It’s been eleven years since the first time Eddie and I sat in a training. We lived in Florida at the time and were working on getting licensed to adopt a child out of the foster care system. The following year we were matched with Nicholas. He was our first child, so parenting a child who has been through trauma is the first thing we learned. Trauma and attachment-focused parenting is our baseline.
We do also have two biological children who came along later. I can tell you unequivocally that the love is no different. But, just like when raising any children who have different personalities and needs, sometimes the parenting styles have to be tailored uniquely for each child. I never sugarcoat the fact that parenting children who have been through trauma is hard work. It is also very necessary work. If you’ve been here a while, you know some of our story. I like to say that I might have carried my daughters, but I labored the hardest for my son.
Recently, we were licensed again to be foster/adoptive parents in Pennsylvania. We currently have five kids in our care. One is adopted, two are biological, and two are foster children we are hoping to adopt.
When people find out that we’ve been doing this for a while and we’re choosing to do it again, they have a lot of questions. Often those questions are coming from people who have considered fostering or adopting themselves.
I tried my best to put most of those questions and answers here in this post. If you have any further questions, it’s a good idea to call a local adoption agency. Every state has slightly different requirements. Someone local to you will be able to guide you through your specific situation much better than I can. I am not a social worker or an attorney, so this post is not intended as legal or professional advice. I’m just a mom with a little bit of experience who can share what I’ve learned with you.
Frequently Asked Questions About Adoption and Foster Care
I’ve thought about it for a while and I really want to do it, I’m just not sure now is the right time. How did you know you were ready?
Well…we didn’t. No one can ever know that about any stage of parenting. I still feel like I’m not ready to parent teenagers, but our oldest is about to turn twelve so it’s going to happen! We’ll do our best to rise to the occasion, ready or not.
I will say that if you have recently been through a major life event like a marriage, career change, divorce, had a new baby, experienced a significant loss, etc. or if you don’t have a steady income or housing situation right now, then it is probably not the best time to make such a huge decision. You might want to re-evaluate this time next year to see if your heart is still in the same place. But if things in your life are pretty stabilized and you have been feeling for a while that this is something you really want to do with your life, you are just waiting for a sign or a big push in that direction, then I’m here to tell you that there is no such thing as a convenient time to shake things up and the lightening bolt you’re waiting for probably isn’t coming. It’s just one of those times in life you have to jump in and learn how to swim. I believe you can do it!
I think we are ready to do this, but I’m just so overwhelmed. I don’t even know where to start. What do I do first?
It’s okay. It IS overwhelming. First, I’d recommend that you visit a few websites like Adopt U.S. Kids and Child Welfare. They can answers your questions in more detail. This time around, when we were getting ready to start our licensing process in Pennsylvania, I called the Pennsylvania Statewide Adoption Network (SWAN) and talked to someone on the phone. They helped answer my questions and sent us a packet with lots of information about agencies in our area. We chose an agency near us, and then we also called them, and then we attended an informational meeting in-person at their location to get started with the process.
Those kids are tough. How do you even discipline them?
