The Importance of Good Foster Parents
by Maggie Lynch
July 28, 2022
There are good and bad foster families. Unfortunately, you only hear about the bad ones. And there are bad ones, and they should be stopped, prosecuted, and never allowed around children again. That said, according to federal statistics those homes are few. Yet, they do make the headlines and books are written about them. Children who have suffered in foster care, even from decades ago, write books, essays, and talk about the added trauma. Sometimes films are made bout those bad experiences.
As of 2020, the report is less than 2% are reported as bad homes. The other 98% of care situations are good homes. That doesn’t mean they are perfect or that parenting mistakes are never made, but they are reliable and provide the care these children needs. Unfortunately, these good homes are rarely discussed or stories written. That is sad because it means foster children enter care not only with the trauma of being taken away from home, but also with fear based on the 2%. And those who might choose to be foster parents back away, also because of the percentage of stories about how all children in foster care are “bad seeds” or “never love back,” or really “can’t be helped.” I’ve heard these stories from people who have never been around a foster child.
In my experience, foster children can be helped and they need us…desperately. Every child is a part of the future and if we don’t help them how will they learn, survive, and thrive?
If you are interested in national statistics, consider reading this article put out by the Annie E. Casey Foundation which gathers statistics from government agencies and their own grant research teams across the country. This is a foundation, more than 70 years old, dedicated to enhancing opportunities for children across the country who need help—whether that is in foster care, in mental health, in education, or other circumstances.
Foster families look as diverse as biological families. Single parents, two parents, grandparents and young parents. Sometimes, as with my experience with foster families, the entire extended multi-generational family and friends also support the foster parents. The old saying: “it takes a village to raise a child” is there for a reason. Because it is often the support system that ALL parents need.
No foster care situation is easy—for either the children placed there or the foster parents accepting these children. By the time a child is placed in foster care they have often had years of living in a bad situation–often hidden by the child, the neighbors who suspect something is wrong, and the parents. That ranges from neglect—not providing food, clothing or shelter on a regular basis—to violence of all kinds. In the past decade, the number one reason children end up in foster care is that one or both of the parents are involved in drugs—using, selling, or engaging in behaviors that get them the money to buy more drugs. These situations lead to neglect and to children facing all kinds of traumatic experiences.
When children are taken from their families—no matter how horrific their lives may have been—it is still traumatic. This is the only life they know. They know the rules of that life. It is natural that their loyalty is often to a parent they believe loves them and is trying their best. When these same children are put into a foster home they have a myriad of needs that a child growing up in a loving, caring home with decent resources rarely experiences. Trauma, PTSD, attachment disorders, trust issues, learned survival behaviors that may not be the norms of society. They sometimes lash out in fear or instinct, or refuse to share their feelings, or become nearly completely silent.
It is not easy to be a foster parent. It is especially not easy for those who have never experienced trauma in their own lives or been around those who have. This is why the average length of foster parents remaining in the system is five years. They simply burn out. I admire all those who choose to parent troubled children–whether as an “official” foster parent or simply opening in their home to someone their child has befriended who needs help. I admire these parents who are able to provide love and security, often without knowing if the child will ever return that love (they may not be able to). It is hard to foster a child with the knowledge that the ultimate goal is to reunite them with their family—the very family that may have done horrific things. It is hard to spend years loving and nurturing a child to have them turn against you or never talk to you again once they are adults. It is hard to believe that all your effort was worth it when you don’t see the reward—the thanks, the returned love, the desire to stay connected.
Though a number of children do react in that way, it is NOT always the way it turns out. Many children are thankful. Many children do remember, een if you lose track of them. Many children wish to stay connected. However, there are lots of systemic rules in the foster care system that make that hard. It doesn’t mean the foster parent has failed if the foster child does not stay connected or indicate their thankfulness. Foster parents have to be strong, resilient, and keep loving and giving because they know it will make a difference—even if only for a short period of time.
It takes a very special person to do this year after year. A strong person who recognizes that they have done something special by providing a window of love and care. They hope that, whatever the length of that window, it will make a difference in that child’s future.
