Thursday, January 23, 2014

Things I've Learned Along the Way (Part Two)

When I first started fostering, I naively thought that the initial training I received would prepare me for what I would experience as a foster (and hopeful adoptive) parent.  Oh, how very, very wrong I was!  Over the past five years in Foster/Adopt Land, I have learned many valuable lessons along the way.  Some practical, some silly, and some very tough, emotionally draining ones...  I thought I'd share some of the lessons I've learned with all of you and hope that it helps some of you who are just beginning foster/adopt journeys of your own.  If you missed Part One of "Things I've Learned Along the Way," you can find it here.

Not-for-profits and other assistance - Contrary to public opinion, most foster parents aren't raking in the money.  Those of us who want the best for our children often have to seek assistance in order to help make that happen.  There are so many organizations and churches out there whose sole purpose is to assist foster children, fostering families, and youth aging out of care with scholarships for summer camps, clothing assistance, help during the holidays, providing initial placement necessities, etc.  Ask your caseworker, CASA, or your church if they know of any or search the internet specifically for "organizations supporting foster children in ______ county."  You might be surprised what all you can find!

Organization skills- With the never-ending mountain of paperwork, appointments, logs, and notes that foster parents must keep, it is sooooo important to find an organizational system that works well for you.  Keeping organized is one of the best things a foster parent can do in order to maintain their sanity.  It took a little while, but I finally developed a routine that works great for me (see the link above).  Now when a caseworker calls to ask seemingly random questions like, "How many visits has Bug had with his grandma?" I can quickly look it up and respond.  Don't invite more chaos by becoming overwhelmed by the paperwork.  Routine, routine, routine!  Trust me!  You won't regret it.

Privacy (or lack thereof) - One of the first things you learn about in foster care training is the privacy policy regarding your foster children.  Foster parents are not allowed to share ANYTHING with ANYONE regarding their placements.  Technically, we're not even supposed to identify them as foster children (although, seriously...  You show up to church with three new children one week, and people are gonna figure it out.)  No shared photos...  Not even Christmas cards of your family with children who have been with you for two years!  It's frustrating, but understandable to an extent.  What they don't tell you is that while your foster children have absolute privacy, you will have none.  That fact becomes very apparent during your homestudy when a stranger walks into your home and asks you extremely personal and somewhat embarrassing questions about your life.  As time moves on, you will be required to open your home to caseworkers, therapists, CASA volunteers, attorneys, random licensing workers, etc.  Some will walk in and make themselves at home, searching through your pantry for expired foods, digging through your medicine cabinets, and asking you more personal questions that you'd rather not answer.  And the lack of privacy doesn't stop there!  They'll even go after your friends and family by asking any frequent visitors to complete background checks.  I can see it now, "Hi Mr. Apartment Maintenance Man.  You are in my home more than twice a month, so I'm going to have to ask you to give me your social security number, your driver's license number, and all of your addresses for the past five years."  I have learned to limit background checks only to the people who will be babysitting my kids, and as far as anyone else is concerned, I have no other friends.  :-)

Questions - Don't be afraid to ask questions!  Ask questions before accepting a placement.  Ask questions throughout your children's cases.  Ask questions about birth families.  Ask questions if a situation arises that you are unsure how to handle.  You might not get an answer, but you'll never know unless you ask.

Remember that the goal of foster care is almost always reunification with family first - This is one lesson that many fostering families learn the hard way, even though they know that reunification is the goal.  Adoption-motivated families can have a very difficult time separating their desire to adopt from the ultimate goal of foster care...  To help families heal and reunite.  It can be especially difficult when caseworkers walk in and almost immediately ask if you would be willing to adopt.  I learned the hard way not to set myself up for even more heartbreak by believing that questions and conversations about adoption mean that the case is actually headed that way.  In fact, I have become so reunification-minded and an advocate for bio families who clearly love their children that I still have a hard time believing that I am about to finalize Bug's adoption.

Send important email correspondence to multiple people at once - It never fails.  I can email a caseworker ten times a day for a month, mark it as "Urgent," bribe with chocolate and Diet Coke and not get a single response until I decide to copy multiple people on my messages.  It's amazing how quickly things get accomplished when you've emailed the caseworker and copied their supervisor, your agency, your child's GAL, CASA, etc.

