That First Night in Foster Care

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Try for a moment to put yourself into your foster child’s shoes.

Close your eyes and imagine you are with your mom and your baby brother. You are staying at a motel and Spongebob Squarepants is on TV. Suddenly, someone knocks at the door and two police officers come in and start talking to your mom. She starts to cry or yell, and then one takes you by the hand and tells you to come with him while the other one picks up your baby brother.

No one tells you to grab your toy, so you don’t. You just get into the back of his police car. Your mom is crying and you’re scared. The policeman gives you a sucker—he even says you can have two!—and then he takes you to an office building, where you sit in a room with some toys, but no one to play with you. They take your brother to another room (he is asleep in his car seat). Adults with folders and papers in their hands come and go, talking quietly with each other and smiling occasionally at you.

Then, after some time (a few hours perhaps?), another adult you’ve never met introduces herself to you. She may say that her job is to help keep you safe (or something like that), and she tells you to come with her to her car. You’re going to have a sleepover with some “nice people” tonight. She grabs a backpack from a closet that (you will find out later) has clothes you’ve never seen and a toothbrush that isn’t yours and a someone else’s stuffed animal.

Your baby brother does not come with you.

You drive for a long time. The person who is driving stops at Burger King and buys you a kid’s meal, then you arrive at a house you’ve never been to before. You walk inside the house and a strange woman smiles at you, introduces herself and shows you the room where you’re going to sleep.

It smells funny in this house.

The bed is so different from where you sleep at home with your mom. In fact, you sleep with her every night and now you’re in a strange room, in a strange bed by yourself. The woman who lives there opens the backpack you brought and there are some pajamas inside. She tells you to put them on. She saids it’s time to “brush your teeth,” but this is not something you usually do, so you look at her without moving. She says it again, and you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. Finally, she finds the toothbrush inside the bag (or she gets one she already had) and puts some toothpaste on it. You take the toothpaste and suck it off of the toothbrush and the woman tells you to brush your teeth, but you don’t know what she means, so you just stare at her. Finally, she takes the toothbrush and tells you to open your mouth, and she starts scrubbing your teeth. It feels weird and you don’t like it and you’re starting to feel really mad. But you don’t know this person, you don’t know what she’ll do, so you just go along with it—for now.

Finally, she tells you to pick out a book and sit on the bed. None of the books you like are there, but you choose one from the shelf. She sits next to you and starts to read. She touches your hand and it feels weird.

She feels weird.

You miss your mom. You wonder about your baby brother. You do not want to be here, but no one asked you what you want. The woman finishes the book, tells you to lie down and tucks the blanket around you. It’s doesn’t feel like your blanket, and it smells weird. She turns a nightlight on, but it’s not very bright and when she leaves the room, you turn the light back on. The woman comes back in, tells you it’s late and time for sleep and turns the light back off.

You hate her. This is not how your mom does it. Your mom stays up late and so do you. You play or watch TV until you fall asleep. It is so strange to be lying in this bed, alone and wide awake. But what can you do? Where can you go?

You lie there feeling afraid, angry and confused. You have no idea why you’re here. You have no idea how long you’ll be here. You have no idea when you’ll see your mom again. You start to cry.

At some point, you fall asleep.

# # #

In the next few posts, I’m going to respond to a question I’ve been asked several times: “How do you handle it when your foster child rages?” In fact, this is the topic we’ll explore on this Thursday’s Flourishing Foster Parent Coaching Call.

But before I dig in to the “HOW,” I want to explore the “WHY,” and that requires taking some time to step into your foster child’s shoes (as much as is possible) when they come into your care. As much as you try to be a kind, good foster parent, the bottom line is you are a stranger, and everything about your house and your toys and your food is strange.

It’s really important that we foster parents internalize this truth: the experience of coming into your home is yet another traumatic event in this child’s life.

In the next post I’ll dig in a bit more to the “WHY” behind your foster child’s “Big Feelings,” which can often be expressed with fits of rage. Then, after we have explored the “WHY,” we’ll also get into some ideas for “HOW” to respond.

