I don’t remember where I first heard about the South Carolina Heart Gallery. I think it was in a magazine. I do remember almost instantly going online to check it out.
For me and my husband, becoming foster parents was a process of baby steps. The first step was going to the South Carolina Heart Gallery page and looking at the faces of children currently in foster care, awaiting adoption. A quick e-mail requesting information directed us to DSS. Within days we received a packet from them with information about licensing our home and family for foster care. Also in the mail that day was a copy of a local magazine, which featured the adoption story of a local family who started as foster parents.
Signs. I remember getting goosebumps after receiving both in the same day.
But still, baby steps. “Let’s go to the information sessions, just to see,” I told my husband, so we did.
“Let’s just start filling out the paperwork for the background checks. No rush, but we’ll have it out of the way if we decide to move forward with this.”
“There’s a training session this month and we happen to be free. Let’s just go and cross it off the list.”
“I scheduled a visit for the Fire Marshall. Can’t hurt to just get it done.”
And so we did, and so it went. We completed each step of the long process, ‘just in case’, never admitting to the fact that by now we were fully committed to doing this. It wasn’t fast. Things needed to be scheduled, schedules needed to be worked around.
Towards the end of the licensing process we went to visit family in Puerto Rico, and I remember on the flight back we experienced quite a bit of turbulence. Now, I’m not a good flyer. A few bumps and my mind automatically goes to worst-case, plane-plummeting-to-the-ocean, which-kid-do-I-grab-with-which-hand scenarios.
But that day I didn’t have my typical panic attack. I knew I was supposed to be a foster parent, and I hadn’t been one yet, so of course the plane wouldn’t go down. Even typing it sounds crazy, but that’s the moment I realized how committed I had become to the idea.
The first call came before we even knew we were licensed. “Your license is in the mail,” they said. “We need a placement for a 3-day-old baby boy.” I still remember where I pulled my car over to take that call. We said no. You can always say no. It was hard turning down the first call we ever received, but we were set up for girls old enough to sleep in a bed, not to handle a newborn, so we made the choice best for us and the child.
But only a few hours later we received a second call, and a few hours after that we were bringing home an 18-month-old, scared little boy. He stayed for a month. After him were many others. We were prepared to adopt but never got the chance. Our home is closed now, because they cannot license homes with five or more children, but we never regretted a minute of it.
Have you thought about becoming a foster parent? Here are a few questions to consider:
Do you have patience? Not just for dealing with aching children, but for dealing with the system? Most of the caseworkers have more work than time to do it in. While they have the best interests of the children at heart, it can be hard for them to respond to messages or phone calls right away. Sometimes you have no information, no history, no health insurance information, and no one there to answer your questions. Can you work within this system? Can you remember that you’re doing it for the children, so that you can be patient with everyone else?
Do you have other kids? We had three young children when we started, and whether or not they would be hurt was by far our greatest concern. Can you explain what foster care is to them in a positive light? When a child leaves your home, can you help them understand it’s what’s best for that child? That most times, they are going back to their own family, who they’ve probably been missing? Can you understand that it is normal for your kids to be sad at saying good-bye, yet recognize when it might be becoming too hard?
Don’t get me wrong – I think fostering is a wonderful experience for everyone. I think especially for the foster child it is easier to come into a home that already has children. It really helps them to establish a routine, relying on the good kind of peer pressure. “All the other kids are eating this/getting ready for bed/doing homework/cleaning up/etc so maybe I should too.” I firmly believe other children in the home, whether your bio kids or other foster children, help a new placement with a sense of security.
Do you have a support system? If you’re married (you don’t have to be), is your spouse on board? It’s important for everyone in the home to be on the same page, because things can get physically and emotionally difficult and you want to support each other through it.
Can you channel Julie Andrews? Can you do the Mary Poppins/Maria Von Trapp firm-but-kind thing? Because foster children need love. Lots and lots of it. But they also need discipline and structure. Routines and expectations contribute to creating a sense of security, and no child can thrive if they do not feel secure. It can be hard to be patient with a child who is acting out in frustrating ways. It can be equally difficult to avoid indulging a child that you already know has been through so much. It’s tricky to find the balance of loving discipline, but worth the effort and better for everyone in the long run.
Do you work outside of the home? Many foster parents do. Younger children qualify for child care assistance, and older kids will be in school much of the day. You can work and still be a foster parent! But consider the flexibility of your job. Many foster children are taken from their family, placed with strangers, and dropped off at daycare with more strangers a few hours later. Sometimes that’s just the way it has to be. But if your work situation is flexible it’s nice to take a day to get the child settled, get clothes or whatever the child might need, and spend the day getting to know him or her.
Can you handle having almost all the responsibility for a child, yet ultimately having no control over their future? Children living in your home become to feel like they are yours. You will (hopefully) care for them as your own. You will spend a lot of time with them. You will learn what they love and what they are afraid of. You will get to know them better than most people. But at the end of the day you have very little say in what happens to them. Foster children have case workers and guardians looking out for them and making decisions that are ideally in their best interest. Sometimes you will disagree, but unfortunately there is not a lot you will be able to do about it. You just have to trust and have faith that each child is being set on the right path, and that while they are in your home, you are doing everything in your power to prepare them for what comes next by providing love and security while you can.
If you’ve ever thought about foster care, I encourage you to at least look into it. Visit the SC DSS site or the national Adopt Us Kids site. Even if you cannot imagine doing full-time care, you can be licensed and provide respite care for other foster parents.
If you do not want to foster but still want to help, reach out to foster families you may know, or to your local foster/adoptive parent association. They have events every year where they collect things like school supplies or Christmas presents for children in care. Or they can use donated food or child care for meetings. When I last checked their “closet” of donated used clothing was pretty well-stocked, but brand new socks and underwear are always welcome.
There are many ways to help. Those you are called to will always find a way!
“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty…Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
― Mother Teresa