What to expect as a foster parent

According to the Pennsylvania Statewide Adoption & Permanency Network, usually known as SWAN, there are currently approximately 15,000 children in temporary foster care in Pennsylvania. Perhaps you or someone you know is interested in providing stability and a safe home for one or more of these children. Where do you start? What can you expect?

Several Diakon Adoption & Foster Care staff members shared their helpful insights and advice for what they think you should know as you consider becoming a foster family:

The most successful foster parents are those who can go with the flow and be flexible. – Kathy

Our kids need commitment. Many of them have experienced years of chaos, so please know that it may take a long time for them to trust you. Once they do, you will be rewarded over and over with these lovely children. – Joyce

Have realistic expectations—of the children, the process, and yourself. Foster care can be very messy, unpredictable, frustrating—and rewarding.  Become educated about parenting children with what we call “trauma histories.” It’s more than likely you will have a child like this in your home. It’s different from parenting “typical” kids, but there is so much information out there to help! – Christine

Some of the best outcomes happen when families think about and act kindly toward a child’s birth family. It can make the situation easier on everyone involved—including the foster parents themselves. – Stephanie

Unless the foster child is entering your home immediately after birth, he or she will have a history of some type of trauma.  Please remember that trauma manifests itself in different ways and behaviors will be varied.  No two children are alike. – Joyce

Foster care can be emotionally difficult as it is a long, winding, and sometimes rough road. But foster families are the most needed type of family.  Many families want to do straight adoption, but the reality is that with the changing laws in Pennsylvania, most children are placed in homes on a “foster” basis while the county works toward reunification (with birth parent[s]) or placement with a kinship relative/resource. Should the county have no success with either of these goals or if parental rights have already been terminated and the county is looking for a “pre-adoptive” home, a child will still be considered a “foster child” in your home until the adoption finally occurs.  The reality is that you may not feel secure in the placement until the day adoption occurs. – Heather

Becoming a foster parent requires commitment, patience, and empathy. You should have knowledge and an understanding of what these children have been through. Giving children a safe and loving home is the greatest gift that you can give—and you really can make a difference in their lives. – Helene

Perhaps some of this advice is unexpected or difficult to hear. It may take time to grasp a few of these issues if you have never been a part of a foster family. As our staff members note, it is often not an easy journey but, say many foster parents, the rewards frequently far outweigh the challenges.

Foster families choose to give more than they receive. They choose to be a safe and loving source of stability in the lives of children who need someone to care. They choose to get help and advocate for their foster kids because they want to see them succeed. They choose to take in foster children despite the risks and the possible outcomes.

Our foster families are true heroes. We cannot begin to thank them enough—not just as an organization, but also as a society, for taking on these challenges and making a difference in the lives of children and teens every day.

If you want to learn more about foster parenting in Pennsylvania, a great resource is the Pennsylvania State Resource Family Association (PSRFA) website.

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  • After becoming a kinship placement, my husband and I were truly looking forward to helping a young girl, we gave her love, security, structure and simple rules like bathing daily, laundry done weekly and put away, take turns doing dishes and helping with cooking. I showed her how to sew and bake from scratch. I got her a part time job and we even got her a car as an incentive to receive her drivers permit. We shopped for clothes and she was always given what was needed and more. She was told we were some of the best foster parents around and she should realize that. At 16, our disciplinary action was to shut her phone off for 24hours or to ground from going out. We did not go overboard and allowed free time and by no means were we over bearing than normal parents. Nothing worked. She just did t care and showed behavior issues each week. Nothing we did worked. She told her counselor she never had rules before and didn’t need them now. As soon as she turned 17 her behavior escalated and ultimately we couldn’t handle her and she was unfortunately moved after being with us for only 4 months , where she ultimately ran from the next placement. Her caseworker said no need to apologize for we went above and beyond in helping her but she just didnt want structure and you can’t force it… Although I wanted to!!
    I wish we had the opportunity for a placement that wanted a good home and loving parents who puts kids first. I’ve been in contact with two surrounding counties in our state of Missouri letting them know we weren’t done and want more information to move forwarded with another but no response back. Is the system that bombarded with other cases? I know there is a shortage of homes so I would think someone like us would be on the radar for a good fit for children that wants a chance of a good lovng family. I’m afraid since we couldn’t handle her DFS feels we aren’t capable.
    We are just frustrated and wanting to help but just feeling lost.

    • Thank you for your comment. We encourage you to keep trying to contact someone about becoming a resource for children in your local jurisdiction. While the child welfare system is sometimes overburdened with calls, mandates and funding cuts, which can affect responses to requests to become a resource, please remain positive and reach out as you can. While it may be difficult for us to understand at times, often children coming into place, especially those who are older and have had no experience with living in what we might call a “typical family,” will not have an understand of or appreciation for all that parents do for them. Most of our parents find that their reward comes from knowing they’re providing the best environment possible for a youth in need. Often, years later, we have seen young adults come back home and profess profound appreciation for what they have received, a recognition that typically may not be seen in a teenager. Please know, however, that what you do as a resource parent has great value!

  • Thank you for your comments. We appreciate the interest this post has generated. For the sake of clarity, we wanted to note that the purpose of the comments cited was to make prospective foster parents aware that children and youths MAY have some issues. Where those issues arise is most likely as individualistic as the person him- or herself. Moreover, anyone … regardless of whether in foster care, adopted or with biological family … can have some type of “trauma” in life that can create challenges. Again, we deeply appreciate people being willing to share their thoughts and feelings on the subject!

  • Don’t go into being a foster parent without knowing about yourself, your family, and a clear vision of what you can or cannot handle as far as behavioral challenges with these children. It will make the matching process easier between the agency and your family. Disruption in foster care placements not only hurt the foster child, but your family also. It can be very traumatic for everyone. Love is a huge component for foster care, but do is structure, consistence, and understanding. These children can bring chaos with them.

  • I agree with Von, loss of birth parents alone is a trauma, and EVEN if u get a child at birth and they never return to the birth parents…they have a family history that has to be honored. The best way to do that is to build a relationship with the birth family. Just because there is an adoption doesn’t wipe their need for their genetic history, don’t expect it too. Allow and encourage the children to talk about their birth family and never say anything negative about them even if the child does. You can state the facts without being judge mental…they may not have had good parents, they struggle with addiction or mental health. This helps if a child is ordered unexpectedly to be returned to parents even when the plan was TPR. That relationship can continue after you adopt or after a child returns to the bio family. They will look at you as support, mentors and their family if you do it well. Amy- foster/adoptive parent and former DCF worker.

  • Once I read this I didn’t read on ‘Unless the foster child is entering your home immediately after birth, he or she will have a history of some type of trauma. ‘ It seems the trauma of mother-loss has not been considered a trauma and that is an enormous mistake to make.

    • Likewise, many foster babies experience trauma in utero, which is why they’re in fostercare. From cigarettes and alcohol to illegal drugs, exposure to disease and violence… these are some of the various forms of trauma that a newborn child in fostercare might have experienced.

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