Transportation assistance - As a single, full-time working foster mom I know that I am simply not able to take off work to transport to/from visits.  I tell the placement workers up front that I will need someone else to transport to/from visits.  While different agencies and counties have their own policies regarding foster parents providing transportation, my county has always provided transportation for my little ones' weekly visits because they know before even placing them with me that they will need to do so.  I do try to transport occasionally so I can talk to the birth family and answer any questions they might have, but for the most part, my county has workers who transport and supervise visits for foster parents who need help in that area.

Utilize the knowledge and experience of long-time foster parents - No one...  I do mean no one...  understands the ins and outs of the foster care system like a long-time experienced foster parent.  Search for blogs, search for online support groups, and develop relationships with other foster parents who have been there.  Some of my closest friends are fellow foster moms who I have met online over the past five years.  Don't be afraid to reach out!  We're nice, and we're pretty smart cookies, too!  :-)

Vocalize any major concerns, but learn to let go of the "small stuff" - As foster parents, we have to learn to accept that everyone has different standards when it comes to parenting.  What might be unthinkable to us might be perfectly normal for our children's birth parents.  I would never in a millions years give my 3-month-old Kool-Aid and goldfish, but wouldn't you know, your baby returns from a visit with exactly that in his diaper bag.  Your first instinct might be to immediately tell their caseworker, but you know what?  The caseworker is going to say, "At least they are feeding him!"  Learn to voice major concerns (like when Bug came back from a supervised visit reeking of marijuana which ultimately led to a random drug test and ceased visitation upon the results), but try to look at the big picture when it comes to minor concerns.  No, they might no parent the way we would, but if it's not a behavior that would result in removal from the home in the first place, don't work yourself up over it.  Lead by example when you can, but learn to let go of the "small stuff."

WIC eligibility - I had no idea that my little ones were automatically eligible for WIC until another foster parent asked why I wasn't using it for Booger Bear.  He had already been with me for eight months at that point!  Since then, I've utilized my kiddos' WIC benefits until they turn one year old.  Saving $150 or more a month on formula and baby food is a huge blessing and worth the slight inconvenience of having to go up to the WIC office once every three months.  I haven't ever used it after my little ones have turned one, but I probably would if I had several children who qualified.

And that's just PART of the CLOTHES!
X-treme hoarding of all things "child" - I have learned that something happens to ordinarily reasonable women when they become foster parents.  I prefer to call it "nesting," but some might call it "hoarding."  There's just something about knowing that we could get a call for any age or any gender that sends us into "Always Be Prepared" mode.  Over the years I have made a fervent half-hearted effort to minimize my stockpile of baby gear, clothing, toys, and other infant/toddler supplies, but it seems my "foster mama hoarder" tendencies run too deep.  I have, however, managed to think smart when it comes to my awesome collection.  "Convertible" is the name of the game!  When making purchases for baby gear and other larger items, I have learned to invest the money in items that will grow with the child or that can be easily converted for any age.  I can get a call for a 2-year-old, a newborn, or a 13-year-old and can use the same frame as my cribs convert to toddler beds and then full-size beds.  The same goes for things like bathtubs, highchairs, toys, etc.  Well...  Maybe not for the 13-year-old, but you get the idea.

You will likely never have to use a lot of what they teach in your yearly required training classes - "Water Safety..."  While I suppose technically I do use what is taught in that hour long class on a daily basis, I am fairly certain I could have figured out not to leave my 1-year-old unsupervised by the pool all on my very own.  "Emergency Behavior Intervention..."  I believe I have taken that particular class at least six times now, and I have never had to use a single thing.  I foster infants and toddlers.  Any "therapeutic holding" that I do is of the "rocking to sleep in the rocking chair" persuasion.

