Tag: foster parenting

Building a positive relationship with birth families (Part 2)

I concluded part 1 of this blog post: “Now that we have established why it is important to build a good relationship, let’s talk about how to do that.”

Introductions

I always introduce myself the same way every time I meet a new birth parent: “Hello, my name is Eleanor; I am your son’s/daughter’s/children’s foster mom. I’m sorry to have to meet you like this because this must be a hard time for your family. Your son/daughter/children (insert comment about a positive trait here).”

Let’s break this down:

First, I use the words “foster mom” right away—I have had birth parents say things such as, “Oh, you are the lady watching my kids,” or assume this is a paid “job” for me—so I make certain to introduce the idea immediately that I am the person mothering their children right now. We are going to be co-parenting these kids for the foreseeable future, so let’s be clear on our roles right away.

Second, I acknowledge that this is a difficult situation. Whatever has happened up to this point, there is no question it’s a challenging time for everyone involved. Showing empathy for the family makes you seem less of an enemy.

Third, in making a positive comment such as “Your son has such an infectious smile,” you establish the fact that while you are mothering or fathering the child at the moment, you also want to be clear that this is their child. As far as the compliment, well, what parents don’t want to hear nice things about their kid? Besides, being friendly never hurts when meeting people the first time.

Photo album

The first time I meet parents I show up with a small dollar-store photo album to give them. I always ask the caseworker first if this is okay—and if there are safety issues I need to be aware of.

I include a photo of our family (if safe to do so), a photo of our house (again, if safe to do so), a photo of the child’s bedroom, our playroom, our pets and so on. In the early days, I always try to get a few photos of the kids playing or eating or involved in similar activities and include those. I work really hard to make sure I have at least one photo in which the child is smiling!

I used to not include photos of the kids being held or cuddled by us (I always assumed it would be upsetting to the birth parents to see photos of their child being held by someone else) and then had one mother tell me that she was afraid her son was not being loved while we had him. I immediately showed her all the photos on my phone of him being held, cuddled and rocked and she felt much better, so now I include those photographs, too.

While children are with me, I keep printing photos and taking them to visits. Plus, I scribble notes on the back about what we have been doing and what the kids have been up to each week. If my children were not living with me, I know I would wonder what their days looked like, so I try to make sure parents know what their kids are up to.

Crafts/Artwork

If your foster child is in preschool or school, you should have an abundance of craft projects coming home. I take one or two to each visit and give them to the parents. Kids love showing off their work!

Holidays

For Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas and so on, I help my foster kids make a small gift or buy something small for them to give to their parents. Most parents are touched to receive something and most kids really enjoy giving gifts.

For the child’s birthday and Christmas I normally take a small gift in my bag to the visit that falls closest to the holiday. If the birth parents did not bring anything to the visit, I let them know I have something in my bag for them to give their child if they would like to.

I have had birth parents burst into tears at this point because they just didn’t have the extra money to buy anything for their child and are so happy to have something to give.

I once had a fellow foster parent tell me I was enabling the birth parent, but I disagree. Most birth parents have all kinds of enormous tasks to complete, which can include finding housing, getting a job, completing rehab or attending parenting classes, so having money and time to buy their child a gift can be just one too many tasks for the week.

And it doesn’t take much effort for me to pick up an additional small gift; often, this kindness will go a very long way.

Don’t take it personally

All birth parents with whom I have worked have, at some point, critiqued the way I was caring for their child. One didn’t like the brand of diapers I was using; another insisted I must be neglecting to change her son because he had a (slight) diaper rash. One mom got upset that I had juice for the child in the diaper bag, while another was concerned I didn’t have juice on hand for her to give her child.

I figure it’s not about me.

This parent has almost no control over their child’s life, so they seek it where they can. I smile and tell them I hear them, but I don’t rush out and buy a new brand of diapers or run to the store for juice boxes. Their concern or anxiety is not typically about diapers or juice anyway.