Differently. You discipline them differently, with an understanding that their learned behavior and even their brain development and psychological reactions have been informed by trauma.It’s not the kids, it’s what they’ve been through that was tough. And sometimes you don’t punish them at all, you just offer boundaries and positive reinforcement and natural consequences, because discipline is not synonymous with punishment. The goal is not necessarily about you lording yourself over them as a person of authority, the goal is that they learned to feel safe and loved and can eventually self-regulate their behavior.Just being able to feel safe and understand your expectations will alleviate a lot of unwanted behaviors. Understand that a lot of the negative behaviors are a direct result of trauma, not just kids being “bad.” All kids will push and they will act out. Kids who have been through hell will push back harder and act out in bigger ways. But sometimes parents need to recognize that traditional parenting techniques that might work well for biological children are simply the exact wrong thing to do for a child who has been through significant trauma. For example, if the reason that a child is in care is because he/she was locked in a closet for several days, then once they are at your home if you try to discipline them for hitting a sibling by sending them to a bedroom alone for time-out, it might not work. The idea of being alone in a small space might trigger something terrifying for them and you will probably see a big, defiant reaction. So, you need to be flexible and recognize how you can switch up your own methods and behavior to help in those situations. You might find that rather than sending that child to their room, just redirecting the behavior to say, “Hey let’s read a book together on the couch” is a much better option. Then later, when everyone is calm, you can explain why what happened should not have happened and what you expect to see in the future. Sometimes they literally might not have known they were doing something wrong in the first place, even if it seems to you that should be obvious. They don’t necessarily know that hitting is not how to solve problems if they’ve never seen another way. Role play and act out other ways to handle those situations, but don’t try to do it in the moment while emotions are heightened.
I don’t like the idea of public school, can I homeschool them?
We live in an area with a high homeschooling population, so I get this question a lot. I want to reiterate that I’m not a social worker. A professional can answer this question better than I can. You will have to work through the best educational plan for each unique situation with your caseworker. And as a foster parent you likely will not have educational rights at all, at least at first. (We petitioned the court and had them granted.) I don’t know you or what your situation will be, maybe you will be able to do that? Maybe not? But it’s not likely. I can tell you that it’s true that most foster children are in public school, and it’s not a bad thing. There are lots of practical reasons for this. It is not because anyone is trying to take away your rights to parent your children how you want. This is actually a child-centered approach because it tends to be what is best for the kids in care. Foster children often transfer between foster homes. They bounce around quite a bit, even when we try our best to avoid that. Public school is often the best option for lots of reasons. First, it can provide a consistent, safe environment for that child. If a foster child is moved between foster homes or back and forth between foster and birth families in the same neighborhood or somewhere close, they may be able to keep attending the same public school with the same teacher and guidance counselor, and the same friends, and the same daily routine, even when everything else in their life is changing. That’s a huge positive. Second, if they are moved, often it is within the same county. It is easier to locate records from multiple locations for children who have been in public school within the same district than it would be otherwise, plus their current and former teachers can more easily communicate and coordinate, they have easier access to services for special needs that can be addressed during the school day, and a whole bunch of other reasons. Third, if your foster child is receiving services like speech and language or occupational therapy, that can be done during the school day and relieve you of having to go to lots of appointments. Also, foster children are eligible for free and reduced lunch. And, finally, your child’s teacher or counselor might be able to offer great insight into their previous situations and coping techniques that have helped.
I don’t know if I want to expose my biological kids to certain behaviors.
I understand. It is hard to come to terms with the fact that many children in foster care have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused and might act out some learned behaviors. There are also some other behaviors that can be difficult to handle. It’s embarrassing to be in the grocery store or in church with a three year old who is swearing up a storm and taking off his clothes during his temper tantrum. In our family, we handle this by first recognizing that our biological children do not live in a bubble. They might not have encountered these behaviors at home otherwise, but there really wasn’t anything ever stopping them from encountering other kids who displayed negative behavior at school, at church, in the store, at the library, etc. It’s a false sense of security to think that if we keep foster children out of our home then our other children will never be exposed to negative behavior. On the contrary, we chose to view fostering as an opportunity for our bio kids to learn about empathy and how we conduct ourselves when confronted with challenging behavior. And we remind ourselves that none of our children are perfect. They are human. And, had they experienced the same kinds of trauma, they would probably be behaving in similar ways. I mean, I’m in my mid 30’s and I would swear and scream and want to throw things too if I had gone through what some of these children have. Yes, we do probably have more difficult conversations in our family about things like private parts and appropriate vs. inappropriate touching than some other families. And yes, I have gotten lots of looks and uninvited comments from strangers in public who just didn’t know what they didn’t know about our situation. For example, my 8-year-old will stick up her middle finger and scream at you when she’s mad. She didn’t learn that in my house. But the cashier at the store doesn’t know that. Yes, it is hard to deal with any child who has behavior concerns; biological, adopted, or otherwise. But I just don’t think and will never think that the fact that kids act out or display challenging behavior is a good enough reason for them to linger in limbo without loving homes.
