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3.11.04 Meeting foster parents

Maria and I picked up a job doing a short recruitment video for foster parents. For me, it is a strange and wonderful breed of people who can open their homes and their hearts to someone else's troubled children.

Today I joined a discussion among foster parents to see what makes them tick. There were two couples and two single mothers. These were successful foster parents who had been in the business for more than a decade each -- who had made it "over the hump" of the first couple years and have found their true calling.

Here are some things I gleaned about them:

Abundant hearts. They got into foster parenting because they "had the room." Literally, this means their own kids may have grown up and moved out but their remarks seemed to reflect what self-help gurus refer to as a "sense of abundance." They were well-grounded people, confident with children, ready to open up their houses and their hearts to a child's hurt and all the hurting of that child's family. They had "a whole lot o' lovin' to give."

They were ready for their worlds to grow larger and more complicated.

Rules. They are clear about the boundaries and rules they set for foster children. They expect moral and respectful behavior from children and their high expectations are usually rewarded with improved behavior. They convey that setting limits "means you care."

The child comes with their own set of complex relationships. Accepting a child into their home means accepting an ongoing relationship with the child's parents, siblings, and grandparents. You can tell that they are rooting for the child's parents to get their act together. They know it's a delicate relationship. They can't come on too strong or the parent's defenses go up. One foster father said they emphasize honesty in the relationship: "No secrets, no lies." They are also sensitive to the very concrete needs of the child's parent. They will send the a kid home for a visit with extra groceries or a donated coat for the mother.

"We've seen it work," the foster father continued. He stated that one of his greatest satisfactions was seeing children reconcile with and build relationships with their parents, even those they will never go home to.

Forgiveness. Foster parents know how easy it is to feel hurt and take bad behavior personally. It's difficult not to when you are opening yourself up so totally to a child and the child's extended family. Sometimes kids steal, run away, or shout how much they hate the foster parents. But these people have learned how to let it go and move on. What is important is not yesterday but today and tomorrow. They also try to help the kids understand the importance of simply picking up and starting over. "Life is like a ladder," a foster mother said. "Sometimes you slip down a rung, but you keep on climbing." Another foster mother teaches her kids to visualize a tape recorder in their heads. At any time they can press rewind and start over.

Turn problems into positives. "Stumbling blocks to stepping stones," one foster parent liked to say. It was clear these foster parents were experienced problem-solvers. They love the challenge. They love being needed and relied upon. One foster parent said that she learns something new from each child and at the end of every crisis she whispers to herself, "I made it!"

Teamwork. You also got the sense that these people love being part of a larger team. They not only know how to work with the child's family, but they also appreciate the role of therapists, youth workers, and the whole support system at the agency.

Commitment. They all feel strongly that every child deserves a decent childhood, time to just "be a kid." They should have security and stability. Their childhoods should be a time of accumulating good memories of adult kindness.  They should not have to take on the worries of adults. The mother of a six-year-old boy had recently been murdered. He worried that he would now have to take care of his younger siblings who were staying with his grandmother. The foster parents reassured him that they would be working with his grandmother to reunite him with his siblings and everyone would be safe and sound.

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I will be off-line till 3.17.04. Headed for a great weekend in St. Louis.

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