“Eric” self-described as a 40-something, white, middle class foster dad from the northeast. He has fostered one daughter in a legal guardianship, while caring for four of his own children. Eric has a sense of humor, so don’t take his jokes too seriously.
Eric and his wife, “Amy,” had been long times friends another couple who had married and begun their family only a year before Eric and Amy had. Over those years, both couples had three children, until eventually Eric and Amy added a fourth to their family. They intermittently worried that domestic abuse could be an issue with their friends. Eric explained how they became involved:
“We supported her, although we tried not to take sides, we helped her move out, find a place of her own some hours away where my wife and her had less contact. We would visit regularly, take them up groceries, as the husband refused to pay them any support for his family. They would come down to visit, I would fill her gas tank, they would stay for a weekend, the kids would have a great time. A couple of years went by, the kids later said this was the most peaceful time of their lives, they were dirt poor, but their mom was happy, and the kids were happy.
Then one Thursday, they had been down to stay the weekend before, we received a horrible phone call, the kids had come home from school, she said she had a headache and sent them outside to play, went to lay down on the sofa. When her daughter, who I will refer to as Sue, came in to get some water, she found her mother dead on the sofa. A mutual friend worked for the Fire Department, and knew we could take the kids, we immediately drove up and after being checked out by the police, brought the kids home with us. It took a day or so for her family to get their act together, he was prevented from having the kids by a Protection order, so only her family could take them. Of course we said we would take them, but the family came and of course we were happy for them to be with family.”
For a few years, the children were all placed with some cousins. Eric and Amy had concerns about this family, but didn’t elaborate on what specifically was at issue. At first, they began providing respite care for the children, but there were problems (which he didn’t elaborate) and eventually the calls for respite care were pretty infrequent. Then:
“Fast forward a couple of years, out of the blue, we received an email from one of the kids’ cousins, asking if we would take Sue, who had just been taken to a crisis home. After a few phone calls, on Monday we attended a crisis meeting with a fill crisis team at DHHS, where the cousins said they could not have Sue back, and all other family members present said they could not take her, so we said we would. She was brought over the next afternoon by her DHHS from the crisis house.”
When asked most contributed to Sue’s successes, Eric shared:
“I think treating Sue as a normal really helped, she had been classified by everyone as ‘dysfunctional’ for so long, it still makes her angry, she has never considered herself dysfunctional. When she came to us, there was a lot of use of technical terminology by DHHS and her workers, describing in what way she was dysfunctional, her mental issues, which someone with more medical training may have recognized, we had no idea what they meant, so we just treated her as a normal kid, which she really responded too. I think it worries me to think if we had accepted what the medical professionals told us about her, we might never have let her progress to the point she is at. Not knowing what one particular diagnosis meant, we didn’t treat her as if she had it. As it turns out, Sue is one of the many kids who were wrongly diagnosed with this, mainly due to issues like, finding her mother dead on the sofa, being placed with cousins who treated them like friends, not their kids, being placed with a religious cult family (ok I know I am not PC with this one, but [that religion] is just weird). Anyway, I have since read around the subject, and am fairly happy that I am right when I say Sue was misdiagnosed.
But when she first came to us, we felt very alone. On the one hand we had DHHS workers and TRAINED MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS with post-graduate degrees and lots of letters after their name, all telling us she had all these mental illness diagnoses. Then on the other hand we had this kid, who our kids had grown up with, who within a week of arriving, stopped wetting the bed, no longer needed pad’s at night, who did stuff when you asked her, and certainly did not need the immense doses of mood altering medications she was receiving. On top of that, we had to navigate the State DHHS system, which neither of us had any experience of, we also had to deal with taking her to lots and lots of appointments in a completely different part of the state, because we no longer lived near her. Oh and yes to reduce disruption, she continued to go to the same school, and for the first two weeks I had to drive her there and back home every day until the state set up a taxi to drive her.”