My Personal Relationship to Foster Care
I was very fortunate to grow up in a large family with lots of love. I also grew up with lots of foster children who were part of our extended family. While in elementary school and junior high, my family lived within walking distance of my maternal grandparents and an aunt and uncle, both which took in foster children.
My grandparents were licensed for six girls from the time I was eight years old until my grandfather died when I was in college. My grandmother continued to care for the children who remained with her after Grandpa’s death–about a decade. But she did not take in new children. When all but one had graduated and started life as an adult, she had one child left who was twelve. She adopted that child instead of remaining a foster parent. This allowed her to move closer to my parents who could provide support as she aged. Grandma’s heart had started to fail, and she’d already had open heart surgery once, when I was in high school and soon after she moved close to my parents she underwent another surgery. When my grandmother died, my parents became the guardians of that final child for the final two years of her high school education.
These children were like cousins to me, my siblings, and other biological cousins. We got together at least weekly. We all came to the same family events together—holidays, birthdays, graduations, and big family reunions which would bring relatives from across the United States to a single location where we camped, played, and caught up for a long weekend. We were fortunate in that we were already accepting multiple cultures in our family. One aunt married an indigenous man from Alaska. An uncle married a Native American from the southwest. My grandparents had children from many cultures in their home, and many mixed-race children. In fact, I believe that upbringing made it normal for several of my siblings to also marry into other cultures when they were ready to marry.
Over about a twenty year period, my grandparents had close to 100 children come through their home. The younger children (children under five) were often short-term placements of six months to two years. They were either returned to their birth parent(s), if the issues were resolved, or adopted into a permanent family. After a few years my grandparents stopped taking young children and concentrated on older children who were unlikely to be adopted. They tried to provide a true family life as best they could.
During this same period of time in my young life, an aunt and uncle also took in children for about six years. They’d had one child and felt they had room in their home to help others. Like my grandparents, they turned to opening their home to foster children. They chose to never have more than two foster children at a time. They stopped taking in foster children when they adopted a two-year old child whose mother was in jail. In those days, if you adopted a foster child you were no longer allowed to be a foster parent. That isn’t the case in many places today.
Why did the child’s mother only allow for my aunt and uncle to adopt her? Because she knew they would always allow her to see her daughter. And they did allow it, having the mother at their home when she was out of jail. She often spent an entire weekend there so she could have time with her daughter. As the daughter grew older, the biological mother became more distant and eventually stopped being a part of their life. I don’t know what happened. However, I’m convinced that allowing them to remain in contact was the right choice for the daughter—difficult but right. I’m sure it was also very difficult for my aunt who probably would have preferred not to compete for her daughters affection.
My grandparents were definitely not rich. They lived primarily on social security. My aunt and uncle were middle class—probably the “richest” relatives I knew personally. My uncle was an engineer and had a good job. My aunt was a stay-at-home mother. They rich to me because they had a pool in their backyard and very nice furniture in their house.
Why would people who already had children or raised children choose to continue to do this–and with traumatized children? They did it because they felt called to help children who, for whatever reason, didn’t have a good family life. I suspect this calling was based in the fact that when my grandparents were young parents, they were very poor. My grandfather worked in the woods and eventually at a lumber mill. They lived in a small house. When they moved in it had a dirt floor until my grandfather could put one in the house. I remember many stories from my mom and aunts about sometimes not having enough food or the small town sharing what they had with them. I remember stories of my grandmother walking through town and being sure to walk on the opposite side from the shops because she owed money to many of them and didn’t have anything to pay the week.
In addition to the stories of living hand-to-mouth lives, they also had many stories of how an entire community often had a part in raising children. All of them were poor. They looked out for each other, they provided respite care, they provided food when a family couldn’t make it alone. In the times someone had a little more, they helped others. I believe that is why my grandparents and my aunt and uncle made the choice to be foster parents.