Ask the parents about their child

Parents know a lot about their kid, how they go to sleep, what their favorite television show is, what they like to eat and so on—so ask!

In doing so, you will learn important information about the child you are parenting while also acknowledging the birth parents’ role in their child’s life. They are probably not feeling amazing about themselves or their identity as parents right now, so acknowledging they know a lot about their child they can teach you will be validating to them.

Boundaries

Sometimes, maintaining a positive relationship means setting good, firm boundaries. If parents are given my phone number or manage to get hold of it and start texting or calling constantly, I politely but firmly tell them that I am busy caring for their child and we will talk at the next visit. Your social worker can help you with setting boundaries if you need to, but I often find that having a frank but polite chat solves most issues.

Sure, it’s not always been smooth sailing with every birth family, but for the most part we have been able to build positive and respectful relationships with our foster and adopted kids’ parents, grandparents and even extended family.

It has not always been easy and has sometimes involved a lot of tongue-biting on my part—but it has been 100% worth the effort!

—Eleanor Delewski, Diakon Adoption & Foster Care parent

(A final note about language: for a child who has been adopted, the commonly accepted terms are “parent” for the adoptive parents and “birth” or “first parents” for the child’s original parents. However, for a child in foster care, “parent” typically refers to the birth parent, with “foster parent” being used for the moms and dads caring for the child while he or she is in foster care. For clarity, the term “birth parent” is used in this blog post to refer to the foster child’s original parents, but I fully recognize that while a child is in foster care the birth parents are still the legal parents of the child. Not everyone agrees on what language should be used for which parent, but that is a debate beyond the scope of this post.)

A Father’s Day Reflection

As I look back on our adoption journey, I realize that our non-traditional family is happy not only because we went into the process with our eyes wide open, but also because we expected nothing from our children and yet we got everything in return.

Steve and I had been together for about 10 years when we started to think about adopting a child. We were at a point where everything was really good for us—we had a great relationship, a nice home, supportive families and we traveled quite a bit. While an infant or toddler was out of the question, we wanted to share our life with an older child.

Although we were initially concerned that our non-traditional family might face some challenges to adoption, we are glad we chose to work with Diakon Adoption & Foster Care.

Despite the fact they had not worked with a lot of same-sex couples at that point, it was never an issue for them or the children. Part of the preparation process was explaining to the children that they may go to a family different from their birth family. What they found was that we weren’t defined by our relationship. They saw us as fun—and we treated each other with respect.

Our first son was 12 years old when he arrived. Although we thought we were prepared, the reality was much harder. Fortunately, we were open to the coaching and support that comes from Diakon and, over the next eight years, we opened our home to three more sons between the ages of 8 and 12. Each of them had been placed with traditional families before coming to us, but those placements did not work out.

While Steve and I both had stable family lives and had never been in trouble, there isn’t anything we haven’t been involved with because of our kids—police, probation, trauma counseling, regular counseling, you name it. At the same time, we never made them into something they weren’t. As a same-sex couple, we have always had to depend on people accepting us for who we are, and we did that with our kids.

If there is any advice I can offer to someone considering adopting older, at-risk kids, it is that you can’t expect them to come into your life and fill a void for you. You can’t put that pressure on them. They need you to be 100 percent in this for them. That takes patience and a willingness to go through a lot of trial and error.

Our goal was to see our sons graduate high school. We taught them good work ethics and that, despite their obstacles, they could become anything they want to be.

What we found is that while it may have taken longer and been tougher than we expected, we got there together.

Wayne Hopkins and Steve Renninger are the adoptive parents of four young men who continue to challenge and enrich their lives, most recently with the addition of their first grandchild.

Everyone deserves a family

May is National Foster Care month. According to Pennsylvania’s Statewide Adoption & Permanency Network, or SWAN:

“Most children are in foster care for a short time, with the majority of children returning to their family of origin. A foster home can be an important haven, keeping children safe, helping them to cope with their grief and loss and helping to prepare them for the eventual return to their family. Because of these challenges, foster parenting requires special people—people who can take children quickly and without hesitation into their homes knowing that, when the time comes, they will need to lovingly let them go.