When asked about observations that he thought contributed to the children being in foster care, Eric’s answer was thoughtful:
“Well a lot of the problems Sue’s parents had are similar to many peoples, I think it was just a combination of them all, and the degree to which they experienced them, that caused a lot of the problems. For instance, we all struggle financially, unless you are the 1% of course. But Sue’s family lived on the very edge of their credit: a camper, a summer house…, a truck, an SUV, private school, all on credit which they could barely afford. [There was alcoholic drinking and the husband] had a conviction for misuse of prescription medication. Domestic violence was an issue. They fought in front of the kids, he also fought with the elder boy, one such fight led to her leaving for the last time. But it is not as simple as violence. He controlled her their whole marriage. If she came to visit us, he would be checking up to find out where she was, and she would leave to be home before he got home, so she could make it look like she had been home all day. I remember one statistic from my [job training that], on average, by the time a victim call police, they have been abused 37 times. For her, the abuse was mental, we know she had left him before, while we were living out of the country. She came with the kids to stay with us one other time before she finally left him. Sue does not refer to her biological father as Dad, or any other such familiar name, merely by his first name, and usually in the negative. Well then we move on to the cousins Sue stayed with for four years. She was 10 when she found her mother dead on the sofa, and fourteen when she came to us, she grew from a kid into a teenage young lady while in her cousins’ care. If I were to give them the benefit of the doubt, I would say that they were by no means at all prepared to handle three teenagers suddenly dumped on them, all with individual needs. I suspect their family forced them into having them, as some sort of [religious] mission. Anyway, they had no time to develop parenting skills, and by no account did they have any natural talents for it. By what we can verify, they tried to bend her to their will, but she is strong-willed herself, so most things became confrontations, she spent a couple of episodes in crisis houses, each time coming out more heavily medicated. So she still has the strong will now, but we just call that normal teenager, we have almost fully weaned her off the drugs, but she is left with some issues, mainly to do with administrative function, and has some weight issues, which her medical professionals seem to love to harp on at us about.”
Eric shared some of their positive experiences since fostering:
“The first few weeks of a placement are often described, if they are going well, as the ‘honeymoon’ period. Well, we just had the ‘first year’ check-up with the state pediatrician who assess the placement and it’s suitability for the child, and he asked me if everything was REALLY going as well as everyone was saying, and I was able to tell him we were still in our honeymoon period, and we expect it to last a couple more years. I guess the most rewarding part was when we were all out as a family, and someone commented how well-behaved all our kids were, and assumed Sue was our bio child. We have been talking a lot about college recently, our eldest is in his first year, the next is getting ready for his senior year. Sue is looking for colleges close enough she can come back regularly. When our eldest son left for college, the youngest boy got his room and the girls managed to split into separate rooms. Well I had our eldest son pack all his belongings up, since he was loosing the room to his sibling, and will have to share when he comes back on vacation. Well Sue was choosing point for her room recently, and she was asking questions about my plans for her room when she goes to college, and I assured her that since there will only be one left after she goes, we will actually keep her room as it is, since there is no one to move into it, and she seemed very happy she will be able to come back to her room. Then of course there was the first couple of weeks after she came to us, she never wet the bed, and stopped using depends at night within a week, we overhead her saying to one of her workers that it proved the issue was to her. Then later the same day she came to the kitchen with her worker for lunch, and she asked what she could have for lunch, so I showed her the sandwich making we were all hitting and told her to help herself, and her worker almost cried since this was a freedom she had not been allowed in her last home. So this, and other nightmares which I won’t share here, which were verified by her various workers made us realize how valuable to her a stable home is, and how glad we are to be able to provide it too her.”
When asked about a worst-case scenario for fostering, Eric shared a story about a couple who were acquaintances of theirs. They bonded at a church function. This young couple was childless and had decided to foster. “So I found out they were unable to have their own kids, could not afford to ‘buy’ an adopted kid from China, so they had put themselves on their local adoption list, but the wait for babies of their own race was so long, they decided to open their application up to older kids, and ones with disabilities. So now they have two teenagers, brothers, with pretty severe emotional problems, while this couple are little more than teenagers themselves. Well, we talked (bitched) a lot about DHHS, the kids, what the kids did, how we dealt with it, and on top of what I knew about Sue’s cousins and the problems which had occurred there, my feeling is that families with no previous experience of raising kids, would be best having small kids placed with them, and have them grow as parents as the kids grows up, instead of delivering fully formed teenagers to a family with no experience of or framework to place the needs of a teenager in. So that is my worst case fostering scenario, dropping an older kid onto parents who have no parenting experience whatsoever.”
