"Who are you?"
Okay, so no one actually asked me that question, but I thought it was a good place to start. I'm "Mimi." 37-year-old single lady with an obnoxious cat, daughter, sister, friend, cool aunt, honorary "mom," honorary "grandma," bio mom to none, but foster mom to six kiddos and counting... I work full-time in the Finance department of a large not-for-profit organization near my home. It's not an overly-exciting job seeing as how I mostly just pay bills, but it's been the perfect place for me to be as I navigate Foster/Adopt Land. I love to write (hence, the blog). I love to advocate for foster care. I love being able to provide emotional support and advice to other new and experienced foster parents. But more than anything, I love my family... The family that I was born into and the family that has grown in ways that I never could have imagined all because I chose to open up my heart, my life, and my home to children and families who need me.
"What all do you file for each foster child, and how do you organize it? For example: expenses, family visits, etc?"
wrote a great post detailing her awesome binder method (almost identical to mine) and Melissa wrote about her binder method that also included visit logs and documentation of contact with the bio families. I tend to do most of my communication through email so there is no doubt as to what was said, when it was said, to whom it was said, etc. A caseworker can't argue that they never received an email that was time-stamped and addressed to them the way they can with a voicemail message. My other main tip is to get yourself a day planner with lots of room for notes. I use mine to keep track of everyone's schedules as well as to jot down notes about visitations, milestones, behavioral problems, etc. I can't tell you how many times I've had to go back and reference mine to find answers for caseworkers and for noting details when filling out monthly reports. The day planner is small enough to be able to carry with me all the time, while the binder gets to stay safely put away until it's needed. Stay tuned on August 24th for a more detailed post about keeping organized in mountains of paperwork.
"When and how did you know that foster care was right for you?"
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a mom. I always dreamed of homeschooling my five children as we traveled the country in our RV. The odd thing about that dream is that I always imagined those five children would come to me through adoption, rather than through my own pregnancies. I struggled with endometriosis for years. After two surgeries, hormone injections, and more hours than I care to count curled up around a hot water bottle, I finally had a hysterectomy at the age of thirty. I was surprisingly okay with it. I think when you've been in that much pain for that long, the permanent end to the pain marks a new beginning to a new chapter in your life (not to mention, I would have made a horrible pregnant woman! God knew what He was doing when he made me barren. ;-)
(Excerpt from my Mother's Day guest post at Attempting Agape. I think this explains it best...)
In the fall of 2008, I decided to take a leap of faith and become a foster parent. I had always shied away from foster care because of the usual fears related to having to say goodbye to children who I loved as my own, but as time went on I finally began to trust that God wouldn't have planted this seed in my heart only to leave me hurting and devastated. I began to trust that He would heal me through the hurt as I loved my children and let them go. So I dove headfirst into the crazy, unpredictable world of foster care, and allowed myself to love my kids with my whole heart despite the inevitable hurt.
"Where have you found the most support (moral support, financial, etc.) since you've been fostering?"
For me, my biggest source of moral support outside of close friends and family has been online! When I started this blog, it was initially just to keep friends and family updated on what was going on in my life and to give me a place to put down my thoughts and feelings. It turned into so much more than I ever expected! I have "met" some amazing women along the way who share similar experiences and who "get it" like no one else can. I became a "blog stalker." Clicking away on follower profiles of other foster parent blogs and locating their blogs... And I'm so glad I did!!!
My agency has also been a fantastic source of support when it comes to finding financial assistance for my kids. They keep us appraised of available reimbursements for clothing, summer camps and graduation expenses, foster care-related events, stores that offer discounts for foster parents, great sales for things like diapers, etc. Yes, having an additional person in your home every month can get tiresome, but the support that I receive from my agency far outweighs the inconvenience.
"How are you able to juggle working full-time and all of the foster care appointments as a single?"
Simple answer... FMLA!!! Placement of a foster child is a qualifying event for FMLA, and I use every bit of it. I don't do the traditional "maternity leave" though. I use it intermittantly for foster care-related appointments, medical appointments and illnesses for my child, court dates, etc. As long as you don't go over 90 days in a 12 month period, you're covered. I am also extremely blessed to have a very understanding and supportive boss and co-workers. After four years of fostering, they're "old pros" as well. :-)
As far as the necessary time off work, the first two weeks or so after getting a new placement are pretty busy with all of the initial required appointments, but after that, I am very firm on when caseworkers, CASAs, etc. may come to the house during the work week. I tend to take the third Wednesday of the month off every month and tell everyone three weeks in advance that if they want to come to the house during the workday, they need to come that day. For the most part, they usually show up. My children's CASAs have always been flexible and can come on weekends or evenings.