Z...  Um, yeah.  I can't think of a "Z" so I'll leave you with another "Y" - You won't always attach to the children who are placed with you...  and THAT'S OKAY!  Don't beat yourself up for not feeling that instant bond with a baby.  Don't let yourself get down because you can't seem to connect with an older child in your care.  What matters is that these children feel loved, safe, secure, wanted, and cherished while they are with you.  Sometimes the bond of love grows softly over time.  Other times, it might never fully develop, and THAT'S OKAY!  It is okay to say "no" to adopting a child with whom you don't have that connection.  By saying "no," you are giving that child an opportunity to find a permanent place with a family who does.  I believe that all long-time foster parents have been in this situation at one time or another, and are often afraid to admit that they don't feel that attachment...  As though something must be wrong with us and if we just try harder, that bond will come...  I have learned over the years that my feelings are absolutely valid and shouldn't be taken lightly or overlooked.  You won't always attach to the children in your care...  and THAT IS OKAY!

And there you have it...  Tammy's words of wisdom (for what they're worth ;-) and what I have learned over the past five years as a foster (soon-to-be adoptive) mom.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Their Other Mothers...

When people ask me how many children I have, I tell them "three."  I am the forever mom of three amazing young people...  I have a beautiful, loving, compassionate, kind 20-year-old honorary daughter, and I have my boys, my Monkey and Bug, who bring me more joy and laughter and feelings of "mama bear" protectiveness than I ever thought possible.  Every day I look at my children in wonder and thank God for bringing them into my life in such an amazing way.  I am their "Mom," their "Mommy," and their "Mama."

My children have all come to me in different ways, but the one thing they all have in common is that I am not their only mother.  It sometimes surprises me how many times a day I find myself thinking of my children's birth moms and the different emotions those thoughts can trigger in me.  While feelings of anger and frustration sometimes come to the surface when I think of what ultimately brought my children to me, the most frequent emotions that I feel when thinking of my children's first moms are gratitude and sorrow.  Gratitude that they chose life for their children...  Plain and simple, but so unbelievably monumental.  And sorrow for my kids...  Sorrow for their birth mothers...  Just sadness in general that my children don't have the kind of relationships with their first moms that they were meant to have.

I think the passing of Monkey's birth mom late last year has made me even more cognizant of the connections that my children have to their first mothers (whether they ever had a relationship with them or not).  I love my children with everything that I am, and I want more than anything for them to be able to have healthy, safe, loving relationships with the women who gave them life.  Knowing that Monkey no longer has that chance breaks my heart.  I witnessed firsthand how much Monkey's mother loved him.  I saw her struggle to fight addictions, illness, and depression.  I saw her overcome.  I saw her relapse.  But through it all, I saw her love her baby, even if it was from afar.

I think of my children's first moms every time they do something that makes me laugh.  I think of their other mothers as I rock my boys to sleep or have deep, late night conversations with Heaven.  I think of the women who gave my children life every time they meet a milestone, every time I nurse them through an illness, every time they come to me for advice or comfort...  I think of those women every time I hear one of my kids call me "Mama," Mommy," or "Mom," and the bittersweet feelings of gratitude mixed with sorrow bubble up within me once again.

I am the forever mom of three amazing young people...  But I am not their only mother.  I pray every day that I am mindful of that and of the connection that my children will always have with their first moms.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Things I've Learned Along the Way (Part One)

When I first started fostering, I naively thought that the initial training I received would prepare me for what I would experience as a foster (and hopeful adoptive) parent.  Oh, how very, very wrong I was!  Over the past five years in Foster/Adopt Land, I have learned many valuable lessons along the way.  Some practical, some silly, and some very tough, emotionally draining ones...  I thought I'd share some of the lessons I've learned with all of you (broken into two separate posts so you don't get too overwhelmed), and hope that it helps some of you who are just beginning foster/adopt journeys of your own.

Attend court hearings if at all possible - One of the most frequently asked questions that I receive from new foster parents is regarding whether or not they should attend court.  My answer is a resounding "YES!"  In my experience, court is the one time and place where everyone involved in your child's case will be together in the same room.  I learn more in one day of court than I will over the course of the next three months simply because I have the opportunity to listen and speak to everyone involved.  It is also a great opportunity to work towards developing your relationship with your child's birth family (if it is safe to do so).