We still hear from most of the foster children my grandparents raised. I remember about ten years ago, I was surprised when a foster child started contacting all of us via Facebook. I hadn’t seen her for more than forty years. I didn’t even know what became of her. She wanted to reconnect with us. Of course we all said yes. She talked about how her two years with my grandparents were the best of her life and how it kept her going when things at home were bad. Because of just those two years, once she became an adult she had some knowledge of how things could be different and vowed to make a different life for herself. Another foster child, who is now in her 50s, was raised by my aunt. She also contacted us to let us know what she’s doing now and that part of the reason she has survived and thrived was from that time living with my aunt and uncle, and staying in touch with them as a young adult and into her thirties. Our extended family (which is at least 100 adults) have always included and supported all the foster children who wanted to stay in touch. We consider them sisters, cousins, and most of all family.
My First Foster Parent Experience
I also twice became a kind of foster-parent –not through the foster care system but taking in teens who had come out of foster care, yet weren’t adults, but could not be placed into the system again. Finding good foster care placements for teens is especially difficult—partly out of foster parent’s fears of how messed up a teen can be and, partly because of their limited resources governments prioritize younger kids first. Kids who have no way to take care of themselves.
The first time I took in a teen was when I’d been married only a year. I was 22 years old, supporting my husband through graduate school and working in an Exceptional Child Center with young, severely disabled children and their families.
One of my grandparent’s foster daughters, who had lived in their home for more than a decade, had run away at age sixteen in search of her birth mother. Her mother had been an annual visitor to the foster home and always welcomed. I remembered meeting her. However, about seven years in to this child’s stay, the mother stopped coming. No one knew why.
As teens navigate that separation between themselves and their parents, it is often a time of difficult conversations, self-reflection, and sometimes angry disagreements—even in “normal” families. In this case, this teen decided her “real” mother had been stopped from making contact (not true, but that’s another story). She also believed that if she was reunited with her mother it would be a lot better than where she’d been living for the past eleven years. She believed that a “real” mother would understand her better.
When this person ran away, her caseworker decided to help her reunite with her birth mother rather than force her to stay in foster care and disrupt the other children. Within six months of living with her still drug-addicted and mentally ill mother, this young girl was raped by her mother’s then boyfriend. She wanted desperately to return to my grandparent’s home. She called my grandparents and begged to come back. They sent money for a bus ticket, however her caseworker and the rules of the foster care system would not allow her to return to the home.
The foster care system had already assigned another child to my grandparents home, making her full with six kids. In addition, since she was almost seventeen, the caseworker said it wasn’t worth going through the process to have her made a ward of the state again, and look for a placement in foster care, when she’d be aging out in just a year.
My grandmother called me, desperate to find someone to take her. I’d grown up with her. She was only six years younger than me. I knew I had to do something. I talked to my new husband and he agreed. We were living in Utah then. We paid for a bus ticket from southern California to Utah. She stayed with us for eighteen months, graduated high school, and then returned to California to get a community college education and find work. She did eventually achieve her goals. Today she is a successful dental office manager with multiple offices under her purview.
The move from High School with us to where she is today was not easy for her or for us. Not all her decisions were good ones. But I don’t know a teenager or young adult who makes only good decisions. Do you? The most important thing is that she survived her bad decisions and had the chance to see models of other ways to deal with anger and disappointment, and certainly grief that her dream of her biological mother would never be what she’d hoped. Of course, our extended family supported her and loved her, even when she made bad decisions.
Fortunately, all those years my grandparents cared for and loved her helped to give her the skills to survive and to keep going in spite of a very difficult past. Did they do everything right? Of course not. They also made lots of mistakes, too. Any parent who has never made a mistake raise your hand now. We are often faced with something we never expected, and we do the best we can at that moment.
My Second Foster Parent Experience
The second time I took in a teen was when I was in my mid 30’s, living in Oregon and working with a nonprofit to help teens and adults find work and climb out of poverty. This teen was in our high school summer work program. Like all the teens in that program, she was a person who’d had a rough upbringing. Her step father was violent with both her and her mother. One day over a summer weekend that year, in an alcoholic rage, he took her mother up onto the roof of the house, dragging her by the hair, and then threw her off. With the number of broken bones and internal injuries she sustained, it is miraculous her mother survived. The teen witnessed all of it.
As her mother was in the hospital and her step-father taken to jail, this young woman was put into an emergency foster shelter with the ope of returning her home to her mother within a couple months. After two weeks in the hospital, her mother was moved to a long-term physical rehabilitation center where they anticipated two years of therapy before she could live on her own. After several months in a temporary teen shelter DHS still could not find a permanent placement for this young woman. The plan then became to emancipate her and help her find a job. They would give her a voucher for one months rent and it would be up to her to get a GED along the way and pay her bills.
