The decision to become a foster family is never easy. The idea can seem overwhelming when you hear about aspects of providing care that will be out of your control as a foster parent. However, foster parents have total control in terms of selecting what children come into our homes! Foster parents are able to choose a preferred age range, select gender preference if desired, and say “yes” or “no” to each child needing placement.
I often hear people claim that many families want to foster littles because ‘babies are cute and easy.’ While that is true at times, it really had nothing to do with our decision to foster babies and toddlers. Rather, my husband and I believe we are best suited to meet the unique developmental challenges faced by these youngest of children who have been abused or neglected. We hope to prevent (or overcome) developmental delays and life-long attachment disorders among these young babies and toddlers.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, “Nurturing and responsive care for the child’s body and mind is the key to supporting healthy brain development. Positive or negative experiences can add up to shape a child’s development and can have lifelong effects.”
Eye contact. Positive, loving touch. Reading books and constant spoken communication about day-to-day activities. Plenty of floor time to explore and learn. These are the simple (yet conscientious and relentless) needs of kids beginning at birth. We feel so strongly about the need for this consistent and ongoing type of care and attention that, during our licensing process, I quit my out-of-home job to return to my favorite job as a stay-at-home caregiver.
My husband and I chose to foster babies and toddlers for the life-long impact we believe we can make on these children and their families. There were other reasons as well; for example, we want to welcome children who are significantly younger than our 11-year-old biological twins. We may decide to raise our age preference for fostering as our own children continue to age, but that’s not a decision we need to make right now.
Before he ever mentioned the idea of fostering to me, my husband had been reading articles like this one and this one. His research confirmed what we instinctively already knew: among other critical skills, children build foundations for social skills, self-control and learning to trust during those early years. Good emotional and physical health when they are young allows children increased chances for success in school, in society and in their personal lives as adults.
In an article related to fostering The Developing Child found at harvard.edu, “Toxic stress weakens the architecture of the developing brain, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.” This is the type of information that led us to foster children ages three and under, which is a critical time that we feel we can make the greatest long-term impact. (Offering full disclosure, I also want to offer my best self, which tolerates toddler tantrums much better than I handle tween tantrums.)
During our original licensing process, I sought counsel from a friend who used to work in adoption placement and currently works with traumatized children as a therapist. She helped prepare me for the atrocities I would face as a foster parent. Most children come into care during their early school years thanks to the diligence of mandatory reporters, such as guidance counselors and teachers, who recognize the signs of abuse and neglect. She explained that for babies and toddlers to be identified, it takes a serious injury that requires medical attention, and hospital workers often file the report of suspected abuse or neglect for young children. (It’s worth noting that abusive parents are good at hiding their children of all ages at home, which is why so few cases are being reported during this pandemic while kids are out of school.)
Two aspects of my personality (whether a good thing or not) make a nice fit for fostering littles: I love to celebrate the small stuff, and I turn nearly every occurrence into a learning opportunity (just ask my 11-year-old twins, then insert eye roll in response). Most importantly, as my husband said to me the very first night we discussed the idea of fostering, “We have what these kids need: room in our home, along with love, safety and support to share.”
Huge kudos to parents who foster children entering the system at an older age and are extremely traumatized from years of neglect and/or abuse, with episodes of trauma continuing while they are in care. So many of them deal with attachment disorders, impacting every single relationship they have – with family, friends, spouses, bosses, coworkers, neighbors – for the rest of their lives. Let me be clear: I am not comparing the children, the abuse and trauma they experience, or any aspect of fostering children of different ages. There simply is no comparison. Parenting is tough throughout every stage of child development, and each stage offers different difficulties as well as different rewards. No matter the age, each child deserves a safe and loving home! Each prospective foster parent should conduct some close self-examination to determine what age children their skills, abilities and sensibilities can offer the most effective care. And each family’s decision is unique and based on a large variety of factors.
In addition to age and gender, foster parents can select a wide range of other preferences and, to be honest, this was the most emotionally difficult part of the licensing process for me. During licensing, you’ll be asked what child factors you are willing to care for – physical issues (from heart defects and diabetes to Down Syndrome, from cleft lip to pregnant teens, and everything in between) emotional problems and behaviors (from kids who show anger and aggression toward themselves or others, ADHD, smoking, bedwetting, the list goes on and on). This exercise is important because it requires you to really dig deep – at a time when you are feeling pretty good about yourself and your willingness to help kids in need – and it forces you to put limits on that willingness and evaluate exactly how far you’re willing to push yourself outside your comfort zone.
Keep in mind that the more narrowly you set your preferences, the fewer kids you can care for and the fewer calls you will get from the placement office. Kids of all ages and conditions desperately need our help. And more kids enter the foster care system every single day. We are only as good as the care we can provide, so it’s critical to evaluate yourself, your family and your home carefully; however, it’s best to be as open minded as possible and limit your preferences only to those you feel most strongly that you can’t handle.
Speaking with experienced foster parents may give you the best insight into the issue of preferences, and there are many ways you can connect with foster parents before, during and after the licensing process.
Looking for ways to connect with other foster parents? Search for ways to make connections and build your support system. This may be through your local Foster Parent Association, local ministries or support groups, or online communities like #SHAREfostering.