When a Foster Child Enters Your Care: Suggestions from a Foster Parent
Becoming a foster parent is a lengthy and complex process. There are mountains of paperwork, days spent in trainings, multiple home inspections, and interviews, and on top of that, more paperwork. It took us 10 months from starting the application process to the arrival of our official license to be foster parents.
We got the call a month after being licensed: “We have two toddlers who need a home tomorrow. Are you interested?” Yes, we found ourselves saying, not fully aware of what was in store. Janie and Jake* showed up the next morning. A quick exchange with the social worker explained some of the children’s past and what led to their being placed in care. A small packet of paper explained a bit more. And just like that, the social worker was gone, leaving behind two children for us to nurture and help transition in what must be a tremendously confusing time for them.
I expect this feeling of being under informed about a small human being left in your care is shared by many child care providers. A parent or other family member brings a child to you and gives you a bit of information. With that minimal information, you are to love and nurture the child, help her learn and grow, and aid her in meeting her potential.
Just as Janie and Jake* were beginning to settle in, we had to drop them off at a child care program. I was able to provide only the bare minimum of information to staff because that’s all we had. Developing a relationship with their teachers and a daily exchange of knowledge was critical during this rocky start.
From my experiences as a foster parent, along with my work in the early childhood education field, I have some practical suggestions to offer early educators who care for children involved in the foster care system.
- Learn more about the foster care system in your area. While the overarching goal of foster care is primarily reunification with biological families; each state and often county handles this a little differently. They offer varying levels of mandates and supports, including how and if they cover the cost of childcare for foster children. Start your research at the national level and then work your way to understanding your local agency’s policies and procedures. For more information, visit this website: childwelfare.gov/fostercaremonth/resources/communities/.
- Ask the foster family about known issues. Keep in mind that there may be plenty of gaps in the foster parents’ knowledge of the child, and that the law dictates what can and cannot be shared about a child’s past.
- Believe me when I say foster care has a lot of moving parts, and foster parents are only one small piece of it. There are social worker visits, counseling/therapy sessions, doctor visits, biological parent visits (most of these are court ordered and take precedence over the child’s daily routine). While foster parents are charged with caring for the child, the big picture and long-term plans are often out of the foster family’s control.
- Know about a child’s ACEs (Adverse childhood experiences), and understand that early childhood trauma can have a huge impact on the child’s behavior, emotions, and overall health. Recognize the impact ACEs have on a child’s future. Explore the national ACEs study!
- At the same time, remember that ACEs are not everything. You can help build a child’s resilience. Early intervention is key in changing a negative path, and every adult in a child’s life can play an important role in this. Check out the following two resources to understand the crucial influence adults have in the lives of children who have experienced early childhood trauma: Harry Potter and the Ordinary Magic of Resilience and InBrief: Resilience Series.
- Knowledge about child development should inform your interactions. Typical brain development is interrupted when a child is experiencing extreme adversity. Check out the article “Breakthrough Impacts: What Science Tells Us about Supporting Early Childhood Development,” in the May 2017 issue of Young Children.
- Open communication can help adults determine the causes of some of a child’s issues and allow everyone to work together to successfully overcome them. Share techniques you have been successful with, and ask the foster parents to do the same. Thinking outside the box can help. What works for a child who has not experienced early trauma will not necessarily work for a foster child. Identify behavioral triggers, such as biological family visits and court dates, and keep up-to-date with the child’s schedule to help anticipate tough days.
Every child and family brings with them unique personalities and coping mechanisms. Working as a team with the foster family is the key to best supporting a child who is transitioning to foster care. You can help her build resilience and thrive. So, the next time you are caring for a child in the foster care system, remember that the child and foster family are on a hectic, all-encompassing journey, and your support may be just the thing to help them succeed.
* Due to privacy laws, names and identifying details have been changed.
Christa Murray works at Child Care Aware of Washington, where she supports a statewide system of high-quality professional development services for child care providers and early learning educators. She and her husband are licensed foster parents focusing on children birth through age 6. Christa uses her knowledge of child development and early childhood education to support the children in her care.