Think of that. Would your own sixteen year old have the wherewithal to get a job, manage money, make their way in the world without adult help or even a high school diploma? Then imagine how a young woman who had lived in a violent home most of her life, likely had huge trust and authority issues, and was behind in her education would manage that? Unfortunately, this exact scenario plays out with teens across our country still today more than thirty years later.
When her caseworker told me about the situation, my husband agreed we could make space in our home. She was with us for almost two years before graduating from high school. Not a person who liked being cooped up in an office, she learned how to help wildlife at a wildlife recovery facility nearby. She’d gained some good skills there–both in working with animals and in building things like cages and large nesting boxes. I believe that in caring for animals she gained confidence that she could do something important.
She had no interest in college and liked to work with her hands. So, she always found work. She eventually married and parented three step-children. She chose not to have children of her own. She still had a lot of issues to work through around trust, love, belief that anyone would stick by her through thick and thin. She’s made mistakes, but she has survived and is still thriving today. I don’t take credit for her survival. That all belongs to her and the hard work she did. I was simply happy to be able to give her a little more time, allow her to get a high school diploma without having to work, and to let her make some choices without worrying if she was going to eat the next day.
In 2020, a child entered foster care every 150 seconds in the United States.
“In 2020, 213,964 children under 18 entered foster care in the United States, a rate of 3 per 1,000. In a pattern holding since 2000, nearly half of foster children are placed with nonrelative foster families (45% in 2020 and — in encouraging news — placements with relatives increased from 25% to 34% during 2000–2020.)”
I Celebrate and Support Foster Parents
Unless you personally know a foster family, or child or teen taken into foster care, it’s hard to fully understand this vital need. For many children, their only knowledge of foster care comes from myths and misconceptions that stem from television and movie depictions. Had I not grown up with foster children and my grandparents, I’m sure that my thought of foster care would be like in the musical Annie. I likely would have believed children were mostly mistreated unless they were lucky enough to find a rich person like Daddy Warbucks.
Many children believe that all foster parents are in it for the money, and they will become slave labor. The reality is the money is NEVER enough to provide for that child. All good foster parents will tell you that the money the state provides is enough for the minimum (maybe two outfits for school). Depending on the state, the medical care might be covered, but often mental health care is not, even in states that appear to have more services than others. Some states do provide the equivalent of food stamps stipends to help with the groceries.
I do now that my grandparents and my aunt and uncle spent much more than the money the state provided. Between buying clothes, purchasing school supplies, and making sure they had opportunities to participate in things like dance, music, art, even Girl Scouts—all of that came out of their pocket far above the per-child stipend. As an extended family, we also contributed as best we could with gifts for birthdays and holidays to supplement that expenditure. I’ve heard many foster parents talk about wanting family therapy or other mental health assistance for themself and the children–but it either wasn’t covered by the insurance or wasn’t “approved” by the caseworker for the limited funds they have. Again, some states are better at funding mental health care than others.
For those who might consider foster parenting an have the heart for it, they often balk when they know of the heartbreaking statistics of trauma, abuse, and mental health issues. They rarely hear of the joys and triumphs that can follow fostering. In my opinion, the joys and triumphs far outweigh the many issues you will face. That said, not everyone can be a foster parent.
First and foremost, if you are in a relationship (e.g., married or with a life partner) you BOTH have to agree to this. Your entire family will go through a home study. It is tough. It does require someone who can handle the stress of a child with a lot of emotional and physical needs the parents may have never encountered with their own children or in their own childhood. I was fortunate in that in both the cases where we took a teen into our home, my husband was 100% on board. Not every one’s partner would be onboard. Not everyone has the personality, will handle the stress well, or has a strong personal value of helping those outside of their own immediate family.
Of course, no one is perfect in this—just as parents aren’t perfect with their own children—foster parents make mistakes. You just find a way to keep moving forward. You keep loving and doing. You keep offering a model of how to survive in spite of difficulty. You love and teach a different way of living in the world, you forgive yourself and the children while instilling a lesson in both—how to not make the same mistake in the future.
