The wide-eyed young woman smiled as she
sat next to me at the conference. “So. I’ve been thinking about doing foster care. What do you think?”
A middle-aged druggist stops me after the
Lions’ Club meeting. “I have these friends who don’t have any kids of their own, and who are thinking about
taking in a troubled fourteen-year-old girl. What do you think?”
It makes no difference what I think. But
they should think, and so should you, if you are considering becoming a caretaker for someone else’s child. It is a serious matter and not something which can be altered merely by saying, “I
made a mistake. I’m not cut out for this.”
Today, in America, there are a little under
half a million kids in foster care. Many of them are living with their grandparents
or other family members in something called “kinship care.” Others are in RTC’s (residential treatment centers)
or therapeutic foster homes, but the majority live with people whose only relationship to them is joint tenancy.
It is a noble profession, I suppose. It takes some time to become licensed; after the initial application, there are interviews
and background checks, home studies and mandated courses to take. Applicants must pass a physical examination and be able
to survive financially without the state money foster care affords providers. And after all the preparation, the average home
remains certified only a year.
Foster parents may stipulate the children
they prefer, and they always have the option to refuse a child, but the thought always sneaks in, “What if they don’t
send me any more kids because I turned that one down?” So foster parents often accept children with whom they are ill
equipped to cope. Of course we are trained to handle behavior issues, but economics
and relatively recent changes in child placement resulted in children who formerly would have resided in institutions being
placed in foster care homes. It’s simple. The average per diem cost for
a child in a foster home is about $15, compared with over $100 to keep a child in an institution.
Oh. You thought it paid better than that?
Well, first, it isn’t called pay.
It is a reimbursement and not intended as salary. It is for the care of the kids, and covers their food, their share of utilities,
their clothing, their allowances, gifts, sports equipment such as track shoes and the extra ten you tuck into their lunchboxes
as they go to the “away” game…just in case the team stops at McDonalds on the trip home.
And second, it isn’t taxable. There
is a small perk there.
Third: the kids get free lunches and all
qualify for Medicaid benefits, so their health care doesn’t cost you anything.
But it certainly isn’t salary. Consider
the waking hours foster parents put in: depending upon the age of children you foster, that pay would be somewhere near 50¢
And foster children are not “normal
kids.” That is to say, they have all undergone trauma and all will eventually show the effects of that stress. Some
have anger issues, many cope by lying and stealing. Some are cruel to animals or other children. Many are bed-wetters or feces
There are many foster children who lag
behind educationally because of missing school or because of learning disabilities. That means foster parents must spend extra
time at school in meetings and at home attempting to translate math equations into language the child can assimilate.
There are court dates to attend, records
to keep, relationships with case workers and biological families to build, antagonism of some family members to counter, boundaries
to set and all within the regulations of the county agency and/ or the state.
The children live with you, but they are
in the custody of the county, under state protection, and their parents often still have rights. Decisions as minor as whether
to get a child a haircut must go through many channels.
Why all this negativity?
I want you to know who I am, because the
people I mentioned at the beginning of the article had no clue. I am no saint, nor am I an expert on child behavior (though
I am pretty good at anticipating the occasional meltdown and unraveling the sometime deception.) I am only a foster parent.
And I have been one long enough to have had the stardust shaken off my eyes. I
admit I’m a bit jaded.
Roughly 45 children have come through our
doors, many staying 6 months or more. We have had our back door kicked in, our
money stolen, our upholstery ripped open, our window screens cut from their frames, our carpet permanently pee-scented and
stained, windows broken, dryer timers burned out and locks forced. We have been the victims of shoves and pushes, street language,
curses (from kids and their families) and allegations. Public tantrums have humiliated us and private tantrums have left us
the object of scorn from outsiders who feel we are too strict, too demanding and not nearly loving enough.
We know, by now, that we cannot help every
child who stays with us. That does not mean we don’t try. Some children are merely managed, but that doesn’t exclude
them from hugs and vacations and “Coke-and cookie dates.”
We weep when some of our children leave
us, and throw spontaneous parties at the departure of others.
And we’ve been known to throw
an occasional tantrum ourselves. (I absolutely will not work with that therapist. I cannot allow that parent to visit in my home again.
I just can’t work with that caseworker.)
We do make a difference in many children’s
lives. They get the opportunity to play team sports or band instruments, they try out for cheerleader and the spring play.
They live within the security of boundaries that require them to go to school regularly and do homework. They learn how to
make omelets and wash a load of clothes. They discover that addiction and lawlessness are not normal components of family
And some of them even recognize those
facts. Sometimes we get an email from a long-gone foster son or daughter thanking us for our efforts. Only sometimes.
Because we don’t often hear about
the kids again.
So why am I a foster parent?
Because it isn’t all about the kids.
Sometimes it is a feeling I get when I know that I have made a difference. A
knowledge that I am, in the words of Ebenezer Scrooge, making mankind my business. A
realization that I am leaving a self-perpetuating legacy: keeping one child from lifelong dependence upon the system, and
so, his children, and their children.
There is an old story about a child walking
along a beach strewn with thousands of stranded starfish. Over and over the child stoops to return the creatures to the water,
but it seems an impossible task. Finally someone points out to her that she can never hope to throw all the starfish back
before they die. It makes no difference.
The child stoops again, picks up another
starfish and tosses it into the waves.
does to that one,” she says.
So, to answer the questions I quoted at
If you are older, and have never
had children, I believe I would think long and hard about taking a troubled teen. The
challenges of such a child are immense and exhausting.
If you are considering becoming a foster
parent, though, and are willing to accept the sacrifices…if your eyes are open and not star-glazed…if you understand
that changing someone’s life forever will also alter yours…
If you realize you are not a saint, though
many people will argue that you are…
If you know that insanity is part and parcel
of the job (Not the child’s. Yours) …
If you understand that “thank you”
is an idea often expressed only by a smile…
And you STILL sign the papers,
Bully for you.
That’s what I think.