Last Saturday I did my very last foster care training panel with my old county. I started paneling over 3 years ago, while pregnant with my 4th and fostering the most incredible little boy. (Foster parents who have had multiple placements and been doing this a while, you know that one placement that you cannot stop thinking of, worrying about, and praying for long after they’ve left? That was him.)
I got on this panel and became a foster care ambassador with our county because that little man’s therapist had connected with us during his placement and we talked a lot about reunification and foster care (oh wait, those are the same things… 😉🙃 who’s feeling snarky today? I am!) She told me about the foster care training programs that she ran for our county and told me that there were panels that would present in front of each new crew of prospective foster parents consisting of a foster parent, a reunified parent, and a former foster youth (FFY). That panel became one of the most mind blowing and life changing things to happen to my foster care journey.
For over a year, I sat next to one FFY who pleaded with foster parents to take teens, and I sweetly smiled and nodded, while internally thinking “not me, but yes, those people should definitely do that!” About 14 months after the first panel where I sat next to her, we said yes to a teenager. See what I mean about a life changing experience?
On this panel, I gained newfound empathy for those parents struggling with addiction, for those in a familial cycle of child abuse, for those who didn’t just lose their kids once— but multiple times. I gained an incredible insight on FFY who had awful experiences with foster parents, those who wanted to be loved and accepted but gave their foster parents hell for fear of being hurt, and those who never found their forever home. I often felt in those panels, where I was a Johnny One-Note beating the drum of reunification, that I was the weakest link, because nothing I could have said would have mattered as much as the stories of the other two panel members. They were the ones who had experienced very real and serious trauma.
As I’ve shared, we moved away from our county, but I continued to panel via Zoom (which was such a blessing!) When we completed our training in our new county, I was so saddened that they didn’t have a similar segment in their training, as I can’t imagine anything being more impactful in training than to hear from 3 experienced key parties in any foster care situation.
I was informed a couple of weeks ago that my former county had changed their rules and I would no longer be able to serve on the panel since they were not including non-county residents in the trainings. My heart dropped. The one last tie I had to my former county’s DCFS system was to be severed.
And so, this last Saturday, I served my last panel, and once again I was amazed at the stories my other two co-panelists shared and what they had lived through. I was overwhelmed once again at the heartbreak that causes the need for foster care and the heartbreak it in turn causes.
As it was my last panel, I was given the opportunity to share any last remarks on being a foster parent. While I’m just one foster mama, with no special talents, I wanted to share those last thoughts with you, in case anyone might find them helpful.
1. You aren’t just fostering a child. You are there to be a resource to an entire family. If you cannot support reunification until rights are terminated, then you aren’t fulfilling your role as a foster parent. Is it easy? No. Is it scary? Yes. Frustrating? Mhm. Appalling, mind blowing, overwhelming, angering, and exhausting? Check, check. But seeing a family reunified at the end of it is infinitely worth all of that pain and drain (and before my adoptive parents come at me, yes I’m grateful for you too, but that is so often the emphasis of foster parents, that we aren’t talking about that today!)
What does supporting the whole family look like? Making sure sibling visits happen if their siblings are elsewhere, keeping in regular contact with their parents and giving updates, advocating for their parents to get services and transportation. It means pushing when the social worker says they can’t find a parent, it means asking for extra visitation support for parent and child to make the most of their time together, it means at a minimum, telling that child every night that their parent loves them.
2. My very last uttered sentence on the panel this weekend was “Please take a teen.” The same words I heard from the incredibly brave FFY panelist I sat next to on more panels than not. Maybe you’re like Rachel in 2018 nodding and smiling outwardly at that statement right now while internally screaming “fat chance, Rach!” Okay so maybe you feel a teen isn’t right for your family right now, but step a little further out of your comfort zone. Maybe be willing to do emergency placements if you’re only adoption minded to help dip your toes into a different mindset, maybe it’s take an elementary age kid if you only take tinies. Maybe it’s to take a special needs kid or a child from a different religion from you. Stretch yourself, and stretch your family. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: I bonded more quickly with our teenager than I did with any other placement. I didn’t think being a 33 year old mother to a 17 year old and a grandmother to her baby would have ever been something I was comfortable with— but it changed our lives and it changed theirs, because I get to be in their lives forever, a privilege which we didn’t get with all of the littles who left before.
I am very sad to be mourning yet another severed connection to the place I called home for 34 years, I am sad to not have the opportunity to hear and learn from other reunified parents and former foster youth, I am sad to not get to tell new foster parents about the tragic beauty of reunification. But man, am I ever grateful for the last 3 years I had, because without that voice to my right telling me to take a teen, we might never have said yes to our daughter and grand baby.
I hope that wherever you are in your foster care journey, you are ready and willing to support whole families and stretch yourself!