Foster parents: not freaking saints
March 18, 2013 2:20 AM   Subscribe

"We hate being told we must be saints or angels, because we’re doing something really ordinary and normal – that is, taking care of kids in need. If some children showed up dirty and hungry and needing a safe place on your doorstep, you’d care for them too – we just signed up to be the doorstep they arrive at. The idea of sainthood makes it impossible for ordinary people to do this – and the truth is the world needs more ordinary, human foster parents. This also stinks because if we’re saints and angels, we can’t ever be jerks or human or need help, and that’s bad, because sometimes this is hard." -- What foster parents wish other people knew.
posted by MartinWisse (25 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

My sister is a foster parent. I have really complicated feelings about it.

She's an outstanding foster parent, a single foster parent at that, which makes it even harder: she has won awards; has a loving and supportive home and multiple household's worth of children who adore her and whose lives she has immeasurably changed for the better. It is her life's work and calling.

And she is not a saint, my sister. She is humanly flawed in her intensity and unwillingness to do anything by half measures. She wears herself ragged doing this, my sister the foster parent, and our family exhausts itself physically/emotionally/financially trying to lessen her load. She will never not want to give of herself all of herself, and there will never not be an endless row of children who need and will take everything she has to offer.

And is so so hard not to resent something, anything, at how much her life's work has consumed her life. Resent her for bringing this upon herself and us with it; resent her kids for always needing everything she has and rarely understanding how much she's sacrified for them and always breaking her heart when they leave; resent how resenting this makes us the selfish villains. As the article says, it's like a new baby in the house in terms of stress--and it never stops; the baby never grows up and graduates high school. When she's crying on the phone every night because she's so tired; when she misses countless family get-togethers because she can't take the kids out of state, and the reunions she can make are exhaustingly filled with kids kids kids kids; when she refuses hospitalization for pneumonia because there's no one to take her kids.

She's my sister, and being a foster parent is her life. I'm afraid it's going to kill her someday, and I know it would kill her to stop.
posted by nicebookrack at 4:15 AM on March 18, 2013 [24 favorites]

This is good stuff - thanks for posting it here.
posted by jquinby at 5:21 AM on March 18, 2013

I'll be perusing that Fosterhood in NYC link, I've always wondered about younger people who foster.

I am sort of ambivalent about foster care though. For all the dedicated and caring people out there doing it, there are also people who DON'T really care for the kids adequately, ARE just in it for the money (and cut all sorts of corners in order to ensure that they get it), and really shouldn't have been allowed to be foster parents. I know several people who've been through foster care- half of them had good experiences, but some faced abuse.

I don't know what the solution is, though, because so few people want to be foster parents. Sometimes I wonder if I should do it, and then I remember my burned-out social worker dad telling me I could be anything in the world I wanted, but to please, please not go into social work.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:31 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

My stages of foster parenting:

1 - I need to help fix this family while the child gets returned to the family

2 - well at least give this child some life skills before returning child to the family

3 - well at least give this child a break from crap before returning child to family

4 - well at least show the child what a normal life is before returning child to family

5 - OK fine we're not really normal. well at least GET a break from all this crap every now and then before returning child to family

6 - oh wow, this one's staying

7 - well at least let's pretend we're as normal as everybody else. what the hell every family's a bit dysfunctional, right?

8 - keep scrambling steps 1 thu 7 as other kids come through
posted by surplus at 5:46 AM on March 18, 2013 [13 favorites]

If you like reading personal accounts of fostering, here's a hearty recommendation for FosterWee.
posted by Charity Garfein at 6:20 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

For all the dedicated and caring people out there doing it, there are also people who DON'T really care for the kids adequately, ARE just in it for the money

There are always stories of things going wrong, but like everything else the bad gets over reported so it become part of the thinking that the bad is what normal is. I'd wager the good far outweighs the bad. The reason there are so many 'bad' stories is the same reason history is taught as an endless series of wars and violent acts the 'good' stories are just not interesting and are downright boring to most people.

I don't work in foster parenting, but do work providing care and support to folks with developmental disabilities, and there are traces of that 'saint-afication' there too. And it's bullshit there as well.
posted by edgeways at 6:31 AM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

For all the dedicated and caring people out there doing it, there are also people who DON'T really care for the kids adequately, ARE just in it for the money (and cut all sorts of corners in order to ensure that they get it), and really shouldn't have been allowed to be foster parents.

Well, yeah, of course, but that's not really an argument against foster parenting (not that you said it was), just for improved accountability of foster parents where needed.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:31 AM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

I do feel like focusing on anti poverty measures and mental health/home care services for mentally ill and disabled parents is the best thing people can do and it can be done from a distance (for those who want to help but not be too close to this). We DO need more foster parents- but we also need to be working on the sources of these problems in families before it gets to the point kids need to be removed.

