What Foster Parents Need Other Parents To Know

by Emily Westbrooks

Most of us hold onto a pretty specific stereotype of foster parents. I grew up in a rural state where "foster parent" was synonymous with "welfare mooch." The stereotype that lived in my head was a crazy foster mom in a dirty, overcrowded house, stacking foster kids so she could bank checks. That happens, yes (and rarely), but there are also some really great, really altruistic foster parents trying to change the lives of foster kids by offering their homes. Families like mine. So, there are definitely things foster parents want (and need) other parents to know, especially about what our families and foster kids are like.

It took me moving back to the United States after nearly a decade abroad to encounter a different kind of foster family than the stereotype I relied on for so long. Realistically, a lot of foster parents don't get paid, and even fewer get paid enough to make much of a difference in caring for a child's daily needs. In other words, find a few foster moms on Instagram and that "they're doing it for the paycheck" stereotype goes out the window. Quickly. And then lo and behold, we became one when our adoption agency needed families for foster babies.

We got a crash course in what it's like to be foster parents; the random questions from strangers, the extra protection of the kids' privacy, and the varying judgement about their situations or their birth parents from people who cross their paths. Here's the short version: treat them with the same respect and kindness as my biological children and don't judge us, them, or their situations. Oh, and do the following:

Not All Foster Kids Call Us Mom and Dad...

Before assuming that foster kids will call us "mom" or "dad" or by our first names, or whatever, please ask how we've chosen to refer to ourselves. It can be really confusing for a foster child (especially one who is older and knows he or she has a mom and a dad) to be asked a question about their new parents as though they are biological.

We have friends who go by "mom" and "dad" with older foster children, or as Mama Susan and Daddy Joe, to differentiate between biological moms and dads. Just ask first.

...Then Again, Some Do

I get that it's confusing, I really do. We had a 5-month-old foster baby girl when our daughter was 7 months old. For the sake of simplicity, within our family we referred to ourselves as her mom and dad. She was too you to understand the nuanced differences between foster mom and mom, and it made it simpler logistically to simply refer to ourselves as mom and dad.

In our eyes, what she needed from us during the time she was with us was a mom and a dad, so that's how we treated the situation. If she had been older, we may have chosen other names, but we might not have. Each situation is different and sometimes kids just want to be part of the family.

Our (And Foster Kids') Story Is Not Entertainment

Our foster kids' stories are almost always devastatingly sad, and telling them out loud sometimes sounds like made-for-television drama. But their stories are not entertainment. And really, best practice for foster parents is to keep those stories private. It's easy to be drawn to a child's tear-jerker of a story, but that story does not define them. Focus your questions, instead, on what the child likes and what great qualities they have, pushing the conversation toward how much they are valued instead of what drama you can rubberneck.

Kids Aren't "Lucky" To Have Found Their Way To Our Family

If they were truly lucky, their family situation wouldn't have necessitated that they be sent to a stranger's home. Period, end of story.

I feel the same way about my adopted daughter. She is not lucky to have found her way to our home. Are we lucky to have her? Absolutely, but true luck and happiness is biological families being able to stay together, and biological families torn apart for any reason is tragic. If you want to talk about luck, focus on how lucky the foster family is to have such a magical child in their home.

Foster Kids' Birth Parents Aren't Evil

A handful of birth parents are truly bad eggs, yes, but the majority of parents who lose their kids to the foster system are not evil. Many of them weren't parented themselves and, as a result, have never had examples of what it means to be a good parent. They might lack a support system or they might lack means to get a leg up to better take care of their children.

My job as a foster mom is not to judge birth parents, it's to care for their children as well as I can for as long as I need to. That doesn't mean there aren't moments when I rail against the horrific situations the child came from, or against negative choices, but at the end of the day that judgement gets us nowhere. It is, instead, my job to wish birth parents every success in getting their lives back on track so their family can be reunited. That is the first goal of foster care, even if sometimes birth parents are found to be not suited to parent in the end.

Yes, It Breaks Our Hearts To Say Goodbye...

That was my biggest fear when my husband and I became foster parents: having a child in our home for months, or years, then suddenly having to say goodbye as they returned to their birth parents or to another family member.

Well, I can tell you that it did absolutely break my heart to say goodbye to not one, but two foster babies in one year. The thing is, my broken heart healed. I had a big cry when the social worker picked them up, and as I put away any gear we didn't send with them, but I survived and, dare I say, was stronger for it.

...But That Fear Isn't A Good Enough Reason To Not Foster

The fear of your own heart being broken is just not a good enough reason not to foster. It's OK if you don't feel called to foster, and just because I'm a foster mom doesn't mean I think everyone should do the same. It's definitely not for everyone.

However, please don't tell me that you could never foster because it would be too hard to say goodbye. Give another reason or don't give a reason at all. Your broken heart — that's probably been before broken through a break up and healed over time — pales in comparison to the home you could give a baby or child whose heart has probably been broken more in their young lives than yours ever will.

Yes, We Would Love Your Help

You don't have to be a foster parent to help children who really need it. Becoming a child advocate is a great way to advocate and speak on behalf of a child, without having them in your home. "Adopting" foster children at the holidays by giving gifts or clothing is another great way.

You can also help foster children by helping their foster families. Offer to get background checked so that you can babysit if I need a break or need to take another child to an appointment. Stop by with a cup of coffee and just hang, and most of all, speak to my foster children just as you would to my biological children.

Any Biological Children We May Have Are A-OK

When we first started fostering, our daughter was only 4 months old and my family was a little concerned that my time concentrating on only her was being divided. But my husband and I decided that we wanted her to know from a young age, by our example not just by our words, that our home would be a place we welcome extra people now and again.

She was obviously too young to notice with that foster baby, but she did notice with the next one and the one after that. She learned quickly by our example that we treat even temporary foster babies as though they are part of the family. While we don't have older children yet, I know so many families who do and who have a hard time with the guilt trip question of