BEFORE YOU SAY ANYTHING, ASK …
When you receive your first foster child (or your second or third), it sometimes happens that with all the excitement and the anticipation, you are so focused on your responsibilities that some of your rights get temporarily lost in the process.
While you do have to concern yourself with agency requirements, you are also agreeing to take a child into your home. You have the right to know as much as possible about this newest member of your family. In fact, some of this information might even determine whether you are willing to take this particular child. You might discover beforehand that the placement would probably not be a successful one.
The following questions can help you make a decision, and, if you choose to proceed, to make better-informed plans for your foster child.
- Why is this child being placed?
- Previous placement experience of the child?
- What is the child’s legal status?
- What is the family situation; parents’ name?
- What is the plan for the child? Expected length of placement?
- Is there a hearing set for termination of parental rights?
- Will there be pre-placement visits?
- What is the child’s understanding of why he/she has moved/separated from parents?
- Where are the parents?
- Will the parents visit? Where? How often?
- Are there brothers/sisters and where are they? Birthdates?
- When will the caseworker visit or call?
- Is the child in good health? Allergies, immunizations, medications, dental care, last dental checkup?
- When was the last physical?
- Does the child have a medical assistance card (Medi-Cal, private insurance, etc.?)
- Religion – preference of child, preference of birth parents?
- What is the sexual orientation of the child?
- Is the child sexually active?
- Is the child currently on psychotropic medication or medication for depression?
- What grade is the child in at school? What school?
- Are there any school problems?
- Does the child have any special behavioral problems or unusual habits?
- Will there be a clothing allowance? Does the child have enough clothing?
- Has the child made allegations against previous care providers?
- What will make the child feel most at home (food likes and dislikes, favorite toy, etc.)?
- What is the maintenance rate?
- If there is an emergency after office hours, whom do I call?
- What are your (placement worker’s) expectations of me (foster parent)?
(Questions copied from Fosterletter, Vol. 21, No. 6, June/July 1983.)
The placement worker may not have all this information, especially at first. Medical histories can be especially difficult to obtain. And as for “behavioral problems or unusual habits”–ask any experienced foster parent about on-the-job training and learning-as-you-go. But do question the placement worker. Any information you can get is helpful and you deserve all the help the agency can give you.
The actual placement of the child in your home will be arranged between you and the placement worker. There are some specific areas that you and the placement worker should discuss prior to the actual placement:
- Specific visiting arrangements.
- The child’s background and health.
- Possible goals for the child.
- Board rate and clothing allowance.
- Special needs–education and/or health.
- Personal information: food, toys, habits, naps, talents, bedwetting, etc.
At the time of placement the placement worker should provide you with a signed medical consent for your foster child. This is very important –without it you will be unable to get medical attention for your child. If the placement worker should happen to forget, please ask her!
After your foster child is placed in your home you can expect that it will take him a while to settle into your home and for you to get used to him. Common types of behavior during the child’s adjustment period include:
- Testing of the rules and limits you have set.
- Running away.
- Withdrawing–extreme quietness and timidity.
- Eating a lot or not enough.
- Problems in school.
Sometimes this behavior develops immediately after placement. In other cases, a “honeymoon” period exists and the behavior problems start a month or so after placement. In either case, it can be a most trying time for both the foster child and the family. This is a time when you will want to work very closely with your placement worker.
DISCIPLINING FOSTER CHILDREN
Your approach to disciplining foster children must incorporate a number of points. First, the methods you use must fall within the licensing regulations which prohibit physical discipline (spanking, hitting, swatting, denial of meals) and discipline that is humiliating, cruel or harsh. Second, methods must be ones that fit your style and ones you have confidence in. Third, they must be appropriate to the child’s age and reasonably related to the “offense.” Fourth, they must be fair, reasonable and consistent. Fifth, your intent should be to teach self-discipline rather than to punish, get back at the child, or make him fearful.
We advocate no single approach to discipline. However, Help One Child maintains a Resource Library that contains a wide variety of books, videos, DVDs, etc. that offer a range of approaches to handling challenging behaviors.
Above all, maximize positive discipline (rewards) and minimize negative discipline (punishment).
QUICK REFERENCES FOR HELPING FOSTER CHILDREN ADJUST*
There are many aspects to your work as a foster parent, both when the child first arrives and over the months and years that he continues to live with you. The list below summarizes the ideas talked about and highlights some of the ones we think are most important.
- Welcome your foster child quietly.
- Help him settle down to a regular routine as quickly as possible.
- Let him know what to call you. Since he may not be ready for another Mom or Dad, provide a choice, letting him know what is agreeable to you, too.
