In honor of Foster Care Month, I'd like to share the stories of some of the great foster parents I knew in my five years as a social worker in the District of Columbia foster care system.
Mr. and Mrs. C had grown children and grandchildren but lots of energy and love to spare. They took in three-month-old baby S when his mother abandoned him in a bout of rage. Mrs. C was retired and stayed home full-time with the baby, playing with him, talking to him, and loving him. Ms. C. brought S to every well-baby appointment even though some foster parents left this to social workers or other agency staff. When they brought S to visit his mother at the agency, Ms. C thanked her for letting them take care of S until she would be able to take him back. (Sadly, S's mother did not get him back, but he did end up going to his father.)
Ms. T was a single parent of a boy but wanted at least one girl in the household. She took in two sisters after the younger one was abused by her previous foster parent. Ms. T worked from home one day a week, allowing her to take the girls to medical appointments or see their teachers. Every weekend, she drove the children to visit their mother and picked them up at the end of the weekend. After the girls were reunified with their mother, Ms. T would often take them for the weekend at their request or their mother's. She continued to give them gifts and sometimes money when requested. Ms. T has now adopted a second set of girls whom she fostered.
Mr. and Mrs. F took in a ten-year-old girl and her four-year-old brother. Ms. F. worked part-time so that she could spend most of her time being a foster parent. She drove the children daily to their previous school so that they did not have to put up with a long van ride. When the older child was in fifth grade, the F's researched and visited charter schools in order to find a more challenging placement. They were able to get her into one of the most highly thought-of charter schools in the District .
Two siblings, K and M, were placed together in the home of a couple, but they soon expelled K due to her disrespectful behavior. Luckily, K ended up in the home of Ms. W, who saw the wounded child behind the defiance and let her know that there was nothing she could do to get herself kicked out. K's behavior improved in response. Ms. W was so anxious for K and M to see each other that she hosted sleepovers as often as M's foster parent would allow, picking M up and dropping him off. She also picked up their mother from her nursing home so that they could see her as well.
These great foster parents shared two important things—motivation and time. They all became foster parents because they wanted children in their lives and to make a difference in the lives of children. Secondly, they all had the time to devote to their foster children. Two of these foster families consisted of two-parent families in which one parent worked part-time or not at all. The two single mothers worked, but both had jobs with flexibility that allowed them to do things for their children on weekdays.
In five years of work in DC's foster care system, families like the C's, the F's, Ms. T. and Ms. W have been a minority of foster parents I've met, particularly among the foster parents caring for older, more troubled youth. I wrote in an earlier post and column for Youth Today about some foster parents who are providing nothing but room and board—if that. How can we attract more foster parents like the C's, the F's, Ms. T. and Ms. W? If we paid foster parents a salary, this would open up a new supply of potential foster parents—people who want to have a career helping our most vulnerable youth. This would of course increase costs greatly unless we asked foster parents to take more children. Until recently, one private agency in the District of Columbia contractepaid foster parents as employees to care for four children each. Such a model might merit a closer look. Or we might even want to redefine foster care to include agency-owned homes for 6-8 children such as those provided by Boys Town. These are considered group homes, but they actually have a greater resemblance to foster homes—operated by loving, dedicated married couples who have the time to provide the parenting their charges need.