Happy (Day After) Mother’s Day!

Happy (day after) Mother’s Day to all of you who mother!

Foster moms, step-moms, aunties, best-friend’s moms, and anyone else who functions as a mothering figure in a young person’s life: bless you!

I pray you’ll be encouraged by this short message. I recorded it years ago, yet it is from my heart today!!

3 Ways to Support Your Foster Child’s Mom on Mother’s Day

Photo by Kane Taylor on Unsplash

Can you imagine how hard Mother’s Day is for women whose children are in foster care?

In just a few days, many people will be celebrating Mother’s Day. In my experience getting to know many of the women whose children have been in our care, I’ve learned that the weight of shame and hopelessness is utterly debilitating. Adding a holiday—especially a holiday meant to celebrate their role as a mother—to that despair is brutally crushing for many women.

In our foster parent training, we were not encouraged to do much for the women whose children are in our care. Beyond perhaps maintaining a visitation journal in the diaper bag, I don’t recall any suggestions for supporting our foster children’s mothers.

In my years as a foster parent, however, I have had occasion to get to know several of our kids’ moms. I have also gotten to hear mothers of foster youth speak in various settings, and now I am passionate about encouraging foster parents to do more to encourage and support the women whose children are in our care.

Here are a few ways you could support your foster child’s mom, especially on Mother’s Day:

Write her a card. If your foster child’s mom is diligently working toward reunification—showing up for visits, attending rehab or other programs mandated by her reunification plan, dropping her UAs, etc.—you might write something like this:

Dear ____,

I just wanted to take a moment to write and express my support for you. I cannot imagine how hard this journey has been for you, and how especially hard it will be this weekend as Mother’s Day rolls around. I want you to know how impressed we are by how hard you’re working to get ___ back. I’m sure what you’re doing often feels like an uphill battle, but you’re doing it! Keep it up. We are with you and for you. ____ loves you very much. We are with you and for you and for your reunification.

Love,

If your foster child’s mom is out of touch, not making progress, not showing up for visits, etc., you can still make an effort to encourage her with something like this:

Dear ___,

I wanted to reach out and let you know we are thinking of you as Mother’s Day approaches. I can only imagine how hard this season has been for you. While we haven’t been in touch in a while, I wanted to tell you we are with you and for you and pulling for your recovery. You have some amazing kids, and we long to see you reconnect with them! They are doing well here, but I know they miss you. You are in our prayers.

Love,

Writing a letter to honor her as their mother, to express your support, and to try to protect her dignity is one way to support a woman whose children are in your care.

Have the children make her a gift. If your foster child sees his or her mom for visits, encourage them to make a gift for her for Mother’s Day. This reminds them that, even if they are not living with her, she is still their mother and they can still do something special for her. Some ideas are coloring a picture, painting a picture frame (and putting his own photo in the frame), a scented candle or vase of flowers.

If a mother is not in touch or is not showing up for visits, encourage the child to write a letter or draw a picture for her. Perhaps you can give this to the case manager with the promise that she will pass it along when she sees their mom.

When a woman’s child is in foster care, she feels isolated and alone. Those around her celebrating Mother’s Day adds insult to injury. Help her children honor her with a gift—even if she gets it after the fact. Even months later, knowing her children (and you!) were thinking of her will mean something.

Arrange a phonecall or video chat on Mother’s Day. Again, this would only be appropriate if she is making regular visits with her child and remains in her life. If the mother has been absent from the child’s life for any length of time, I would not suggest making Mother’s Day an occasion for a phonecall. That said, if visitation is happening, make sure they get to connect, at least by phone, on Mother’s Day.

These are just a few ideas for simple, low-touch ways to support your foster child’s mom on Mother’s Day. These actions do not require awkward interactions or any real engagement (though I do encourage foster parents to engage with their foster children’s parents if possible!)

I would love to hear from you! If you are a foster parent or a woman whose children were/are in foster care, what would you add to this list?