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!


Anonymous said...

Great advice, thanks for the link to the tax info.

One thing, however: Childcare is not free for foster children in all states. In my state, for example, you must still qualify by income and family size for assistance with childcare, so I DID have to spend my monthly stipend and then some on private babysitting for a medically fragile newborn. Always check with your agency or county for assistance with childcare and find out what they offer.

Kelley said...

Thanks so much for all of this great information! I shared your FMLA tip with a friend who has been having problems leaving work 15 minutes early to meet her foster kids after school.

Hope L said...

The grief thing is SO true!!

Holly said...

This was an AMAZING post. I'm a new reader, who is just at the very very beginning stages - going to all the orientations nearby to figure out which agency is right for me! I know I will refer to this post often.

Anonymous said...

Okay this is AWESOME information. We've been fostering for five years and had two adoptions and 10 placements along the way. Yes, Yes, YES to getting to know the birth family and BUILDING A RELATINOSHIP where possible. And another YES to going to court. I always learn so much about the case and the family from going. First hand information is so much better than hearing is second hand.

alp2295 said...

"M" is my favorite! We are in the final stages of getting our license right now. Your heart for birth parents reflects our hearts exactly! I feel like I very rarely hear that perspective from foster parents. We truly believe that God created the family and that the best place for a child is in a healthy home with his birth parents. And if that really can't work out, and we end up adopting, I want to be able to let that child know that we exhausted every resource to reunite his family. Thanks so much for the encouragement!

Jessica Blackwell said...

How did you find the right agency? I'm in that stage now?

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