“Elise” is a 40-something, middle upper-class, foster mom. She has been non-kin fostering for 3 years and has cared for 5 different foster children so far and has two children of her own. She and her husband decided to foster because they felt “very blessed with a nice home and a happy marriage” and “wanted to share with those that didn’t have a mother or father.”
“I haven’t had a foster baby yet that I didn’t love like my own biological child. Bonding may have taken a few weeks longer than my biological children but my husband and I have a heart for these children without someone to protect them. We know that the Lord has called us to help make their lives a little better even if it’s for a short time. Because of this calling our hearts are invested in each child and this helps motivate us to be excellent foster parents. I have yet to have a child in our home that is treated differently than that of our own very much loved biological children. The “mama bear” in me extends to those placed in our home. … There hasn’t been one [child] that we would not have adopted given the opportunity. We know that God had a plan for each child and willingly accept that we were not meant to that child’s permanent family. I often say the blessings have far outweighed the heartaches. Our last child left six months ago and we haven’t had the emotional strength to ride the rollercoaster again. In the meantime I [volunteer with foster children]. But we don’t believe we are done for good. Eventually my heartbreak for these abused children will outweigh my own personal heartbreak and we will take another child and start all over again.
The foster children she has had in her home did not have other external support networks. In her experience, social workers “case loads result in a lack of knowledge/planning when it comes to foster children.” She worries that parental rights and policy override what is actually in the best interest of the children.
She described a painful experience nursing a 3 pound infant through NICU for six months who was sent to live with an elderly grandma that they believed could not care for his needs as a premature baby. “It’s hard to go back into [foster parenting] again knowing that heartbreak is par for the course in this system.” For their family, bonds have been made with foster children which were then “ripped apart” after working so hard to form them. The hardest part, she wrote, is “knowing that they are going back or to a place that cannot provide the safe environment or love/family unit that every child so deserves. It’s [hard] watching them being considered a case file instead of child worthy of love and protection.” Elise wrote, “Older children are traumatized/jaded/wounded from their experiences and are therefore difficult to help.”
Her family worries that that other foster families that “do it with a full heart are rare” because they have received babies “from other foster homes that were not a safe place.”
When asked about what works well and what is broken in the foster care system, Elise shared:
“Social workers start out really caring but due to case load and feelings of helplessness at their hands being tied creates burnout very quickly. Judges here the same thing day in and day out and the children seem to be more of a case file number rather than a life, attorneys show up on the day of court and read the file literally five minutes before the case is called. We have had several attorneys that didn’t even know the child’s name. We didn’t know our first foster child had an attorney for the first four months. What works well? This is the first question on this survey that I have to stop and think about. The system is broken. The only thing I can think of is that they use licensing agencies to help with the case load so most of the time we have an advocate in this agency that helps. Returning children to homes for the sake of lowering the number of cases or financial burden for the state. [My] county is so overwhelmed with removals that several children have died by abuse/neglect due to being returned to homes that are not safe simply because biological parents have the “right” to the child. Also – THIS ONE IS THE WORST FOR FOSTER PARENTS – cases are allowed to stay open for 18 moths. Therefore, a child can bond and become a part of a family for a year and a half and then be returned in that last month. We had a baby for 17 months while her dad and mom dragged out the case and didn’t work their service plan. We raised that baby as our own while they dragged their feet – and the system kept giving them 6 month extensions. Six weeks before the last extension was up the father decided to get on the ball and finish his service plan and our daughter was sent to live with him – a single dad at the age of 19. Mom’s rights were terminated at the hearing in the 18th month.”
Elise believes the purpose of the foster care system is to protect the children that have been placed in their care and restore the biological family unit possible, but not to the detriment of the children.
Elise’s concerns as a foster parent mirror other stories I have heard from foster parents thus far. They worry a lot about the fate of children who are taken from them. This wars with their hopes for the children to be reunited with happy, stable families. When I talk to people about my research generally, they often say they considered being foster parents at one time but they decided against it because they worried they couldn’t handle the kind of heartbreak that Elise describes. Statistics about foster parents are difficult to accumulate. Some studies suggest that most foster parents belong to working class families, and so Elise’s family may be a minority in this sense. However, the reasons she gives for becoming a foster parent echo others. Most foster parents feel like they have something they can share with children to make their lives better. Statistics vary, but at least half of foster home situations appear to end in adoption – this includes families who adopt their own kin too.
Elise describes foster parenting as lacking supports for her and other foster families. This too is a familiar thread. Foster families often organize themselves, or try to, into networks of support for one another. Foster parents meet each other at mandatory trainings and some agencies organize picnics or outings for foster families to bring their foster children to. But in her story it is clear she feels unsupported by overwhelmed case workers and court workers, and lacks a network of foster families she can relate to. Her family relies on their church and own family for supports.