We have a program here that provides drug rehab here that allows parents to bring kids to the program. We also need more services for drug resistant mental health problems that require services other than meds to manage the services of. For some people the right med makes them functional, for other the right med is an improvement but not a panacea, and for others, there is no right med at present. People with developmental disabilities and complex trauma issues need much more rehabilitative services than we currently offer to poor people and failing to do so means they have no realistic option to adequately support their children.

Bootstrapping trauma and mental illness "because good parents would manifest health if they really cared enough" is a completely unrealistic judgement hurled at ill and struggling people who need help. We don't JUST need to be helping children, we need to be helping parents be good parents. Most of us need some nonjudgmental help with parenting here or there and for those of us that can afford it the obstacle is knowing there is support there, choosing to use it, and finding it. (Which can be a big obstacles.) For the poor there just ISN'T MUCH THERE. And proving disability can itself put a parent at risk of removal because in proving you need support services you just made your own case for removal. It should be no surprise in a culture that shames and hates on parents who need help, that parents are hesitant to admit they need help. Especially when there really aren't a lot of resources there even if they do admit it, and mostly it just means more lecturing, advice, and scrutiny rather than the intensive supports the parent is likely needing.

It's especially hard for a masters in child development issues to offer "non-judgemental support" to a parent who is clearly having problems understanding their own child's needs. I think better public education and ad campaigns about what emotional abuse and neglect look like might help parents see themselves more accurately without being specifically on the spot- and if access to genuine support were part of this kind of campaign, more parents might self identify they need some help getting their emotions, behaviors and connection with their child/ren into a state of health. Many people don't have any idea what healthy parenting looks like or that their parenting techniques are damaging their children (be it diet, manner of relating, time spent emotionally available, discipline techniques, schedule and structure, anger and insults... etc). Getting that kind of education to people who have never seen healthy family life in action is very tricky, but I think possible with enough effort. The problem is, people with money shaming the poor for struggling with parenting is a problematic issue and always has been. Poverty is abusive. Surviving it often means more mood problems, more cravings for pain relief, more physical pain on the job, worse working conditions and mental health deterioration--- when we expect some people to live it abysmal conditions, and claim to care about their children by presuming the child simply should never have existed, it becomes suspect that we actually care about the child more than they do. We think the child should never have been born? Is that really kinder than wanting your child to live and at least have a shot?

The medical model for framing mental illness has not been helpful in addressing how cruel poverty is to the human mind and spirit and body. (And I include social/emotional poverty in poverty.) I think it's harmed many people rather than helped and it's made it much easier for us to see people in pain as others whose behaviors are the result of dangerous chemical imbalances that must be kept in check, in stead of looking at human beings as complex emotional and psychological beings who are often coping with horrific things- include the mundane horror that is being trapped in wage jobs that are slowly destroying your body and mind with no hope of escape, ever. And yes, the physical effects of emotional pain can be passed to offspring. That doesn't mean you're looking at mutant freaks, more often you're looking at people adapting to environmental conditions that are bad for human health.
posted by xarnop at 6:39 AM on March 18, 2013 [15 favorites]

(This was a great article martinwisse, thanks for sharing it by the way.)
posted by xarnop at 6:40 AM on March 18, 2013

I have two siblings who have done this. If I've ever praised them for being saintly it is because they have stepped up to do something I'm not willing to do. They have a capacity for love that I don't share and I admire them for it.
posted by dgran at 7:26 AM on March 18, 2013

Interesting read, and not one I would have likely come across otherwise. Despite spending a year of my teens with a foster family, I'm always slightly surprised to recall that I am/was a foster child.

I'm more surprised to see "foster parent" being used rather than some ghastly but less-loaded neologism. Any implication of supplanting the parental role was a source of real contention for me and that same potential for pushback is alluded to in the article too. Does anyone with more recent experience know if it's still a preferred term wherever they are or just one that's a long time dying out in casual use?
posted by comealongpole at 8:33 AM on March 18, 2013

comealongpole- I'm more familiar with activism in adoption reform, than foster reform, however among many foster alumni, and foster to adoptee activists I've known there is some pushback against foster parent- and in some cases adoptive parent being REQUIRED terminology for a child being cared for by people other than their parents. Some children prefer using the parent terminology and as an adoptee myself I can't imagine forcing adoptees/fostered children to NOT use parental terminology. At the same time, for an elementary or high school aged child, requiring they switch to calling some random new person in their life mom or dad suddenly is definitely something that is pushed back against strongly by many.