He also shared one of the hardest things about fostering for his family: integrating their children with Sue. In their family this is partly because it sounds like Sue and one of their sons had romantic feelings at some point. This is a common tension in foster families. Children are expect to behave like siblings, when they obviously are not in many cases:
“Dealing with the relationship between our foster kid ‘Sue’ and or second child [is hard]. We always knew he was a little difficult to get along with, had some issues at school, some issues with other kids, fights. When sue first arrived, they had always got on well when she and her brothers had come to visit, but of course this was different, this was for longer. They seemed to get close fairly quickly, we gave them both the talk, separately, about boundaries, no one wanted them becoming ‘involved’, So our son backed off, Sue didn’t take that well, she still had feeling for him, and felt rejected, so she became very antagonistic towards him, he accused us of favoring her, gave us ultimatums, wants her out of he house. So after a lot of talks, there exists a kind of truce, he will be off to college in a year, and refuses to interact with Sue, and for her part, she will fly off the handle if he confronts her about some imagined slight, so we just try to keep them apart, not easy in a small house.”
Eric responded with humor about the best parts of foster parenting, but his answer is also really honest:
“I must admit the money helps, my wife was able to change her work, rather than a 8-4 or 9-5 position in a daycare, she works as an in-home caretaker, she is able to make her own schedule, so she can see more of the kids after school, take them to appointments, or if they are ill, stay home with them. It is something we had talked about doing for years before the kids started leaving for college, but it was only getting the stipend and needing to be home when Sue got off the school bus, that had let us be able to do this. So the whole family is better off, my wife is able to spend more time with us all, and still work. Then of course there is the ego boost when other parents say “I don’t know how you do it” and generally make you feel like some sort of angel for taking on someone else’s problem child. Oh yes and all that stuff about enriching our lives, bringing more love to our family, expanding our horizons…”
As for youth in foster care, he says, “I know that foster kids are going to be the same as any other kid, they are going to have their own foibles, and like anyone else, by no means will they be perfect, in fact some of their personality issues may be accentuated by their previous experiences, but that we all have some sort of personality issues. I believe they most likely just want a permanent home, but might want to test how committed you are about providing them a permanent home, because they have been let down before.”
Eric’s experience with the courts and other professionals was far more positive than many people have reported. “Well I must admit as a former police officer, my opinion of lawyers was pretty low, but fostering has definitely changed that. Sue has a wonderful guardian ad-litem, who really works for her, but also the legal team the state used to discontinue the fathers parental rights, and take away his nursing license ( that was an enjoyable day in court I can tell you ) have all really been dedicated to making sure of the best results for Sue. We had to get through a couple of caseworkers before we got the current one, who we really find helpful, she is a mother herself and seems to have a more realistic approach than the previous ones who tended to blindly follow the rules.
Then we come to the medical professionals, even before our fostering experience began, my opinion of psychologists was pretty low, but after Sue’s mis-diagnoses and incredibly high dosage of mood altering drugs, I really don’t care for them, especially now Sue’s won’t take back her diagnosis. There appear to be a lot of agencies who provide services to the state, Sue has one come in regularly. In the beginning it was over 30 hours per week of in home mental health worker, we have it down to about 8, which has been quite a fight, because of course it is their work, their income, which they don’t want to give up. They are of course all lovely people, which makes it all the more difficult to try to get rid of them.”
What works well in foster care? “By virtue of its very nature, the foster care system attracts some really dedicated and capable people to work in it. It make almost a two tier system, those who are interested in the field, and work in it, and those who are dedicated to the kids, and will do anything in their power to make the system work for an individual child.”
What needs fixing? “As with any line of work, staff turnover can be a real problem, foster kids need an element of stability, and a new case worker every couple of months did not help us for the first six months. heck even we needed a bit of stability, so you can get an idea of how to deal with them. The biggest issue was the family members Sue had been placed with before she came to us, he was a Social Worker, who had a reputation for getting people into trouble by making false allegations. We actually felt afraid of him, as our care for Sue started to contradict all of the things he had been saying about her to crisis. His word, as a trained Social Worker held a lot of sway with professionals in the field, whereas we were untrained amateurs. The whole crisis team took his description of Sue at face value, because he was a trainer Social Worker, whereas our feelings were disregarded for quite a while until we were able to gather our evidence and force recognition of the issue. Also, he was able to convince the Juvenile Behavioral Psychologist of his diagnoses for her, which in my opinion was more likely some things he was suffering from, not Sue. The whole thing had become self-perpetuating. Sue is strong willed, her cousins were also, they all had issues, yet no-one seemed to compare notes. The in-home mental health worker, with 32 placement hours, so pretty much there all the time Sue was at the house, recorded in her notes some awful things. Neither Sue or her brothers were allowed to sit on the new leather couch, but the two dogs were. When the Functional Family Therapist came for her weekly therapy session, none of the kids sat on the sofa. When this came up at a meeting six months after Sue had been with us, I had the in-home therapist explain to the Functional Family therapist why Sue was not sitting on the leather sofa during family therapy, the poor woman almost burst into tears, and went and apologized to Sue and gave her a big hug. No-one had connected the dots, or put it all together, What Sue needed more than anything, was out of that home.”