What if something horrible happens?
Um…I don’t know how to say this. When you’re a parent at some point something horrible is definitely going to happen. Whether it is happening to your biological or your foster kids, I don’t know, but it is going to happen. Kids get sick, they brake bones, they suffer from mental illness, they even die. I can’t offer you any guarantees that stuff won’t happen. We can’t live our lives rooted in fear of the what-if. The great news is that along with those negative things, amazing, wonderful, life-changing things are also going to happen! What I find is that every single person has a very different definition of “horrible.” If you mean that you’re horrified someone might poop in your rose bushes on purpose, or break a picture frame, or yell at you in public, then I’m sorry. I’m going to say please re-examine your commitment to this calling. I know that sounds a bit jaded and harsh, but it is necessary because those things just sound like an average Tuesday to most experienced foster parents. The good news is that, unlike parenting biological children, when really horrible things do happen while you are parenting a foster child you have a team of professionals around to help guide you to the best resources and make the best decisions. When our son was hospitalized last year, one of the people who reached out to us with love was his former caseworker. We are still friends. She has since continued to offer to help our family in practical was to try to find as many resources as we can for him.
How do they match you?
This is a very big concern among some families I speak with. There seems to be a fear that you might tell an agency you are interested in working with teenagers but suddenly find yourself with an infant, or vice versa. Or people are afraid that they might be matched with a child with significant medical needs without the ability to handle that. Please don’t worry. That doesn’t really happen. You will work with your caseworker as they put together your profile and decide what age range and level of need is the best fit for your family. And, ultimately, the decision is yours, and no is a valid answer. (Sometimes a no is actually best for the kids because everyone wants the kids in a home that is comfortable dealing with their level of need.) When Eddie and I started this journey, we were only 22 years old. We didn’t think we would be able to effectively parent teenagers, so we were very clear about our intentions to only be matched with younger children. Now we have more parenting experience and another decade under our belts, our parameters have changed a bit. Now our profile says we are open to welcoming kids under the age of ten and we are confident in our ability to handle special needs. You can and should talk to your caseworker about all of those things. You will also have a lot of in-depth conversations with your caseworker about things like race, heritage, and religion. If possible, most caseworkers will usually try to place children first in homes that share their culture. It makes for an easier transition for the child, and remember this is a child-centered approach. Although, obviously that is not always a possibility. Just be as honest as you possibly can during the interview process.
Is it expensive? Do you have to be rich?
These are two different questions, and the answer to both of them is no. You will receive a stipend (usually somewhere between $15-$30 per child per day, depending on your county and factors like the child’s level of special needs), but this stipend does not count as income. Even if it did it would in most cases be less than $1/hour. Plus it is supposed to be allocated for the child, put toward things like food and clothing, toys, increased utility bills, and extracurricular activities. You do need to show your financial records and prove that you can afford to support yourself without the stipend. In our county the stipend is issued as cash via direct deposit right into our checking account, so we do not need to use WIC or food stamps at the grocery store. (When our oldest was in foster care ten years ago in a different state, this was different.) Foster children also have medical insurance that pays for their health care and therapy. You may find that your current doctor or dentist does not accept state insurance, so you might need to find a practice that does. We like to take our foster children to a play therapy center, which does not accept state insurance, so that is one of the ways we use our monthly stipend.
There is a HUGE need for qualified, loving homes. There are almost half a million children in foster care in the United States, and that number tends to rise every single year due to things like the opioid crisis. If you think you might want to become a foster parent, visit a website like adoptuskids.org or find a local agency who can tell you about the next steps to take in your state.
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