I had a friend who was informally adopted by her ex boyfriends parents in highschool since her mom lost it on oxycotin and pain pill induced hysteria. She never called them mom or dad- referred to them by their names, but certainly considered them family and they paid for her college and tutoring and gave her housing and food in their home. (A little odd for her ex but he was a nice guy and I think wanted her to have the support.)

Also this kind of informal adoption is something people can consider doing with teens who are close to emancipation age but were completely failed by their families. Boarding a relative or friend who needs help learning life skills and receiving emotional support through college and/or establishing career can really change a life and usually involves people in your life you know want the help and are not being forced to come live you by social services. What's more you can build a permanent familial relationship because an adult can maintain (or not maintain) contact with whoever they want and you won't suddenly be barred from being available to the person you've been supporting.

I worked with homeless adults 18-23 for a year and the larger percentage of that population were runaways from abusive homes, and runaways from the foster system that was supposed to serve them (but sometimes was worse for them than the family they escaped from). Many of these kids could have used adoptive or informal adoptive parents to house them and help them learn life skills to maintain a job or study habits and learn how to pay rent, or just make it through the day without drugs and alcohol and build healthy friendships. Social services are incomplete (though still beneficial) for this because people need love and family. There is really no way to duplicate that for people when you're being paid and not really family and the people who need family know it.
posted by xarnop at 9:11 AM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have been there are can say "amen!" to each of the points in that article. Especially the one about being saints. We weren't saints. We just said "Yes."

And the money? Ha! The money helps to defray a portion of the extra cost of caring for the child at the level of your biological children, which is the rule where I am from. That and reimburse you for the umptillion trips across town to CPS and the doctors/therapists that will take their medicaid.
posted by cross_impact at 9:14 AM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Great article, thanks for sharing.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:12 AM on March 18, 2013

I'm somewhat attuned to foster parenting issues because my own parents over the years have fostered roughly half a dozen children and young adults as well as four biological children, all out of a sense of leftie Christian in the good sense of the word idealism. Some of those children were gone again after a shorter or longer period as their own parents were better able to take care of them, or the fostering didn't work out, or something else changed, some really became part of the family as much as they were part of their biological families.

Some of the points in the original article I recognise, but as far as I know nobody really praised my parents as saints or angels as such. They certainly got kudos for what they did, but it was all much more matter of fact. We weren't singled out for what we did.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:13 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I really get the reluctance to be canonized for this work but let's consider this quote:
"If some children showed up dirty and hungry and needing a safe place on your doorstep, you’d care for them too – we just signed up to be the doorstep they arrive at."

Nope. Not true. I'd say a good percentage of people would make those kids wait outside while they called the police. My hope is that slightly more would be willing to let them wait inside and offer them some food while they waited for the police. How many would actually take in and care for those hypothetical dirty and hungry kids? My guess is not a whole lot more than the ones who volunteer their doorstep in the first place.

I'd like to believe I would be willing to take them in, but I honestly can't say for sure.
posted by lucasks at 10:23 AM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm glad to hear some positive stories, because my only experience with the foster care system is the many tales which people have told me over the years, of the horrifying abuse and neglect they suffered in the foster care system when they were kids.
posted by ErikaB at 10:44 AM on March 18, 2013

Yeah, personally, I hear very different reports about the goodness of foster care from foster alumni than people who are not foster alumni. The good news is that there is now more communication between foster alumni and current foster parents. The more voice foster alumni have in expressing what their experiences are like and what kinds of supports they wish had existed for their families and themselves, the more we can make support services that actually match the needs of the children we aim to serve- by supporting struggling families before they need to use foster services, providing quality foster care when needed, streamlining the adoption process for older children who want permanent homes, and providing enriching and well funded group home options for children who prefer that to dealing with foster families.

I personally would like to see less focus on infant adoption and more focus on older child adoption because the infants are in demand and not really in need of homes as often as parents are in need of infants to fill their families.

I've known many foster alumni that prefered the group home option in spades to what they had to endure in foster families. Sometimes just the forced "let's all be a family now" when you feel broken and not like trying to be part of someone else's family experiment, is it's own difficulty even when foster families are well meaning. The intensive therapy oriented component of foster/adoption oriented homes can also be more uncomfortable than just being in a group home, having therapy when desired but otherwise being allowed to just.. be as you are without having to "become emotionally whole" in order to fulfill foster/adoptive parents feelings they must make you whole. Sometimes we are not meant to be whole. We feel like crap. It's sometimes more respectful to just let that be and let people find meaning and healing in the course of their life and relationships in their own ways. Support is good, but the "you should be better" focus can be overwhelming for some foster and adoptee alumni I've talked with.
posted by xarnop at 11:08 AM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

showbiz_liz: I am sort of ambivalent about foster care though. For all the dedicated and caring people out there doing it, there are also people who DON'T really care for the kids adequately, ARE just in it for the money (and cut all sorts of corners in order to ensure that they get it), and really shouldn't have been allowed to be foster parents.
I'm pretty ambivalent about using modern medicine, eating at restaurants, and walking across the road, because:
For all the good and effective medicines out there, there are also some that cause harm.
For all the really nice places to eat good food, some restaurants have caused food sickness.
For all the times that most people cross the road safely, sometimes people get hit at crosswalks.

