Despite the work and frustrations, being a parent brings countless blessings. Being a foster parent is very similar, but the work, frustrations, and blessings can be even more extreme. Today, the most common circumstances leading to a child’s placement into foster care are neglectful parenting, parental drug abuse, inability to care for the child, physical abuse, or a child’s behavior. Fostering a child is a noble task carried out by compassionate parents for kids who have been through challenging and traumatic circumstances. The stress and trauma that led to a child’s removal from their home often have secondary consequences including physical and mental health issues. When you add to that the stress of unfamiliar surroundings, moving in with strangers perhaps multiple times, and irregular parental visits, the child can be very cautious to trust people. These kids need extra love and grace, and so do the foster parents that take them in. Foster families need a hand. And I’m not talking about applause, though that’s appropriate, too. They need lots of help, encouragement, and respect. We are learning this to be true firsthand by watching our daughter and her husband foster a child. If you want to make an impact in the lives of people right in your community, look no further than foster families. What can you do? Read on. First, here is some background.
What we know as the modern foster care system had its roots in traditional orphanages in the 1800s and the little known piece of American history called the “Orphan Trains” (see the “Did You Know?” box below). Foster care replaced orphanages by the 1960s and through an imperfect and bureaucratic system has seen reform and growth. There is no shortage of statistics for the foster system, but I will share few pertinent ones from the Department of Health and Human Services Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS):
- There were 437,000 kids in foster care on average (2016), an upward trend the past four years.
- The average foster kid age is 7 years old.
- Kids stay in foster care about 20 months on average.
- About 50% of foster kids are placed with non-family member foster parents; about 30% are placed with relatives.
- About half of foster kids eventually reunite with their biological parents.
- About 25% of foster kids will be adopted.
That’s a lot of foster children and families involved in foster care. Foster kids have experienced difficult circumstances prior to entering foster care and carry the aftermath with them. This often creates new difficulties that manifest themselves in the foster care setting. Citing experts and clinical reports, Alicia Gallegos says kids in foster care display a few common traits. First, they can experience reactive attachment disorder caused by relational disruptions. This can lead to withdrawal, unhappiness, and disinterest in children’s activities. In addition, insecurity and uncertainty can cause foster kids to defy authority, refuse to listen, or do the opposite of what was asked. Third, foster kids can show aggression toward their siblings because of family separation (visit https://www.livestrong.com/article/157211-ways-to-teach-foster-kids-not-to-steal/).
In addition to common challenges in fostering, some foster children also have unique physical or mental health difficulties. For example, half of all foster children experience at least one mental health issue such as depression, social phobia or panic syndrome. Because of their pre-foster trauma, kids can also develop PTSD at an early age after adoption or when they return home. Stunningly, the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) found that former foster children are nearly twice as likely to experience PTSD as veterans, and 25% of foster kids have PTSD owing to pre-foster care trauma. Foster girls are twice as likely to develop PTSD, and this stat has remained unchanged for over a decade. Author and speaker Mimi Paris, once an orphan and foster child, suggests trauma and related PTSD in foster kids can lead to many other issues such as lack of trust, nightmares, fear, and more (visit https://www.fosterfocusmag.com/articles/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-not-just-soldiers-problem). These are difficult issues, but it’s important to grasp the reality in order to understand the needs of foster families and how to support them.
Foster parents have their own struggles, too. In general, foster parents typically experience challenges like: being heard by others when they voice the need for help; letting go when children return to biological parents; struggling to keep going in the face of daily weariness; speaking up and out to others about the needs of foster kids and the challenges of the system; staying positive in an emotionally draining enterprise; and, finding a good community of supporters (see http://confessionsofanadoptiveparent.com/6-struggles-every-foster-parent-faces/). More specifically their challenges include building trust with foster children, integrating them with the rest of their family, dealing with behavioral issues, financial and marital strains, and providing for special needs kids. Further, they struggle with exhaustion and burnout, two emotional strands that demand attention and support. Exhaustion leads to loss of sleep, physical ailments, and other consequences. Burnout can lead to walking away from the foster care system, drained from personal sacrifice.
It’s clear that foster children have experienced significant stress and possibly trauma. Further, the secondary consequences of stress and trauma on foster kids are wide-ranging, placing significant stress on families providing foster care. So, what can be done?
There are many ways you can help. According to Foster2Forever.com, you could: take photographs of foster children to aid in their placement; become a Court-Appointed Special Advocates volunteer; donate to organizations that support foster care; provide short-term respite care to foster parents; provide meals; or, become a foster parent (see http://foster2forever.com/2014/05/help-foster-child-family.html). Angela Davis suggests little things: send a note or email of encouragement; do errands; babysit; pay for haircuts or camp; do housework; or, provide transportation (see http://www.frugallivingnw.com/how-to-support-foster-parents/). For a longer list of ways to support foster families, depending on your available time, talent, treasure, or transportation, visit https://interestsofchildren.wordpress.com/2012/12/20/101-ways-to-get-involved-in-foster-care/.
Additionally, Jason Johnson offers 10 ways the local church can lovingly come alongside foster families, including: organize a meal calendar; do lawn service; provide babysitting with certified sitters; do family dedication ceremonies; host date-night child care; deliver care packages to foster families; create a supply pantry for foster families; build up a respite care team; create support groups for them; and, obviously, pray for them. (See http://jasonjohnsonblog.com/blog/ten-simple-ways-your-church-can-serve-foster-families#.WqhACmbMzq0)
Forward Free understands the needs of foster families and will support them in various ways, including: compassionate services provided at its Life Ranches; education to communities through local workshops; national advocacy efforts; online and printed resources; and app-delivered information to foster families and their relatives. With caseworker approval, foster families could take a vacation to one of our Life Ranches, or perhaps the foster parents could travel to a ranch alone for respite. And our plan includes bringing foster families to a Life Ranch for up to two weeks each year without cost. In addition to having professional counselors, pastors, mental health professionals, and programs designed to support foster families, our Life Ranches will include many recreational activities for foster families. These include: a petting zoo; riding horses; manicures, pedicures, and massages for foster Moms; storytelling times; hair stylists; indoor playland for kids; nursery room adjoining playland; treasure hunts; area for kids to dress up; dodgeball in gym; inspirational speakers for kids and teens; photo booth; game room; theater with popcorn; crafts center; library; rock climbing; infrared saunas; swimming pool; hot tub; bubble soccer; and, various outdoor activities onsite and in the area. We will provide periodic supervised care for all kids, including foster kids to the degree permissible, so parents can have time alone, along with staff support to help with kids even when parents are present.
Forward Free seeks to mitigate and prevent the secondary consequences of trauma and stress experienced by foster families and others including Christian leaders, disabled and wounded veterans, first responders, Gold Star families, widows, and others in our churches and communities. We do this through awareness, advocacy, and compassionate service. Join us!