“Although most foster children are returned to their biological family, if such a return is not in the best interest of the child, the court may order that the parents’ rights be terminated and the child be placed for adoption. Should that happen, foster parents should play a key role in a child’s transition to an adoptive family, or they may consider adopting the child” themselves.

Sadly, each year more than 23,000 young adults age out of the foster care system. Diakon Adoption & Foster Care staff members work tirelessly to recruit and support resource families for these young adults, along with the children and youths referred to us by county agencies.

Those staff members share why it is so important to find families for all ages, including young adults:

• I primarily work with older youths and see firsthand what happens when they age out of care without locating an adoptive home. Unfortunately, I have seen youths be arrested within only a few months of being on their own. I have seen others become homeless. I have seen youth so desperate for love and belonging that they end up in unhealthy relationships, resulting in domestic abuse.
• Teens who age out of foster care with no identified adult resources tend to do poorly in life. In general, they have higher rates of homelessness, poverty and even incarceration than their peers who have family support. They also are more likely to have children of their own earlier, but may not have the resources to care for their children, thus perpetuating the likelihood of poor outcomes in future generations.
• Situations vary and depend on support systems. Some youths continue living with their resource (foster) family and some return to birth family members. Others may move on to post-secondary education, while others find their own apartment if they have the financial means. Unfortunately, some end up homeless and without necessary support.
• These young adults often become involved with negative influences because they are vulnerable.
• Unfortunately, many have nowhere to go. They might couch-surf with friends, rent substandard housing or return to families who, unfortunately, have not resolved the issues that caused the youth to come into care in the first place.

Our staff agrees that having the love and acceptance of a family is critical to the success a young person experiences.

• They need permanency, a place to call home and the support of a family to help them with things such as applying to colleges, applying for jobs, getting a driver’s license and various other things.
• Teens are never too old to need a family! Without a family, from whom do they seek guidance? Who will be there to cheer them on and encourage them? One teen stated that he cried through his entire high school graduation because there was no one there for him. A teen girl has asked who will walk her down the aisle when she marries? When they are in college, where will they go for holidays when the dorms close?
• No one is ready to enter the world on their own when they turn 18. Young adults need the guidance and structure of family to help them navigate the world.
• Everyone needs a family they can share life with.
• At any age, individuals need a place they can call “home” and call “family.”
• It is still important for these youths to have a family. A support system is crucial to young people, especially at that transitional point of life.

And although there aren’t as many success stories of older teens being adopted as we might home for, here are a few examples our staff members recall:

• A young adult who was adopted as a teen has been able to secure a part-time job while going to college. She has a place to live and a family to help her with finances until she can afford to be on her own.
• A delayed, paralyzed young man found a home at the age of 19. He started smiling when he found parents.
• We helped one older teen find her birth mother, whom she hadn’t seen since birth. That family welcomed her in and even though she was never adopted, she has connections!
• A medically challenged youth was adopted by a teacher.

You can help be a part of the success story for a child, youth or young adult! Please consider attending an upcoming information session; you also can request an information packet here.

The chance to change a life

Janice and her husband, Will, recently adopted a brother and sister, ages 13 and 16 respectively. She shares her thoughts and a few lessons she’s learned about first fostering and then adopting teenagers.

I always wanted to adopt. My best friend growing up was adopted and when I was dating my husband, I told him I wanted to adopt. Luckily, he was on board.

I was particularly interested in adopting siblings. I had heard stories about siblings being separated when adopted and thought how sad that is and how terrifying it must be for them. They were just taken away from everything and everyone they know and then to lose their last connection.

When we were ready to adopt, we went to an information session provided by Diakon Adoption & Foster Care.