I'm sick as fuck of this argument, which seems to be the bedrock argument of every conservative I've ever personally encountered. "Some of these are bad" is never, ever, ever a good reason to avoid doing something.

Get back to me when you can establish that "most of these are bad", "enough of these are bad that it isn't cost-effective/beneficial to do this", or some other meaningful observation is made about the population at large, not some vague or supposed few members of it.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:46 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

That article is fantastic and I'll be sharing the hell out of it.

When my husband and I decided to foster we discussed it with our families, who were generally supportive. Nicebookrack, I really appreciate your perspective, because I know it's difficult for my mom and sister, with whom I'm very close, to see how difficult it can be to have absolutely no idea where my daughter will be raised, even after having her in my home for over a year. As much as I love her and want to care for her, they want to protect me from pain too.

I would love to add to the article the following:
1. We do not all foster for religious reasons. I'd say my husband and I fall somewhere around "agnostic" on the scale of religious-to-not, and it weirds me out when people want to reassure me about our foster daughter's future by talking about God's plan for her. Oh, your god would be cool with my kid being removed from the only home she remembers to be raised in a home that can only promise a minimal level of care [warning: Word doc]?

2. We aren't foster parents because we can't have kids of our own. I have been asked some appalling questions about this, including once by a doctor giving my state-required biannual physical (yes, I complained and switched doctors). Now that I'm visibly pregnant, this has died down, but it still pisses me off.

3. Our choices regarding our foster kids have almost nothing to do with how the case will proceed. As long as the kids are well cared for, nothing we do will make it any more or less likely that they'll stay with us. What matters is what the biological family chooses to do or not do and when. Asking us if we're planning to adopt a kid who has only been with us for a month is not realistic for many reasons.
posted by SeedStitch at 1:17 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Some of these are bad" is never, ever, ever a good reason to avoid doing something.

There are official systems in place to address the faults in all the things you just listed. What are the systems to recruit good foster parents and keep bad ones from abusing kids? I honestly want to know these things. I'm not just on some mission to put foster kids out on the street.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:19 PM on March 18, 2013

showbiz_liz: Among other things, my sister underwent extensive background checks in the process of becoming a foster parent. Not that this keeps out bad people with clean records, but it's a start.

It also complicates life for my sister in that any babysitter she leaves her foster kids with must also have undergone the background checks, which limits her babysitter options to swapping off care with other foster parents, using professionals like teachers and police officers, or asking generous friends to get background checks, just to have a spare potential babysitter on hand, just in case.
posted by nicebookrack at 4:48 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would like to personally congratulate every person who has read this article (and if you are a TL;DR skimmer: fine: it's not a quik'n'ez read) for not making political hay out of this article. 23 thoughtful posts and counting!

I would like to sanctify foster parents (especially as one who teaches adolescents!), and I also realize there are some who are into foster parenting for the money. However, the reality is much more complicated than these cartoonish positions. Life is not a cartoon.

Congratulations to those institutions and those families who have tried to bring love into this benighted world. Peace out.
posted by kozad at 8:01 PM on March 18, 2013

> There are official systems in place to address the faults in all the things you just listed. What are the systems to recruit good foster parents and keep bad ones from abusing kids?

showbiz_liz, there are organizations at state and local level whose entire mission is to supervise foster care. Foster parents must pass initial background checks, home visits by social workers trained in assessing the fitness of the home environment, and meet a varying number of state regulations. There's paperwork; there's visitations; there's periodic reviews of placements, especially new placements.

An ex-girlfriend of mine managed one such agency for a city. She had 3 employees who, along with her, spent their days checking up on the welfare of the kids and the problems of the foster care - which varied, as we all know, from awful (in which case the situation was decisively and promptly addressed with the possibility of incarceration for the bad foster parents always handy) to the more usual good, great, or simply humanly flawed - like the best of parents still are. That's 4 people, 160 hours a week, just checking up on the foster parents in one city (200k).
posted by IAmBroom at 9:16 PM on March 18, 2013

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