When I was asked by the Department of Health and Welfare in the state of Idaho to parent two foster daughters I assumed parenting them would come naturally. I had three children of my own so how difficult could parenting foster children really be? My foster daughters had an abusive, controlling father but their bi-polar mother loved and cared for them the best she could. Their mother had purposely placed the girls in foster care to make sure they were well cared for while she dealt with her husband’s recent incarceration, her pending divorce, her recent miscarriage and long-term mental health issues.
I soon learned that because of the trama foster children go through both before coming into foster care and while in foster care, they often need more medical, dental and mental health care than children who are raised from birth by their biological parents. Foster children often have learning and social difficulties that may affect their relationships at school with teachers and peers. As a result, it takes an extreme amount of patience and love to care for foster children properly. There are five smart things you can do to ensure your foster parenting success.
Be Honest with Yourself
Be honest with yourself regarding your parenting limits. Since you have a choice about the types of foster children you will allow into your home make a list of the specific child-related criteria that you know you can handle successfully. For instance, decide whether you feel comfortable parenting infants, toddlers, grade-schoolers, or teens. Also list out the specific types of physical and mental health impairments you feel comfortable addressing. Remember to consider the various backgrounds (history of abuse, exposed to drugs, neglected, mentally ill parents, etc.) a foster child may come from, take note of the parenting issues that may arise from these situations, and write down which issues you feel confident handling.
Common Law Liability
Before becoming a foster parent make sure you research the laws of your state regarding common law liability. In many states, under common law foster parents can be held accountable for the violent or malicious actions of the foster children in their care just, as their biological parents would be. You have the right to know the background of the children or teenagers you will be bringing into your home. Make sure to find out if the child or teen has a history of violence, sexual abuse, or criminal activity. For specific statistics about how this law affects current foster parents in your state seek legal counsel.
Avoid Sexual Abuse Accusations
If you choose to take a foster child or teen into your home who has been sexually abused, you must have several rules in place that will keep the foster child safe, your own children safe and will also prevent the abused foster child from accusing you or other relatives living in your home of abusing them. First, all men and boys in your home must never be left unaccompanied with a girl who has been sexually abused. Secondly, foster children with a history of sexual abuse must have their own bedroom for dressing and sleeping. Third, set clear standards about sexual-related topics such as modesty, privacy, and physical contact. Set up consequences for all the children living in your home if the rules regarding modesty, privacy, and physical contact are not kept.
Make sure any consequences you set up for children in your care are legal and ethical. Finally, avoid joking, tickling, pranking, wrestling, and the use of sarcastic or suggestive language. What may seem like harmless humor to you and your family members can be taken the wrong way by a child that has been the victim of abuse. As a result, the abused child may accuse you of abuse when your intentions were to be funny and get the child laughing.
Spare the Rod Spare the Law Suit
In all 50 states foster parents are prohibited by law in state-managed family foster care systems to use physical punishment on a foster child. However this doesn’t always stop some foster parents from spanking or using other means of physical punishment to discipline a foster child. The reason that physical punishment is so devastating to a foster child is because they have likely experienced physical, sexual, emotional, or a combination of abuse in their biological family. Not only does physical punishment cause the foster child to lose trust in you as a caregiver but physical punishment can also be misinterpreted as physical abuse and accusations against a foster parent by the foster child are likely.
Document! Document! Document!
If you’ve ever rented anything from a tool to a home you know that it is important to meticulously document the initial condition of the item you’re renting. This protects you from paying for scrapes and dents (you didn’t cause) that the owner finds on the rental item when you return it. Regarding foster children, what should you document? Document in writing any changes in the child’s actions and words. Many times a visit with a biological parent will trigger emotions in the foster child that may cause them to act out either during the parent visit or after the foster child is back in your care. This acting out may manifest itself in many ways. For example: temper tantrums, difficulty sleeping, rude words or actions towards bio or foster parents. Also document in writing any sexual behaviors (masturbating, acting out sexual behavior with dolls, etc. or a teen claiming to have intercourse with another teen or adult). Give this documentation to the foster child’s therapist and caseworker as soon as possible.
Document in writing and with pictures if possible the cause of any physical injury the foster child incurs. This includes but is not limited to scrapes, bruises, scratches, diaper rash, sprains, or strains. Now that you know what to document, how should you document? You can record incidents on a blank calendar, in a notebook, or online. Just make sure to include the date, time, place the incident occurred, all people involved in the incident, and what caused the incident to occur.
My intention was to arm you with information so you can be the best foster parent in the world. I hope you feel empowered as a foster parent now ready to conquer whatever may come your way. Because being a foster parent is one of the most difficult jobs in the world but also one of the most important. A loving foster home can change an abused or neglected child’s life forever.