I admit it freely.
Before I was a foster parent, I knew very little about the foster care system. Like so many in society, I had misconceptions about what foster care was, what the children were like, and what foster parents do. Now, after 13 years of caring for children in foster care, and over 50 children through my own home, I continue to find that even my own family members and friends do not understand what it is truly like. Here are 6 things I want you to know about what it is truly like.
1. It's Not Their Fault
Perhaps the biggest misconception about children in foster care is that the children are somehow at fault. When I was much younger, I had this same false belief, that children in foster care were bad kids, and that they did something wrong.
Yet, this is so far from the truth. These are children who are the victims. These are children who are suffering. Children suffering from abuse. Neglect. Malnutrition. Even drug-related problems passed on from a mother's addiction. Children rejected by those who were to love them most, their parents. When placed into a foster home, many of these children carry with them the physical and emotional scars that prevent them from accepting the love of another.
2. We Are Not Saints.
I often hear, on a weekly basis, that my wife and I are saints for caring for children in need, and opening up our homes and hearts to kids in foster care. In no way, and in no fashion am I a saint, and I believe that foster parents from all over would echo that sentiment. We are not saints. We become tired, worn down, and exhausted. We have our own frustrations and disappointments. There are times when we succeed, and there are times when we experience failures. We are not the perfect parents. We are simply trying our best to provide a home and family for a child who needs one, and help a child in need.
3. It Does Hurt
It seems that the comment that is made to me the most by those who are not foster parents is this; "I could not do what you do. It would hurt too much to give the children from foster care back." As one who has cared for over 50 children in my own home the past 13 years, as well as traveling the country speaking about the foster care system, the question is one that I hear several times a week.
My response is this; "That's a good thing. It is supposed to hurt. Your heart is supposed to break!"
To be sure, children in foster care need stability and they need security. Yet, what they need the most is to be loved. As foster parents, we might the first adults who have ever loved the child in a healthy and unconditional fashion. Sadly, for some children, we may be the only adults who will ever love the child in this fashion, in an unconditional manner. So, when the child leaves our home and our family, our hearts should break. We should experience feelings of grief and loss. After all, we have given all of our hearts and love to a child in need.
4. We Can't Save Them All
No, we cannot.
I understand that. I have been told this by friends and family, alike, as they question why I continue to bring children into my home, and into my family.
Yet, it is like the familiar Starfish story.
A father and son were walking along a beach at sunrise after a huge storm. When they stepped onto the beach, they were met with thousands of starfish, littering the beach, hundreds in each direction. The boy bent down and picked up a starfish, throwing it far into the ocean. Again and again, he repeated the action. After watching his son for some time, the father asked, "Son, what are you doing?"
"I'm throwing these starfish back into the ocean," the young boy answered.
"I see. But why are you doing this?" the father asked.
"When the sun comes out, and starts warming up the beach, the starfish will all die. I have to throw them back into the water."
"But son, you can't save all of these starfish. You can't possibly make a difference."
The boy stopped for a moment to take in his father's words, then bent down, and picked up another starfish in his hand, before throwing it as far as he could back into the ocean. Turning to his father with a large grin spreading across his face, he simply said, "It made a huge difference for that one!"
And it can make a huge difference for each child from foster care we bring into our home.
5. Working with Birth Family.
Our foster child wants nothing more than to return home to his family. In fact, reunification is often the end goal for most foster children. As a foster parent, part of our mission is to support reunification with our foster child and his biological parents. What is important to consider, as well, is that many biological parents of foster children were abused themselves, and know of no other way when raising children. Also disturbing is that some birth parents were foster children, as well, and are just repeating the cycle they went through as a child. Certainly, there are reasons why their children are in care that we may never understand. Part of being a foster parent is helping the parents of the children living with us; helping our fellow human beings.
6. The Hardest and Most Important Job
Being a foster parent is often the hardest thing we do. After all, each time a new foster child comes into our families, there are new challenges, as each placement is unique, just as the child is, as well. Every placement will be different from each other, and it will not become routine, some placements may even be unsettling. We do not have a "normal" life style, to be sure, and we make many sacrifices as we bring children in need, and in trauma into our family.
Yet, we are changing lives, while our own lives are being changed. There is a good chance that in the future, the foster child we cared for may not remember our names. There is a good chance that in the future, the foster child we care for may not remember our faces. But for so many children in foster care, each foster child who comes through our homes will remember one thing; that for a period in his life, he was loved, and some day down the road, he will blossom into something better because of it.
And we will be better because of the child, as well.
Dr. John DeGarmo has been a foster parent for 13 years, now, and he and his wife have had over 45 children come through their home. He is a speaker and trainer on many topics about the foster care system, and travels around the nation delivering passionate, dynamic, energetic, and informative presentations. Dr. DeGarmo is the author of several foster care books, including the brand new book Faith and Foster Care, and writes for several publications, including Foster Focus magazine. Dr. DeGarmo is the host of the weekly radio program Parent Factors with Dr. John, He can be contacted at drjohndegarmo@gmail, through his Facebook page, Dr. John DeGarmo, or at his website.