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Oct 20, 2017

Q&A with Mandy Taylor, Parent Support Specialist, Bethany Christian Services of Michigan, Grand Rapids

A foster parent wrote a blog that we recently shared where she expressed her worry that—up against the great big foster care system, and the trauma that the children she’d cared for had faced—maybe she hadn’t done enough to make a difference. Maybe she couldn’t “fix” the situation the kids were going back to.

Is this a common concern for foster parents?

Yes, this is common. My husband and I fostered children for more than seven years, and I often experienced that anxiety after a child left my care:

Did I teach them enough life skills?

Can they do laundry on their own?

Can they get up on their own and get to school every day?

If something happens, do they know who they can talk to?

Did I teach them enough to manage what might be going on at home?

These children are always in our hearts—we continue being concerned for them long after they leave our care. When I’m cooking dinner, I’ll think about children who have come and gone from our home and wonder, “Are they eating dinner tonight?” One of our girls shared a memory of splitting one can of corn for dinner between four people in her home. So now when we have corn, I think of her and wonder, “Does she has enough to eat?”

We have some communication with most of the children who have stayed with us, but we’ve heard nothing from others. I’ve checked Facebook and asked friends in the area, “Have you seen him? Have you heard from her?”

Foster parents don’t always get to know how things turned out after a child returns to their home, but sometimes they do. Did you ever hear back from a child who had been in your care?

In the years we fostered, we adopted four children, and nine went back home to their parents. There was a boy who stayed with us for 17 months, and we didn’t see him or hear a word about him for nine years. My husband ran into him at work one day and invited him and his dad to come over for dinner. While we visited, this young man, now 17, said, “I know I’ve made bad choices, but you taught me right and wrong. As I make choices, I remember things you’ve taught me.”

It felt like a small success to know that, even if he doesn’t always make the best choice, he does know how to make better choices. Foster parents give kids a baseline of skills, a baseline for how to make choices, and sometimes a baseline of faith—something they can come back to.

Foster parents want to make a difference, but it’s easy to see how they might feel discouraged sometimes, one small David facing a Goliath. Can you give us a sense of how complex the foster care system really is?

Foster parents need to understand that the system isn’t the same all the time. Each case has a different twist, and it’s different for each child. A friend and I were talking about our experiences in foster care through the years, and we realized no two cases among both of our families has ever been the same. With each new child, you have to approach it like, What are we going to learn this time?” The case could involve interstate law (if the parents live in another state), special needs, a medically fragile child, and other things you could never anticipate.

Also, so many people are making decisions about the child in your care that are beyond your control: when they will go for a parent visit, who will go with them to doctor, how long they’ll be in your care, etc. A judge orders what services the child needs, and you are responsible to take them to those appointments. Your schedule is dictated by someone outside of your home.

I run a support group for foster parents at the Grand Rapids office, and we gather around a table each month and talk these things out. We can help each other by giving perspectives on how things worked out in my case that was somewhat similar, but it’s never exactly the same. Foster parents need support in that kind of craziness. It’s a different world that (you quickly find) your friends and people at your church just don’t understand.

So what can foster parents do? Is there a bright side to this hard reality?

From my foster mom side, I understand the anxiety. A mom from one of our earliest placements will call from time-to-time with a scenario at home to ask, “What would you have done? Did I do OK?” I get it. Parenting is hard, and at some level every parent wonders if they’re doing enough.

From my professional side, I emphasize training to help foster parents continually build up their skills and feel prepared to give kids the tools they need. If there’s a specific area where you think you could do more, look into trainings or read a book on that topic so you’ll feel stronger and more prepared the next time.

But be aware that you are hardest on yourself. Your perception of “coming up short” may not be completely accurate. If you are doing your best to love and care for a child, the child probably didn’t perceive what you felt was a shortfall.

It might help foster parents to know that while they are temporarily caring for the children, their parents are taking classes and preparing for them to return home. I teach a class on trauma, and the child’s parents are learning the same things foster parents learn about the impact of trauma on a child’s behavior and development. They are learning the same parenting strategies, and we talk about what foster parents are doing in their homes so parents can use the same techniques to ease the children’s transition back to their homes and families, where they belong.

From someone who sees what is happening on the other side, I see parents who are worried about their kids and are soaking up the information we’re providing and wanting to make a difference for their kids. Foster parents sometimes set an unrealistic expectation that they alone are responsible to make everything right for this child. But they’re part of a team working together with parents and agency staff.

We all have the same goal: keeping a vulnerable family together.

View a short television interview that highlights Mandy's first foster parenting experience along with the children's mother. 

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