Children end up in foster care through no fault of their own, and regardless of their history, they all can achieve individual successes and happiness in life with the proper care and guidance. They may not achieve the foster parent’s vision of success—but it is the success that child is able to accomplish at that time. To me this is no different than hoping a son or daughter who loves softball or baseball, grows up to be a professional player. But then, through no fault of their own, a health issue ends up putting them in a wheelchair. Or a child that had talent as a musician ends up deaf. Or another child, who seemed a happy sunny child, is diagnosed with a mental illness in their teen years that leads to depression. This happens every day in families. All those children may not fulfill the initial dream you had for them, but they still have the ability, the promise to find something else they can do well. Your love and patience is a part of helping them fulfill their promise.
Most of all, foster children need the chance to grow in a nurturing, loving family. Without volunteers from their extended family or people in the neighborhood, this may be impossible. When you become a foster parent, you ensure that the children who enter foster care in your local area can remain in their schools and communities, and/or with their siblings, which helps to ease the disruption to their lives and gives them the opportunity to thrive instead of becoming yet another statistic.
There is a high demand for foster parents who can care for sibling groups, ensuring brothers and sisters can stay together. Families that enjoy working with teens and can guide them toward a positive future are also in high demand. Finding families that match the cultural needs of these children is very important and difficult to find. In some states, like where I live in Oregon, DHS provides special training and support for what they call “resource families.” These are families who may not have full time care of a foster child but are part of that child’s heritage/culture—Native American, African American, Asian American, Hispanic and others are important. It is important to have families who can share their cultures and traditions with the children—whether as a foster parent or as a resource parent for children in a foster family that doesn’t have that background.
Children in foster care are too often separated not only from their families but also from their friends, schools, and communities. By providing resource care, neighbors and other community members can make it possible for a child to stay in the same school and participate in other regular activities such as sports, church, riding bikes with friends and visiting familiar places.
Three Things that Make Great Foster Parents
- Love – Love not just the kids, but the parents of the kids. If you don’t feel you can do that, then at least respect them. In my experience it is very rare that the parents don’t love their kids. The reality is that, even with that parental love, for some parents it’s not enough to overcome the personal barriers they face. It doesn’t help to demonize the biological parents. In fact, it sets up a dynamic where no one—especially the child—can win.
- Forgive – Forgive any wrongdoing that happened to cause the children to go into care and the child’s subsequent response to that. That does not mean you trust them, but that you forgive them and love them. Then you model behavior. Trust is hard to build when it is broken again and again. Imagine how that child feels when they don’t know who to trust or how to trust.
- Accept – Accept the child(ren) as your own. If you are blessed with your own children, it is easy to say: “My child would never act like this, do this, react like this.” Maybe that is true because your child was never traumatized, neglected, beaten, abused. What if you had a child with ADHD or on the Autism scale or a severe physical disability. Would you still love your child? No parent is perfect—not the biological parent of the foster child nor the foster parent. I am not perfect. I’ve made many mistakes—both in my own life and in raising my step-children and in the years I spent with those two teens. To be a good foster parent, you must accept responsibility for all that foster care entails. The good and the bad. Most of all you have to accept that you are not perfect either.
In fact, I think the above three items goes for all parents and adults who interact with children. Instead of finding a way to distance yourself or your family from foster parents or foster kids, consider that they need you, too. They are all children. They need the same thing all children need—mentoring, teaching, the chance to be the best they can. And most of all love. Lots and lots of love.
THANK YOU to all those who are foster parents, serve as resource parents, and the hundreds of thousands of teachers who also parent foster children while teaching. It is true that it takes a village. May we all work to be a part of that village, so that the entire next generation of children will survive and thrive.
Maggie Lynch is the author of 27 published books. Her fiction tells stories of people making heroic choices one messy moment at a time. Her novels span women’s fiction, SF & Fantasy, suspense, and romance. She is currently working on a contemporary Upper Middle Grade children’s series that features foster children and their roads to success. Her current nonfiction provides authors with information and tools for self-publishing success. You can check out her personal website at maggielynch.com