When it comes to weekly visitations for my children and their families, I tell their caseworkers up front that they will need to provide transportation most of the time. On "slow" months, I will occassionally take off work part of the day to transport myself because I like to develop relationships with my children's parents if at all possible.
I think the main thing to remember is that you can say "No, I am not taking off work at 1:00pm to meet you at my house. I will leave an hour early at 4:00pm, and be your last appointment of the day or you can come any time on the third Wednesday of the month like everyone else." In the beginning I was very hesitant to say "no," but over the years I have learned that it's okay. They might not be happy about it, but they'd be less happy if you lost your job and they had to find a new home for your children. ;-)
"What did you do to support the families that you fostered for so that you were able to have such successful relationships with them after the kids reunited?"
I've thought about this question a lot lately because I do tend to have such great relationships with my kids and their families after they return home. All of the children that I had long-term are still in my life. My cases have been a bit different in that they haven't been horrific abuse cases. For the most part, their parents have just made mistakes or just needed some time to get their lives on a more positive path. It's also important to keep in mind that (with the exception of Angel), I've only fostered infants. I think the dynamics will change a bit with older children.
I've tried to step back and look at what I may or may not have done to develop these relationships along the way, and here's what I've come up with:
- Compliment their kids and reassure their parents that they are the parents - One of the very first things (if not the first thing) that I say when I meet my children's parents is usually something along the lines of "It's so nice to finally meet you. Your son is a joy!" That one statement usually goes a long way towards establishing a relationship.
- Keep the conversation light and friendly unless they want to have a more serious conversation - Most of my parents have initially been hesitant and uncomfortable around me. I'm sure they think I must be judging them for their mistakes or thinking all sorts of negative thoughts. I very, very quickly try to put them at ease by treating them like long-time friends. It's difficult to be afraid of or intimidated by someone who will laugh with you about your child's funny moments or talk about your pets.
- Active listening - I'm pretty good at reading people. I can usually tell when they need a sympathic ear, some lighthearted conversation, or just someone to reassure them. All of my children's parents have needed something different from me at different times. Pay attention, and try to follow their lead when it comes to the more serious conversations that might come up.
- Show compassion and understanding - I remember early on thinking how argumentative and desperate Monkey's dad was. He is completely different now. I tried to put myself in his shoes and realized that if my child were taken away from me, I would be just as desperate. I know that people make mistakes and poor decisions. Imagine making a mistake that cost you your child, and treat them the way you would want to be treated.
- Open and constant communication regarding their children - I take tons of pictures that I send for their parents. I make monthly photo books for my kids' parents that talk about milestones and funny stories. I pass notes back and forth in the diaper bag. When I am able to see the parents in person, I answer each and every question they might have as well as offer information about their little ones. A picture speaks a thousand words, and seeing their child smiling and happy goes a long way towards reassuring their parents that they are safe, loved, and doing well.
- Whenever possible, include their parents on outings or special occassions - This is something that you definitely have to clear with your child's caseworker, and will usually only apply to situations where reunification is likely. Clearly I'm not suggesting you invite convicted felons or drug dealers to your home for a pool party. :-) With Booger Bear, I got permission to invite his dad to join us on Booger's first trip to the zoo. After that outing went well, we would occassionally meet for dinner or to go swimming. When he started getting longer, unsupervised visits, he came straight to my house to pick up and drop off. With Monkey, I began transporting him to his weekly visits with his dad at the CPS office several weeks before unsupervised visits began. By the time his first unsupervised visit occurred, his father and I had already worked out childcare, schedules, etc. for when Monkey returned home. I invited his dad to Monkey's first birthday party as well, but he wasn't able to make it. He just said, "I'll know he'll have a good time, and I'll get lots of pictures." (He knows me too well... ;-)
- Advocate for parents who are doing well, as well as the child - When Monkey was able to return to his father's care, his dad told me, "Thank you for helping me get my son back sooner. I know it was only possible because of you." He was referring to my offer to continue to provide child care for Monkey while his dad was at work as he works nights, and finding nighttime care can be difficult. When parents are doing well, following their service plans, and are really trying to do whatever it takes to bring their children home, I do everything in my power to get them longer or more frequent visits. I try to encourage good transitions that include overnights in their home. I try to get extra visits around holidays and birthdays. What it boils down to is, advocating for my children's parents ultimately makes things easier for my babies as well. It shows them that you are on their side and want to see them succeed as a family. I think that knowing you are on their side helps develop a long-lasting relationship. Parents don't feel that they are fighting another person for their child... They are turning to you for support.
"Why do you continue to foster?"
After gaining a family and a life like this, why wouldn't I?!? (I love that I can share their pictures now!!! :-)