Foster-To-Adopt: God Knew My Heart Needed You

In this post, Lydia Carfagno, an adoptive parent, shares her difficult two-year journey that led to one of the greatest joys of her life—motherhood. She adopted her now-4-year-old son, Trevor, through Diakon Adoption & Foster Care’s legal-risk (foster-to-adopt) program. Legal-risk placements involve children and youths who are in the custody of a county’s children and youth services. Children are placed in foster homes with the intent of reuniting them with their birth families; however, if that does not occur, the foster family often seeks to adopt the child or youth.

Why Foster-To-Adopt?

As I was growing up, my mother worked and volunteered at a crisis pregnancy center. As a small child, I witnessed my mother counseling women and providing them with the necessary resources to maintain their pregnancy. When I was young, I would tell my mother that I wanted to grow up and take care of babies that did not have mommies and open my own orphanage. I remember frequently checking our front door to see if someone left me a baby to care for!

Fast forward: I grew up and obtained a college degree in recreational therapy. As a therapist, I worked in various pediatric hospitals. Throughout my work experience, I witnessed firsthand many children suffering from neglect, abuse and trauma. Each of these children made my desire to adopt grow even stronger; however I knew I was not currently in the position to do that.

Upon marrying, adoption was something we always said we would do “one day.” We struggled to get pregnant and even experienced a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy. The topic of adoption that was once on the back burner quickly became a burning desire in my heart.

It was something I believed had to happen immediately. Because of my experience in the health-care field, I was aware of “foster-to-adopt” type programs and I quickly began researching agencies.

Why Diakon?

In March 2015 we decided to take the leap into fostering and adopting. The only thing left to do was pick an agency. A lot of prayer and discussion went into our decision to begin this journey.

We had just started attending a new church. The Sunday after we made our decision, the message was about foster care and adoption. Numerous families shared their journeys that morning. My husband and I felt as if God was truly speaking to us and giving us the extra push that we needed.

As I was leaving church, I went to grab my coat off the coat rack; directly above my coat was a flyer for Diakon Adoption & Foster Care.. I pointed it out to my husband and we both took it as God pointing us in the direction we needed to go. We went through Diakon’s training sessions in April and May 2015, completed our home study in June 2015 and Trevor was placed with us in September 2015.

What was it like the moment you first saw your son?

On Sept. 18, 2015, we made the best, yet scariest, decision of our lives. My husband and I were both at work when we received a phone call from the agency regarding an emergency placement. The phone call came around 12:30 p.m. We both rushed out of work to attempt to prepare ourselves for Trevor’s arrival, but all we really did was pace until Trevor arrived in our driveway at 3 p.m. in the children and youth worker’s vehicle. As they pulled in, we could hear Trevor in the back attempting to talk. It was evident right away that he had some speech delays.

My first glimpse of him, I thought: “Wow, you’re a big guy, yet so unhealthy-looking.” We were advised by the caseworkers that we should bathe him immediately. Trevor was immediately captivated by our pets and the few toys we had. I quickly coaxed him into the bathtub, which I ended up draining and refilling three times. We had to stop him from drinking the bath water and sucking water out of the wash cloth. This is also when we discovered bedbug bites all over his little body.

Although appearing confused, Trevor engaged with us immediately. He had absolutely no verbal language skills and resorted to pointing and gesturing his wants and needs. After bathing him, we dressed him (I had some 18-month clothing) and went to a department store.

I remember on the drive there thinking, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” We knew absolutely nothing about this little human. We had no idea what he liked, disliked or feared. We didn’t even know his medical history or if he was allergic to anything. We wandered through the store for about an hour-and-a-half putting anything he pointed to in the cart. As “crazy” as it probably looked to others, it all felt perfectly right.

What health obstacles did Trevor face?

It quickly became apparent that Trevor had social-emotional, developmental and health concerns. Some were easily noticeable to the lay person; however, coming from the medical field, I knew there were deeper underlying neurological challenges.

