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Fostering Facts #2
What to expect
Much like starting your own biological family, you are never really ready to be a foster parent. Each kid is different. Each situation is different. You can’t just say “oh, I have 3 rooms, I’ll take 3 kids”. They might not like each other. One of them might need more care and attention than you expected. Or they might all be amazing, and willing to step out of their comfort zone and fit in with your family seamlessly. They might love the food you eat or hate it. You might always have to re-negotiate chores, or not. Things that you never considered might come up. Do you like to have a glass of wine with dinner? Well, maybe one of your foster kids comes from an alcoholic home and seeing you sip that wine or smelling alcohol on your breath triggers them. We’ve had to do months of trust building around that with our two girls, modeling for them what a healthy relationship to alcohol looks like.
The biggest job you can do to prepare for being a foster parent is to set up your support network. If you’re taking in younger kids, who do you have that is willing to get clearances so they can babysit? If you’re taking in older kids, who do you know that can point you in the direction of good after school or summer programs to enrich their lives? If you’re taking in kids from a different race/religious background, who do you know who can talk you through what is expected or needed? You will need people to help you in ways you can’t even imagine, even if it’s just being willing to sit with you and let you vent. Sit down and take inventory. Do these people live close by? Do you know anyone with experience with the system? Start asking. You may be surprised to find that you know someone who was in foster care, or adopted, or had a cousin who was. These people will be worth their weight in gold.
Make sure your support network is diverse. You can’t put all your hopes in your Christian church community only to find that the child you’re bringing into your home is, say, a Hindu. That will feel alienating and disarming to the child. Even if you don’t have any Hindu friends, ensuring that your child is meeting people from a variety of backgrounds will help them to feel less alienated, less obviously an “other.” Actively seeking help from their home community is also important. If you don’t know ahead of time what their background is, be willing to put in the time in the first week or two to finding out. You will be thanked.
When we got our girls, we abruptly realized we had no hair care stuff AT ALL in the house. I have a hair brush, which essentially the end of my hair care routine. While I was familiar with the hair needs of African American girls, we weren’t prepared for weave care right out of the box. Fortunately my partner’s sister is mixed race and has a daughter. She quickly threw all of their extra creams, gels, sprays, flat irons, blow dryers and combs into a bag and brought it over. With everything else we were trying to coordinate on top of getting to know these two new people, that was a lifesaver (not to mention a money saver).
Day 1
The training process and clearance process is different from state to state. You’ll have to find that out based on where you are. Essentially, you have to be trained (anywhere from 23 to 40 hours), you have to be legally cleared, and you have to be certified. The agency will delve into every aspect of your life. We had to give letters of reference from family, friends and neighbors to back our claim, and we had to give over our financial statements and tax records. Ostensibly this is to cut down on the number of people who are in it just for the money, but I’m not convinced it works.
When you get a chil through regular foster care, you won’t know ahead of time who’s coming. It’s hard to prepare. You have to just be ready to roll with the punches.
When the child is “placed”, that means they have been put into the care of the state. This can be for a variety of reasons, which I will attempt to tackle in a future post.
In Philadelphia, the agencies are on a rotation. On any given day, different agencies are “on rotation”. The agency at the top of the list has an hour to place a child once the state calls them. They frantically start calling down their list of available parents and you have to answer *right then and there*.
If you have specific criteria, stick to your guns. If you’re doing respite, hold out for respite. If you want girls, don’t be convinced to take a boy. If you want younger kids and they offer you someone a few years above your upper limit, say no. The person calling you will try to talk you into it, and they’ll say all kinds of things to appeal to your better nature. Remember, the agency is only paid by the state depending on the number of kids they have. You, however, are the one who has to live with the kid. 
From there you’re just waiting. It could take them a half an hour or four hours, or even eight or ten hours to move the child. There is usually someone from the state who will bring them to your door. They need to make a visual inspection of the home and confirm that the children are being dropped into a safe environment. If you have a dog, be ready to put them out back and introduce them slowly once the initial chaos is over.
Don’t be surprised if the child wants to spend their first day holed up in their room. They are probably some kind of terrified. Offer them food, invite them to come down and watch TV, but don’t pressure them. Don’t try to make them do anything for at least the first 24 hours.
You may never know about their situation before they came to your house. A lot of that is not disclosed to foster parents for obvious reasons unless it looks like the home will become more permanent.
In our training they recommended not giving them house rules all at once. Saying one or two things like “we always take our shoes off at the door” and “don’t feed the dog from the table” are a good starting point. You can slowly fold out your house rules as you get used to each other. Try to get them to share what they want to eat, and do a few things right off to make them feel comfortable. Do they want to add anything to a grocery list? What kind of movies do they like? Do they play a sport?
Be supportive, but be clear about what you want and don’t want. If your house is one that has a lot of home made meals and lots of healthy fruit and vegetables, get them used to the idea that they won’t be eating processed food everyday. But you have to give in as well- negotiate what kinds of foods you’re willing to let them have on hand, and see if there’s anything that they want to eat that they can make themselves. We have figured out how to make corn dogs, water ice and fried chicken at home. It’s not the ideal of health that I would prefer, but it helps the girls feel more comfortable.
Next installment will talk about the longer term expectations.