Be aware of how fostering affects everyone in your life - When I decided to become a foster parent, I knew that it would take an emotional toll on me and my immediate family.  I knew that the people who would grow to love my children would also experience the pain that foster care can bring.  However, I never really thought about how my decision to foster would affect my extended family, friends, co-workers, etc.  I have learned over the past five years that the people who truly care about me truly do care about my children as well whether they have the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with my little ones or not.  They become emotionally invested.  They experience my joy, my grief, my excitement, my stress, and every other emotion that being a foster parent brings.  They are invested because they love me and whether or not they ever actually get to meet my children, my decision to foster affects them.

Childcare - I had absolutely no idea that as a single, full-time working foster mom in my county (thank you, Allmypretty, for reminding me to include that!), daycare for my little ones is free!  Not one person at my agency or in CPS had mentioned it!  I had walked into a daycare that was recommended by a friend when I got Booger Bear (fully intending to use my entire monthly stipend and then some to pay for it) and started talking to the director.  She is the one who told me that daycare for foster children is free and was able to point me in the right direction.  If you know that you're going to need daycare for your little ones, tell their caseworker up front to help speed up the process.  Five years later, that same director is still one of my favorite people!  :-)

Don't be afraid to say "no" - As a new foster parent, I was terrified to rock the boat.  I did everything that CPS and my agency asked of me - no questions asked.  It got to the point that my entire life seemed to be controlled by foster care, and I was nearing my breaking point.  That's when a long-time foster mama friend told me, "It's okay to say 'no,' you know."  Really?!?  I can do that?!?  While there are many things that we can't control, we do have a say when it comes to how many of the foster care-related appointments and other random demands requests affect our lives.  I have learned that it's okay to say "No, I will not take off work all day and wait around for you to show up for a home visit only to have you arrive two hours late.  I will be home from 3:00-5:00.  You can come then."  I have learned that it's okay to say "No, I don't think that child would be a good fit for my family."  I have learned that it's okay to say, "Um, no...  I am not going to sign placement papers for the 17-year-old you just brought to my house when I was expecting a 17-month-old."  When it comes to placements, believe me they would much rather you say "no" up front than have the placement disrupted later on.  They won't hold it against you.

Expect the unexpected - I always say that the only thing that is certain about foster care is that nothing is certain.  Every single case is different.  There is absolutely no way to predict what might happen in a case.  Rules and laws are interpreted differently by everyone, and what might mean one thing to one judge means something entirely different to another.  The same goes for agencies, counties, workers, therapists, etc.  I have learned to answer new foster parents' questions with examples of what has happened in some of my cases and immediately follow up with "but there is no way to predict what will happen in your case."  You will save yourself a lot of stress headaches if you learn to accept that anything can happen at any given moment when you're living in Foster/Adopt Land.

FMLA - I had no idea that the 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 intermittently 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.

Give equal consideration to your heart AND your brain when making tough decisions - I can't stress this one enough!  I say that because I have a really hard time with it myself.  Foster parents tend to think solely with our hearts.  We jump in and say "yes" and worry about the consequences later.  Over the years, I have learned that thinking with my heart is wonderful, but I also need to listen to the voice of reason in my head.  It's there for a reason!  It's okay to follow your heart, but take your brain with you!

(and a second "G" because I thought of another one)

Well, SEMI Anonymous...  Lol.
Grief - "[I have learned that] there is a huge difference between sorrow and grief. I don't think I ever realized that until I lost [Booger Bear]. I expected to be sad when my foster children left my home. I expected pain and tears, but nothing could have ever prepared me for the all-consuming heartache and flood of emotions that encompassed me in the days and weeks after I lost [Booger Bear]. I was numb. My heart had a gaping hole that physically ached. My arms were empty where [my little boy] should have been. I did not leave my house or talk to anyone for days. I simply allowed myself to feel every emotion that washed over me; rage at CPS and the way they handled his case, denial that it was happening at all, fear for [Booger] and what might be in his future, and the suffering of a shattered heart."  (Modified excerpt from one of my chapters in Welcome to the Roller Coaster - Coming Soon)

Home visit cleaning - I wrote a post regarding what I have learned when it comes to preparing for home visits earlier this year.  Nearly five years after beginning my foster care journey, I have learned that as long as there are no blatantly obvious health or safety violations, we're good to go!  I usually have a pillow mountain and a ball pit in the middle of my living room floor.  The dishes and laundry are in a constant state of "almost" done as my mom and I tend to tag team the chores.  If a caseworker comes for a visit when Monkey is here, they spend the entire time being entertained by a 2-year-old bilingual attention hog as he pulls out every toy and book in the house to give them a rundown on what's what, usually all the while also fighting off a teething Bug who digs through their purses and chews on their hair.  By the time they leave, they're too flustered to remember that my "unmentionables" are in a pile on the dining room table!

