In honor of National Foster Care Month, I wanted to write an article about the truth of foster care: There is a beautiful side of foster care and there is a diabolical side. I will write about both, as well as my opinion of what a great foster parent looks like and what foster children really need.
An example of the beautiful side of foster parenting is when a family helps a child in need and does so selflessly. It may end in the child returning to the biological parents or staying with the foster parents, but in either event, the foster family is happy for the child.
On the dark side of foster parenting, there are people who aim to meet their needs through their foster children. This can take many forms: financial, sexual, emotional, or a combination. Foster parents are often accused of fostering for the money. However, you would need to be extremely poor to take foster children in for money. Foster families do not get paid enough to cover all a foster child’s needs. Also considering the added emotional toll foster parenting can take, being a foster parent is not the lucrative venture some people think it is. However, it is true that some foster parents do it for the money.
On the sinister side, pedophiles take foster children in their homes, granting them a defenseless child for their perverse sexual pleasure. As much as I’d like to believe this isn’t true, I was in the field too long to pretend this doesn’t happen. There are pedophiles everywhere and they do not wear signs. It is virtually impossible to pick out who are pedophiles and who are not. They look like ordinary people, often have good jobs and blend in with everyone else. Because they engage in “secret touch,” they can go undetected for years. The sad thing is, sometimes there are complaints that are ignored or disbelieved. And while it is true that a person who is falsely accused of pedophilia can have their life ruined, it is more heinous, in my opinion, to disbelieve a child who is bravely coming forward to accuse their tormentor. When a child tells you they have been molested, believe them and get professionals involved who can investigate.
Some people turn to foster parenting when they are looking for someone to love. This can be a wonderful reason and part of the beautiful side of foster parenting, provided they don’t have the expectation they will be equally loved in return. I find this is often the case. Foster parents have much love to give but it can come with unspoken strings. “I will love you and take you into my home and family, but I expect that you will be grateful and love me back for my generosity.” This is not blatantly stated, but you become aware of it when a foster parent disrupts a foster care placement because the child isn’t giving them what they need in the emotional department. They aren’t getting the gratitude, respect and love they think they deserve for their investment in foster parenting.
This may seem natural to expect this, but it is unrealistic. When you take a foster child into your home, that child has likely been in other homes before and, if they haven’t, then they have just been ripped from their own home. They are placed in a home with people they don’t know who want something from them. It feels weird—nothing is the same. Their room is different, and they don’t have much of their own things with them; their clothes, food and family life will be quite different. And some foster parents expect them to be grateful. That could occur with time, but if you are expecting that and you don’t get it, you might request that child be moved again, and you’ve just become part of the foster care problem instead of contributing to its solution.
Foster children may have a lot of behavioral problems, enough for you to think they could be broken. As a counselor who worked 17 years in foster care, I do not believe in the concept of broken children. I know the human spirit is resilient and I believe in a growth mindset. I know people can overcome all levels of adversity with a good reason to do so.
Children develop all kinds of creative, effective behaviors to get what they want based on the events in their lives. Their behavior is always purposeful. It is often designed to get help and attention. A good foster parent definitely has love to give a child and is willing to do that without anything in return. They do not look at their child with the question, “What’s wrong with you?” Instead, they start asking and listening to, “What’s happened to you?”
They see a child’s misbehavior as a compensatory behavior, trying to get something the child wants. Rather than focusing on that behavior, a good foster parent recognizes it for what it is: an expression of an unmet need. They become curious, and with nonjudgment, caring and respect, they work with the child to try to determine what need that they are trying to meet with their misbehavior. This is not easy and there is no fast-food mentality. This often takes time because the child needs to develop trust in you before they begin to open up about what they really need. It is probably not their first time with a foster family, and they are convinced you are going to ask them to leave, just like others before you, so they will just wait you out.
When you commit to foster parenting, you are committing to being a need-satisfying person for a child who has already had a challenging life. It takes a special person to be willing to put up with the behaviors these children have perfected to drive you away. If you have the love to give, you will need it to continue to stay consistent with that love, no matter what the child is doing. These are the cream-of-the-crop foster parents. They aren’t expecting anything in return. All they want is to love a child and share their home and life with that child temporarily until they go home.
If you are that foster parent, I salute you. It takes a village and I thank you for being a safe haven for a child who has been the victim of some sort of trauma. If you think you could become that foster child, please contact a foster care agency in your area to start the process for you to become a foster parent for a likely ingrateful child who is totally worth it. Thank you!