Written by Washington Foster Team
Foster care is never black and white.
Sure, there are some absolutes, like licensing requirements. But there are far more gray areas than many new foster parents may realize.
For example, while many children enter foster care because of neglect, some are victims of abuse as well, like Jay Priebe.
Priebe entered the foster care system when he was three years old. By the time he was 12, he had moved between over a hundred placements, including group homes and juvenile halls.
Because he had been abused by his stepfather, Priebe was overlooked by foster parents concerned about the challenge of supporting such a traumatized child. The foster family that ultimately supported him as a youth succeeded because they adapted to his unique needs and based their expectations on nothing more than total support.
A perfect list of expectations and requirements about foster parenting doesn’t exist. You won’t find it in any guidebook, but you can work toward creating one that’s perfect for you and your foster child.
Plus, there are a few expectations and requirements that all new foster parents should adopt. Here are a few to get your own personal list started.
1. Reunification Is The Goal Of Foster Care
“We don't do a good job of saying to foster parents as they're recruited and going through orientation, ‘Hey listen, you're going to be a partner in the reunification and development and restoration of a family,’ ” says Jay Priebe, who was previously the CEO of a foster care support organization, Hand in Hand.
As a foster parent, expect to be involved with talking directly to a child’s biological parents. And know that it's a good thing. It offers you the chance to provide support for more than a child. It allows you to support an entire family.
When children are reunited with their family, great things happen. It creates better development outcomes for the child, reduces stress in their lives, and helps maintain ties with extended family. It also helps biological parents stay focused on living healthy, productive lives so they can support their child.
Even if family visits seem scary, there are ways to make things easier, like reframing your expectations and seeking ways to collaborate when you have time together.
At the end of the day, making a connection with your child’s birth parents may be the most effective way to be a successful foster parent.
2. Be Proactive About Training
To become a foster parent in Washington State, you will need to go through training to become licensed. Depending on your agency, there might be additional training to help you learn extra skills that can help you succeed as a foster parent.
“We have some pretty structured training for foster parents, but there’s no one going back and saying, ‘How are you using those tools?’ or ‘What additional tools can we give you to help meet your kiddo where they’re at?’” says Priebe.
Every foster child is different. Their relationship to you as a foster parent and to their birth parents is completely unique.
Training programs deal with broad circumstances and issues. Be proactive about using resources that help pair you with training programs that match your child’s needs. Your agency and foster support groups are excellent resources to help you locate programs.
3. Plan On Unexpected Challenges
Imagine serving your child dinner.
This simple, daily task carries with it a host of potential challenges. Without knowing it, you could trigger a child by:
- Serving them the same meal that their biological parents gave them
- Having them sit as a family at the table — which they may have never done before
- Serving them food they're unfamiliar with, and therefore unwilling to give it a try.
Any of these scenarios might cause a child emotional distress and result in them lashing out in anger or sadness.
Every day is a learning experience for you and your foster child, so plan on setbacks as you figure out the best way to care for and support them. Most importantly, seek to avoid as many of these setbacks as possible by taking time to engage with your child and their birth parents.
Through open conversation and family visits, learn as much as you can about your child. Do your best to find out:
- What foods do they like to eat?
- What books do they enjoy?
- What activities are good for playtime?
- What movies do they like to watch?
Collaborating with a child’s parents creates success for everyone involved because it aligns everyone to be on the same team, one that supports not just a child, but a family.
4. Moms And Dads Aren’t Bad People
When children are removed from their homes, it’s for a good reason. At that point, their parents are unable to provide the care they need at that time.
But that doesn’t make them bad people. In the majority of foster care cases, children come into care because of neglect, not abuse. Often, birth parents struggle with addiction and other illnesses that they can heal from if they receive proper treatment and support and commit to getting better.
It’s natural for foster parents to distrust a child’s birth parents, but that sentiment stands in the way of reunification.
“We need a model where foster parents are engaged in building a partnership with moms and dads, so they can get healthy while knowing that their kiddo is safe,” says Priebe.
Not sure what to expect going into foster care? Download our free guide, The Essential Guide To Becoming A Foster Parent In Washington State.