- Let the child know the rules of your home and be consistent in enforcing them.
- Do not be disappointed if the child does not respond to you immediately.
- Give the child the opportunity to talk to you and respect his feelings for the past.
Take his lead but do not probe into his past life or criticize his parents.
- Encourage the child to trust and talk to his caseworker. Do not threaten a foster child with his caseworker as a means of dealing with his behavior.
- Help the child develop a feeling of pride and confidence by giving him tasks within his ability.
- When the child succeeds at something, express sincere pleasure and recognition of his abilities.
- What a child says, or how a child outwardly acts is often not how he feels, in fact, it can often be just the opposite of the real feeling.
- Refrain from ridiculous, severe or humiliating punishments. At all times corporal punishment is forbidden.
- Do not threaten a child with giving him up. He will be helped most by your love and understanding and a feeling of security.
- Ask your caseworker and other foster parents for suggestions –both when there’s a special problem and as a way to expand your skills.
- Respect the child’s right and need for confidentiality. The information you have is to help you understand him. It should not be shared with other people.
SEEKING OUTSIDE HELP
There are times when even the most consistent and sensitively planned approach seems to have little impact. For some children, psychotherapy may be needed. Results may not be immediately noticeable but, with time, cooperation and consistency, you should begin to notice progress with the child. If the child threatens his or her own safety or the safety of your family, call the Eastfield Ming Quong crisis number (408-379-9085) and ask for an immediate intervention; then call the social worker in charge of the child’s case to report the incident. If there is not time to wait for the crisis team to arrive, call 911.
Neighbors and friends are sometimes curious about a foster child, and many foster parents are not quite sure how to answer their questions about a child’s family or why he is in their home. Perhaps the best answer you can give is that you want the child to be thought of as part of your family while he is with you. You should not discuss the child’s family affairs or plans for his future. The information you have been given by the placement worker is to help you in your work with the child and is confidential. No one else has a right to know. To discuss these matters with your friends and neighbors is not only unfair to the child and his family, but it is also against the law. State of California Welfare and Institution Code, Section 10850, states:
“…no person shall publish, disclose, or use or permit or cause to be published, disclosed, or used any confidential information pertaining to an applicant or recipient…. Any person knowingly and intentionally violating the provisions of this paragraph is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
There may be times when, in working to help the child, some background information will need to be shared with a physician, psychiatrist or school personnel. We ask that you use discretion in this and consult with the child’s worker if you have any questions about what information is appropriate to give.
YOUR FAMILY’S ADJUSTMENTS TO FOSTER CARE
Many changes take place in the family when a foster child arrives. We hope you have given thought to these and discussed them with your children as a part of preparing them for the experience of foster care.
One of the changes you undoubtedly will feel is some loss of privacy, for now you have agreed to open your home not only to a child, but to social workers and the child’s family as well. Additionally, there will be some loss of freedom in the need to keep to a visiting schedule, the requirement to gain travel permission, and the sharing of decision-making and planning for the child with the agency. Depending upon your former practices, there may also be adjustments to disciplining without corporal punishment.
As parents who have freely agreed to assume more parenting tasks, the increased noise and activity level in the house, the extra medical appointments, etc., may not be adjustments at all, but rather exactly the new experiences that you sought. It may be, however, that once the child arrives, your own children will need sensitive assistance in enjoying foster care as much as you.
Usually when a new child joins the family, the birth children in the home are happy to have a new brother or sister and are quite ready to share toys and friends. After the “honeymoon” period, your child’s feelings may change somewhat. Very often a foster child cannot readily accept love and friendship, and in frustration and anger he may act out in ways that your children and their friends may find hard to accept, such as breaking toys, demanding attention, lying and rejecting any offers of friendship. Also, in trying to establish his place in the family, the foster child may compete with your children for your love and attention. This, combined with the fact that you probably are making some extra effort to make the new child feel comfortable and welcome, can leave your children feeling resentful and jealous. You can help by recognizing, listening, and accepting these feelings of disappointment, frustration and jealousy. It may help to talk with your children about how frightening it is for a child to have a new family, and to interpret the foster child’s behavior to them. It is also a good idea to reassure your children that it is all right to be angry with a foster sibling just as they sometimes are with each other.
The first weeks of a placement can be both very exciting and very trying. With your children, with yourselves, and with the foster children, it is always good to remember not to expect too much too soon.
*These are reprinted with permission from A Guide for Foster Parents, Irvin G. Sarason, 1976, pp. 18-19, published by Human Services Press, 72 Fifth Ave., New York, New York.Rev. 2/92