So, you have thought of undertaking one of life’s most noble, albeit challenging, tasks: raising children that are not your own. And not just any children. The children in the care system have been taken away from the care of their parents due to risk or actual neglect or abuse. As a foster parent, it is your role to provide them with a safe, consistent household that will help them establish trust with their caregiver, as well as raise their self-esteems.
The United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, or UNCRC, clearly states in their preamble that “….every child has a right to a family of her/his own”. Children need a family unit to decrease the risk of further neglect and abuse.
Foster care provides family life to children that cannot live with their biological parents. It is used to provide temporary care until Social Services has deemed it safe for these children to go back to their biological parents. It is seen as a program that gives children optimal opportunities to learn and to grow.
Children in foster care have different needs. In response to this, there is a range of foster parents that are matched with the children based on their training, experiences, and skills.
Restricted foster parents care for children they know or who are related to their family. Another term for this is “kinship care”. An advantage of this type of care is that children are usually familiar with their foster parents, and will not have to adjust too much to the new household.
Regular foster parents, the most common type of foster parents, care for children of different ages and needs. They are usually not known or related to the foster family.
Specialized foster parents, or ‘professional parents’, are usually matched with children that have special needs such as physical and mental disabilities, and emotional or behavioural problems. Depending on their education and level of experience, they are designated as Level 1, 2, or 3.
Respite foster parents care for children in short periods so that the children’s biological parents or foster parents can have a few days without the children.
When you have been thoroughly vetted, trained, and finally, accepted into the care system as a foster parent, Social Services will then place a child or children, based on their needs and how your knowledge, skills, and experience correspond well to them.
Understanding the Foster Child
Uprooting a child from the household they have grown accustomed to is still a distressing event for them, no matter how abusive or neglectful their parents may have been. As a foster parent, you should anticipate this. There will be a period of adjustment in which the child may exhibit behaviours similar to that of grief. They may even see this as a form of punishment. These are the major factors that influence a child’s reactions to being placed in foster care:
- Age and ability to understand why they had to be placed in foster care.
- Emotional resilience.
- Degree of attachment to the person/s from whom they are being separated.
- Cultural influences.
- History of placement in foster care.
With these considerations, as the child adjusts to your new household, you, as a foster parent, should:
- Allow the child to openly express their thoughts and feelings and listen to them. Let them grieve for their parents. This tells the child that you are validating their experience, and that you are there to help them process their grief.
- As much as possible, do not change their clothes or the way they do their hair unless they ask you to. They need to have some part of their identity to cling to.
- Prepare for the possibility of them acting out. Deal with it with patience and compassion. Depending on the child, they may not know any other way to get attention or express their feelings.
- Discuss their situation with their caseworker or therapist to formulate a care plan that is suited to their needs.
Foster parents are also taught and highly encouraged to employ a parenting style known as therapeutic parenting. Therapeutic parenting is a highly structural and highly nurturing parenting style. It is designed to make the child feel safe and secure enough that they are able to relax, heal, and trust their parents to provide the love and support they require. It is especially beneficial for children with attachment issues and trauma. By providing structure and a nurturing environment, the child slowly gains the trust and self-esteem lost after the separation.
This just does not end here. Foster parenting is a process, and those admitted in the system need to continuously educate themselves to be able to provide the stability and safety that children need. It may be very challenging, but, according to foster parents, the rewards, mostly in the form of smiles and thriving children, are worth it