I am passionate about recruiting quality foster parents. No more of these people “in it for the money” (which is humorous when you consider the meager compensation amount the average foster parent receives). No more foster parents who are unkind to bio families, who can’t work as a team, who don’t know how to get needed services for their kids, who treat their foster children as less than their biological/adopted kids. And absolutely no more foster parents who abuse their foster children in any way. I am personally gratified to see so many competent, qualified, empathetic, intelligent people entering the world of foster care, sometimes against their better judgement that tells them this is going to be tough. These people have good jobs. They have good educations. They are professional, motivated and emotionally healthy.
But I find this type of foster parent comes with their own problem to overcome. And I know it’s true because it’s the struggle I see in myself. Here’s the thing— we are people who believe (maybe just somewhere in our subconscious) in the truth of the American Dream. We believe hard work is rewarded. We believe anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and achieve success. We have seen our efforts rewarded in a multitude of ways (good grades, promotions at work, reliable relationships) so we believe this is the way the world works. We believe we can have what we want if we’re just willing to work for it. And in many ways, that’s true. The problem I see with this mentality when it comes to foster parenting is twofold:
1) We believe we can “win” foster care by working hard, being the better parent, and (even subconsciously) attempting to manipulate the system.
2) We believe the biological parents should be capable of pulling themselves together in a timeframe that seems reasonable to us.
So here’s the problem with our desire to “win” foster care— ideally, what we do shouldn’t matter to the outcome of a case. But still, we hope that if we make friends with the right people, fill out our paperwork on time, be a team player, have success in other areas of our life (stable job and home) and take wonderful care of this child, then we should win. We’re the better parent so the child is clearly better off with us. The hard realization for foster parents is that it has nothing to do with the life we’ve created for this child and everything to do with the biological parent’s ability to meet the goals set for them. (I am not saying this is the way things should be handled. The “bests interests of the child” is a phrase that is tossed around, but not always respected, especially when different members of the team have different ideas about what is “best” and how long it is reasonable for a child to wait for permanency.) It can be really frustrating to give a child a beautiful life only to see them return to a home of hardship. It can feel unfair to those of us who are accustomed to having our efforts rewarded. We hate this loss of control. We are doing everything right, but at the end we are left with heartache.
This belief can also lead us to nitpick and criticize the biological family when they aren’t parenting as well (from our perspective) as we are. It could be related to the clothes they provide for the kids (or don’t provide), the food they choose, the activities they do during visits, or the advice they give their children. While we might give our friends freedom to parent differently than we do without our judgement, we don’t always give the biological family that same freedom. I know there is HUGE frustration when the beneficial consistency we establish for this child is disrupted and I’m not minimizing that. I think there are similarities between this kind of relationship and a step parent relationship where we are in essence co-parenting and the balance of power can change unpredictably. It may vary depending on where you are in the case (i.e. how close to reunification or termination/relinquishment) or based on the philosophy of your foster child’s caseworker or lawyer. Do we have friends who yell around their kids? Argue with their spouse? Eat fast food most meals? Feed their kids only on a schedule or feed their kids with no schedule in mind? We might have concerns and would discuss these things with our friends (depending on our relationship with them), but when these things happen with a biological parent, we may find ourselves questioning their fitness to raise their own children and voicing our concerns to those in authority over them. So much of this comes down to a heart issue. Can we address problematic parenting tendencies with a heart that wants to help teach new skills or are we looking to catch biological family members in bad parenting habits so we can look like the better parent?
Since we believe if we try hard enough, we should win, we also think that applies to our foster child’s biological family. We tend to think in terms of our own experience. We say things like, “If someone took away my child, I’d do whatever was asked of me to get them back.” We are incredulous when mothers don’t show up for visits or can’t get a job or have a difficult time with sobriety. We assume if they really loved their child, they would pull it together. It’s easy to feel superior when they fail. The problem is that for many of us, we have been set up for success and can’t identify with the life and history of the biological parent. We had loving people in our life who supported us. We grew up in a faith community that helped us develop a code of moral behavior. We have clearly seen right and wrong identified and we’ve seen the benefits of following society’s rules. This is not the case for many of the parents who have lost their children into foster care.
If my kids were taken away, I would do whatever it took. But what if I had no driver’s license or car to get to visits? What if I had no job skills because I dropped out of school just like my siblings and my parents? What if I was self-medicating a mental health issue with an illegal substance that finally makes me feel happy or at least normal? What if the only people who showed me love were considered unsafe to be around my child and I had to choose between them? What if the abuse in my past makes me think I can never succeed and makes it hard for me to trust people in authority? What if I had an intellectual disability that made it difficult for me to follow caseworker instructions? What if I had a criminal record for poor decisions I had made in my past? What if I had spent my own life in foster care and this seems entirely normal to me? What if I had been abused at the hands of my foster parents? What if I’ve been told all my life that you can’t trust the police and that lawyers and judges and caseworkers are out to get you and ruin your life? If any of these obstacles were true for me, how long would it take to overcome them?
This would be an incredibly difficult road to walk. Many families in crisis will have some of those issues. Some families have more issues than others, but I have yet to see a mother who lost custody of her child who came from an entirely stable background. Now, many people who come from rough backgrounds go on to be wonderful parents and overcome their circumstances, but some people just don’t have the skills or motivation. As foster parents, we’ve got to have a lot more compassion and a lot lower expectation level. A biological parent may not achieve the same level of stability that we have, but that doesn’t mean they can’t safely parent. If they allow us to, we may end up being one of the few supports they have. That isn’t an easy place to come to and many times the animosity of just being involved in the system is too great to overcome, but we keep trying. And sometimes a parent will give it great effort, but in the end will still come to realize they are not the best home for their child. Those parents deserve our respect for their selflessness, especially since they may face great shame in communities that don’t value adoption. And of course, there are evil people in the world and sometimes those people have children. There are always going to be parents it is impossible to get along with who are terrible to their kids. That is the sad reality of working in foster care and it breaks my heart every time.
So foster parents, what can we do? If we can identify these tendencies in ourselves and can see how they make us frustrated, what next? This is still very much a learning process for me, but I am coming to realize that I have to focus on my role in the process. My role isn’t to make a parent succeed or fail. My role isn’t to judge someone’s parenting ability. My role isn’t to win because I think I’d do a better job at parenting. My role is just to love and care for this child. I provide information to the right people. I make sure the child’s voice is heard. And then I step back. I let go. I have learned that instead of determining the “rightness” of the system or the process based on the outcome, I determine it by if I loved this child well and treated their family with dignity. I can’t control anything but my own actions. My role to play is small in the grand scheme of the decisions that are made, but it is mighty when it comes to how that child will remember their life.
Maralee is a mother of six pretty incredible kids ages seven and under. Four of my kids were adopted (one internationally from Liberia, three through foster care) and two of our sons we made ourselves. Prior to becoming parents my husband and I were houseparents at a children’s home and had the privilege of helping to raise17 boys during our five year tenure. I’m crazy passionate about caring for kids, foster parenting and adoption, making my husband a fairly decent dinner every night, staying on top of the laundry, watching ridiculous documentaries, and doing everything I do for God’s glory.
Read more from Maralee at www.amusingmaralee.com.