Foster parenting wisdom….a mix of love, acceptance and accountability

When you prepare a child for permanency, you come into contact with a lot of people—birth parents, foster parents, caseworkers, mental health providers, educational staff, and so on. It is a lot for a child to have so many people involved in this process. Certainly it can be hard to keep up with all of it and still manage to be a kid. There is no normalcy about the children’s or youths’ lives at this point.

Let me tell you about just one example, condensing the details considerably.

I have been preparing a young man for permanency. Over the year I have worked with him, this teen has had to cope with a lot.

There was alleged domestic abuse in the home of his birth family. The abuse was focused at his birth mother and him. As a result, he began running away at a young age. After what could have been a harrowing incident, he was returned home, but reported to police that he was being locked in the basement at home and given one bowl of cereal per day.

An unannounced follow-up investigation found him in the filthy basement. He spoke to the Children and Youth Services caseworkers through a window in the basement. His birth parents, however, refused to stop locking him in the basement.

As a result, he’s been in 17 out-of-home placements since he came into the foster care system. Some of those placements were foster homes, some were residential treatment facilities, and some were placements because of his involvement with juvenile probation.

He is failing. Everything is falling apart. He has no hope.

This young man, with so much promise, has been from home to home, from shelter to placement and back home. He was sent back to live with his birth parents. Only this time, he knew the truth. At 15, he discovered that the man who had abused him and his mother was not his biological father. He always wondered why he looked different and felt as if he didn’t belong because of the way he was treated. Now he knew why.

The relationship between the young man, his mother and stepfather deteriorated even more. The only way he would return to visit was if he was forced to go for the sake of his brother and sister, who were still in the home. He rebelled in his foster home and eventually came in contact with the juvenile justice system. In a nutshell, he was angry, misguided, looking for acceptance and love.

He was placed in another home and the only family who genuinely loved him was in jeopardy of being lost because the uneasy feelings would not disappear. And so he continues to rebel and refuses to do work. He’s up all night playing video games. He is failing. Everything is falling apart. He has no hope.

I’m the prep worker—some expect that I should know how to make things right and prepare him for being a “good” kid. He knows he’s loved, so I don’t know what else to do for him except to hold him accountable. I tell him that this lifestyle is not okay and try to be positive. Good job on finishing your book report. Good job making sure that you were here when I arrived. I appreciate it. Thank you for talking about difficult stuff today. It hurts, but it’s better to get the hurt out than let it sink in.

I held him accountable. I explained to him the theory of natural consequences—if you do A, then B happens and whom do you blame? Yourself! He knew what to expect when he made a mistake. Our sessions ended and he did well for a bit, but the family was burned out.

He was sent back to his birth mother and stepfather.

He ran. He was gone for 30 days and turned up at the Children and Youth Services office. He had lost a lot of weight and needed a place to stay because he was staying in an abandoned home in the city somewhere where it was cold. He was hungry and needed a shower.

We found a foster family who agreed that he should be part of their family. They told him that his past was in his past and from the day that he stepped across the threshold into their home, he had a clean slate. He’s doing well now, but has some struggles at school, which has always been a trigger for him in the past. He knows he has to work on that part of his life so he can rejoin the sports team he had been thrown off and play in college, as he’s always dreamed.

This time, during our prep sessions, it’s about the positive. His foster family is so positive about him, how laid back he is, how they laugh together about shared experiences, how much he appreciates having structure and rules (this has helped him a lot), and how mature he’s becoming.

He hasn’t been an angel and it is on paper for everyone to see. He knows he’s not the best at times, but he’s trying and the family with whom he is placed now understands that struggle. They praise the effort instead of focusing on the mistake.

In fact, his foster dad said to me, “Yeah, he messed up at school. I spoke to him about it and he came to me and said ‘You’re right. I was being stupid.’ I didn’t yell at him or try to make him feel bad about what he did.  I just told him that there’s a different way to handle it than the way he did.”

Here is helpful information I share with families:

Kids are not perfect. Do not have predetermined expectations because you don’t know what each youth has been through.

Having realistic expectations can help eliminate your frustration. This doesn’t mean you can’t be disappointed in some of their decisions. Kids make mistakes. The mistake is theirs. Help them live through it, not with it.

Simply put, a mistake is made, the action is done. The consequences come, hold them accountable, but don’t punish them for weeks, months and years by reminding them of every mistake they made. As human beings, we all make mistakes. So imagine all those mistakes you made at work or in life being held against you by exposing it. Everybody talks to you about it and reminds you that you were wrong; it comes up again and again.

We should treat our foster children the way we would want to be treated.

Angela Jackson
Diakon Adoption & Foster Care – Mechanicsburg Office

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  • This is such a great example of the amazing work our staff do and their incredible level of commitment to serving the kids they work with. Angela – you are so dedicated and caring! Thanks for sharing this story….

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