Eric expresses very clearly something that would benefit not only foster families, but families whose children are placed in foster care. Here, he was asked to characterize his foster parenting and suggest what could have made him an even better foster parent. “What would have really helped would have been a training course on how to deal with DHHS workers, how to interpret their language, your rights as a Foster parent, what resources are out there for you, how to get the best for your foster child or how to game the foster system on their behalf. We had a very steep learning curve, it takes time and good information to sift through the baffling amounts of paperwork. One of the best pieces of advice came from a friend who was in a similar line of work, but had no eggs in the basket, and was able to give an outside perspective, with a trained insider’s eye. I would say we are damn good foster parents, although I am not sure if we could be for a complete strangers kid. Actually, I found this survey while searching for a Fostering Self help blog, which was something I really needed. And as I can see I reach the end of this survey, it has been very helpful in a sort of cathartic way. I have not wanted to post or blog about it on anything that could be linked to me, since my foster daughter could see it also, as could other people who don’t need to know our personal issues, so being able to put it down in writing here has been very helpful for me.”
Importantly, Eric has a clear understanding of what the system is: it is a system. Perhaps this clarity comes from his prior work in a different government institution. When asked about the goals or purpose of the foster care system, he responded, “As with any government system it’s a numbers game, the budget is the big steering object. The goal of the system is the framework within which people have to actually try to help kids. What I mean by that is the goals of the foster care system, may not actually reflect the actual needs of any particular foster child within the system. Sometimes it seems there is more to be gained by gaming the system to help a foster kid, than there is to follow the system to try and help a foster kid.” He understands that the system is not a person, is not out-to-get anyone, but neither is it designed to specifically help an individual.
Eric belongs to a special category of participants in this research: male. While there are plenty of foster fathers, biological fathers, and male professionals in child welfare, few tend to respond (although males who were in foster care participate at a much higher rate than those in other categories). I cannot be certain why this is the case.
“Respite care” is a formal term in foster care, it is loosely defined as a period of time, between a day and two weeks, usually and depending on the state or county, in which another family or provider cares for children who are in foster care other than the fosterers who normally care for that the child or children. Respite care providers are not run-of-the-mill babysitters. Although babysitters for foster youth and children have to be licensed by the state, usually as foster parents, respite care providers (who are not fully licensed to do foster care, generally), or institutional care providers. Respite care providers go through most, but not all, of the same trainings and annual updates as licensed foster care providers (e.g. first aid training, CPR training, special training about administering and storing medications, interviews, home inspections). This is an important step in keeping fostered children safe. But another consequence is that requiring respite care, rather than being able to leave fostered children with other children in the home, relatives, or other babysitters, greatly reduces a foster parents’ ability to get some time away from the kids. Most parents acknowledge that a few hours off now and then is critical to keeping a clear head when there are multiple kids, or when a child/ren are especially trying.
Since he brings it up, and most foster parents avoid talking about money like the plague, I want to focus on what he said about fostering-for-pay in the section about the best parts of being a foster parent. Even in their income gap ($80,000-100,000), the stipend fills in the gap in the additional costs of caring for another child. Children in foster care tend to have more medical needs than other children, so health care costs alone without government support could be devastating and make fostering impossible. But clearly Eric and his family are also supporting Sue through some important middle-class norms, like going to college. Very few fostered children go on to college, and of those, even fewer are able to graduate. Additionally, many foster parents continue caring for some foster children that passed through their homes at some point long after they age out. Many youth I have interviewed attach especially to one or two families and go to them for advice and even financial support long after they have aged-out (meaning, the foster parents are not receiving financial support any longer).
Eric has great insight into understanding that the system is a system. It isn’t a person with feelings or motivations. It is a system, and it cannot possibly deal well with everyone, or even most people—whose circumstances are perhaps similar in the broad strokes, but who are all different as individuals with individual needs.