Income taxes - Another question that I often receive from new foster parents is "How does fostering affect our taxes?"  What many caseworkers and agencies don't tell you is that if your foster child has lived with you for more than six months within the calendar year, you can claim your foster child as a dependent.  I would suggest filing early as often times the biological families try to claim the children as dependents as well, which can hold up your tax refund.  Also be aware that your monthly stipend is not taxable income, and is not considered income on your tax return.  That's the short answer.  The long and more technical answer to the tax code can be found here on Foster Ducklings blog.  She is a CPA and a foster parent and has done a good job explaining income taxes and foster care for those of us who don't like legal tax speak.  Lol.

Just because the caseworker asks you if you are adoption motivated, don't assume that means adoption is likely - I learned this lesson the hard way with my first long-term placement.  The caseworker, my agency, even his birth mom talked "adoption."  Sometimes I think they dangle the "adoption" word in front of foster-to-adopt homes just to keep us around.  That practice can be extremely difficult for parents who desperately want to adopt.  In the years since, every single caseworker my children have had has almost immediately asked me if I'd be willing to adopt them.  I have learned never to put any stock in "adoption" talk, and always look at each placement with the goal of reunification.  Period.  It has actually been surprisingly difficult for me to truly accept that Bug is going to be legally mine pretty soon, even though the "official" goal has always been "adoption by non-relative."

Know your limits - When you step into the world of Foster/Adopt Land, one of the very first questions they ask you is "What age, gender, race, behaviors, medical needs, number of children, etc. do you feel you are willing and able to accept?"  I have learned over the years that there is definitely a reason for that.  Foster parents' hearts are often much larger than our brains, and the thought of saying "no" to any child often seems inconceivable.  This is where you have to be honest with yourself and know what you can and can not handle.  Not just you as a parent, but your entire family...  It is much better to set limits when it comes to accepting placements than to get in over your head and potentially have to disrupt the placement later.  You will find that your abilities and family will grow and adjust with time as well, and it is perfectly acceptable to reevaluate as time goes on.

Learn to live in limbo - This is not an easy task for a task-oriented individual who very much likes to be in control.  Believe me.  I know!  Unfortunately, when you make the decision to become a foster parent, your life is no longer your own.  You live in a constant state of "hurry up and wait" with empty promises of "it'll be ready in two more weeks."  "Two weeks" seems to be the standard answer to most questions regarding how long something will take in Caseworker Speak.  Just be prepared to live in a constant state of limbo as you spend 99.9% of your time waiting for something...  waiting for "the call," waiting for answers, waiting for something productive to happen in your children's cases, waiting, waiting, waiting...

Make an effort to get to know your children's birth families and to become a resource for them if it is safe to do so - If you've been a long-time reader of this blog, I'm sure you know just how much this statement means to me.  I have my family solely because I reached out to my foster children's birth parents.  "So many times, we hear the horror stories of how children end up in foster care.  Horrific abuse cases are all over the news, and the general consensus among the public seems to be that children who end up in foster care are "better off" being adopted than returning home to their birthparents.  While that may be true in those drastic cases, what many people don't realize is that roughly 80% of all children in foster care are there due to neglect.  Neglect due to babies being born to teenaged parents who don't know how to properly care for them...  Neglect due to parents with drug or alcohol addictions...  Neglect due to parents with untreated mental illnesses...  Neglect due to financial hardships beyond their parents' immediate control...  Since I began fostering, all of my children have come from one or more of these situations.  Five of my seven were also returned into their birthparent(s)' care (four to their birthfathers) after they successfully completed their service plans." (excerpt from my guest post at Attempting Agape)

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.

Stay tuned for Part Two of "Lessons I've Learned Along the Way" in the next couple of days!

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