster parents, biological parents, resource workers, and Children’s Aid Society, we will set appropriate goals that will be developed and worked on throughout the child’s stay in your home.
Types of Goals you will be working towards as a team:
1. Health (immunizations, illness, supplements, general health, dental, vision, hearing, speech, mobility memory, cognitive skills, physical development, injuries, diet, substance use, exercise, sexuality),
2. Education (number/quality of toys, exposure to books, school ability/performance/suspensions/detentions, transportation, homework, exams, tutor, aspirations, expectations, career planning, volunteer work),
3. Identity (knowledge of birth family, culture, language, ethnicity, lifebook, photographs, exposure to birth family/heritage, cultural role models, religion, quality of praise/encouragement, level of self-esteem/self-confidence/self-efficacy),
4. Family and social relationships (relationship to foster family, contact with birth family, siblings, and access, quality of relationships, friendships, recreational activities),
5. Social presentation (quality of care, hygiene, the concept of self, ability to get along with peers and ability to get along with adults, communication style, type of appearance, social appropriateness),
6. Emotional and behavioral development (general temperament, coping ability/ability to relax, be soothed, ability to trust, development of appropriate boundaries, ability to follow rules, level of altruism, development of morality, moods, level of aggression/passivity/Impulsiveness/ attentiveness, suicidal ideation/attempts, self-destructive, sociability, involvement with the law, past trauma issues, referral for treatment/intervention)
7. Self-care skills (toilet training, dressing/feeding (toddler), age-appropriate responsibilities in a foster home, ability to keep self safe, good decision making, foster parent as a teacher, exposure to the community (bus travel, banking, job search, dealing with others, shopping), networking, birth control, support systems, mentors, driver’s license, computer skills).
(Suggested Goals reflects the dimensions identified in the Looking After Children model)
Foster Parenting - Perception vs Reality
As we discussed in this article, foster parenting comes with many responsibilities. Caring for a child is an important job that must be taken seriously. Most people that consider fostering a child have a predetermined idea of what foster care is, but that perception is sometimes far from reality.
The enduring negative images of foster parenting in the public perception are often perpetuated by the need of the entertainment media to capture ratings and to sell products and services through advertising.
Depicting children who are “languishing” in foster care catches the attention and emotions of the viewer but it misrepresents the work of foster parents and the Child Welfare system.
Foster parents willingly offer themselves as the answer for children who are short on answers to their needs. They give what is invaluable – a family – to the most valuable sector of our culture – our children. They provide a nurturing, safe relationship which is the only vehicle that can effectively drive forward the process of healing and development in a child’s life.
Foster parents remain in the dark corners of the public consciousness but are the true front-line heroes in waging the battle against childhood neglect, abuse, and violence. If we lose this battle our culture spirals into a state of perpetual suffering.