Our first obstacle to tackle was Trevor’s limited communication. He would become terribly frustrated (rightfully so) when he was not able to express himself. We immediately started teaching him basic sign language. We also set up evaluations with Early Intervention, pediatricians and various other specialists.

In addition to Trevor’s developmental delays, he had asthma (which had gone untreated) and required multiple surgeries because of medical neglect. Trevor’s days were quickly filled with various doctor and therapy appointments. Trevor made tremendous gains medically and developmentally once he was receiving all the needed services.

What prepared you for Trevor’s health issues?

As teens and young adults, my husband and I worked with individuals with special needs.

It quickly became apparent that God was using these experiences to prepare us both (years later) for Trevor. Not only did we have some experience, but our support system also did. My mom and my husband’s parents are special education teachers. This is not to say we knew exactly what we were doing. There was still a lot to learn, and a lot of scary, uncertain times. Again, this is when our faith came in to play. Trevor had his own prayer team of more than 100 people praying for him daily.

How did you cope with biological family visits?

Visits with Trevor’s birth family were definitely the most difficult part of our journey. We made a point of communicating with them as much as possible. At the start of this process, both of Trevor’s birth parents were incarcerated. Initially, Trevor visited them in jail every other week.
Once they were no longer incarcerated, Trevor visited with them at a supervised location and then eventually visits became unsupervised. This was particularly difficult as we had very little information as to what was occurring during visits. We created a communication book that we would write to one another in.

Unfortunately, Trevor’s birth parents were unable to provide stable caregiving. As with all children in foster care, the county sought other biological family members as a resource for Trevor. This process was terribly difficult because we had become so bonded with Trevor, and he was terrified to leave us. Our Diakon caseworker, the various health professionals Trevor saw regularly and Trevor’s prayer team were our support and advocates.

What is your best advice for someone looking to foster-to-adopt?

Almost everyone we come in contact with has made the statement, “I could never do what you are doing”’ or “You are better than me; I could never do what you are doing because I would get too attached.” Initially, it was difficult to find a response to statements like this.

Now, I typically respond with “I never said I could do it, but I said I would do it.” I am constantly reminding myself that God does not call the equipped; He equips those who are called. This journey has been one of the most terrifying and challenging experiences of my life. We fought for Trevor’s best interests for 689 days.

We were assigned this mountain to show others that it can be moved.

I know there are other men and women out there who have a deep desire to foster and adopt. Do not let fear and uncertainty stop you from fulfilling your calling. These children need love more than anyone’s need to protect his or her heart. No one should be afraid to grieve. What they should be afraid of is what happens to these children if no one takes the risk to love them.

Do you have any regrets?

Was our journey easy? Absolutely not! The past two years have been long, messy, hard and filled with grief. However, the day Trevor came into my life I knew what my purpose was. I promised him that day, and every day after, to love and protect him with everything I have.

Trevor has shown me a part of me that I did not even know existed. The day I became his mother (or “foster mom”) my life was forever changed. I found strength and grit inside me that I did not know was even possible. Sometimes God will put a Goliath in your life for you to find the David within you. God knew my heart needed Trevor. Trevor is without a doubt worth it all!

What does the future hold now that Trevor is officially your son?

Trevor is the most strong, brave and resilient little boy I have ever met. Although there are still a lot of unknowns in Trevor’s future because of the trauma and neglect he experienced at a young age, I truly believe he will overcome any obstacle he faces.

He entered our home a nervous, timid, unhealthy toddler and today he is full of spunk and joy. He loves to explore and experience all life has to offer. He is compassionate and intelligent and has just about everyone he meets wrapped around his little finger. The future for Trevor is limitless. God has great plans in store for him.

Trevor’s adoption occurred just recently so we are still in the process of figuring out what life is like without court, paperwork, caseworker visits and the dark cloud of the question, “will he stay forever?” hanging over our heads.

We are certainly enjoying our new forever family and cannot wait to see what God has planned for the three of us.

—Lydia Carfagno

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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: