THE BLOG

The 10 Most Surprising Things About Foster Care

04/15/2015 03:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015
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1. Foster care is all around us.

I saw a tweet once from a radio personality that asked, "When I go to a foster parent training, why am I the only one who doesn't look like he's going to a monster truck rally?"

When my husband and I got licensed for foster care so that we could adopt a child who was waiting for a family, we thought we would be alone on this journey within our social circles. After all, foster parents have a certain reputation. Now, I realize it's not a reputation as much as it's a stereotype.

Trust me when I tell you that there are foster families all around you. Foster families go to your church. Foster children go to school with your children. Foster children are on your children's sports teams. Your children are friends with them, but they don't know they are foster children. Foster children don't like to talk about it. Speaking of not liking to talk about it...

2. Asking for a foster child's backstory story is hurtful.

If someone dear to your heart was struggling with drug addiction or mental illness, how much detail would you want to share with a stranger? What if your loved one had just overdosed and died? What if your spouse ran off with one of your parents? What if your mother was hooking in the next room over? How much of this story would you want to tell to anyone?

Random people, even strangers, ask foster children questions like, "Why are you in foster care?" or "Are you going to be adopted?" or "Where are your parents?" These questions bring the deepest pain and darkest fears to the surface.

Most foster children feel uncomfortable with the questions, but don't want to be rude by not answering. Many foster children do not have healthy boundaries. Some foster children will want to talk too much. For some, talking with strangers about deeply personal matters feeds a desperate need for connection in a very unhealthy way.

3. Foster children must leave everyone and everything behind.

These children are grieving everything. Imagine waking up one day in a new home with a new family in a new neighborhood and being sent to a new school where you know no one and no one knows you. You have no one to talk to. You don't have any of your things. You don't know where anything is organized or stored in the house. Imagine, you've heard the worst foster care horror stories on the news, and now you've been dropped into a foster home -- alone.

Remember the last time you stayed in someone's house as a guest. Every interaction in a new home feels like an intrusion. Now, imagine that you stayed there after losing your entire family, all of your friends, and everyone else you know. Imagine coming as a guest in someone's home with none of your belongings -- no extra underwear, no toiletries, none of the things you'd pack on a trip. Imagine how long it would take for you to truly feel at home in this new environment.

No matter how hard foster families work to make foster children feel loved and accepted, these adjustments take time.

4. Many of these kids have lived without water or electricity.

My adopted son did not have running water or electricity before he came into foster care at 5 years old. The swish and sound of a toilet flushing scared him. He didn't know how to use toilet paper. Some foster children have not understood that toilet paper goes into the toilet. My son did not know how to wash himself.

Without electricity, food options are also limited. Many children coming into foster care have a limited palate because they simply have not been exposed to many foods. They've usually eaten very few fresh vegetables and fruit because they don't have refrigeration. They have eaten lots of canned foods, "instant" foods, and dry cereal (without milk). After nearly two years, my son still does not like hot foods. Speaking of food...

5. Food is a major issue in a way we could not have imagined.

I cannot count how many new foster parents accuse foster children of "stealing" food. Some foster parents become so frustrated that they lock up their pantries. Sometimes, there are valid fears about health issues -- especially for kids with diabetes and kids who gorge on very unhealthy food items. For example, my son will down an entire spice packet if given the chance. Other foster parents worry about their food bills when they see small children eating two or three times the amount a grown man should eat.

These children are not stealing food. They are stocking up in case the food runs out. This was their experience for too many years. My oldest child who spent a decade in foster care eats as if she is in prison -- one arm casually placed around the perimeter of her place setting, two watchful eyes, waiting for someone to take her food. My youngest talks about life with his birth mother -- crying all night, unable to sleep because being hungry hurt so much.

These kids often spend years hoarding food because they "know" the food will eventually run out. They "know" that someday they will once again have to go days without food. If you find one hiding place, they have five more backup places. Once, we found an entire loaf of bread and two jars of peanut butter hidden in the most ingenious place in a closet. We found a pyramid of Doritos carefully stacked under a bed. We found a trove of food treasures carefully hidden behind a headboard. There are therapists who specialize in food hoarding caused by neglect.

6. There is little you can do about a bad social worker.

We've had more good caseworkers than bad caseworkers, but the bad ones will make life a living hell. One caseworker got so angry about a child not wanting to speak to her that she told us we had to remove the girl's bedroom and bathroom doors. She told us she would not leave our house until we followed her orders. Luckily, the law in Arizona was on our side, and foster homes are required to have a door on any bedroom belonging to a foster child.

When social workers have engaged in behavior that is clearly unethical, they are rarely held accountable even when complaints are made through the proper channels. The grievance process is basically this: (1) Talk to a supervisor, (2) Talk to the supervisor's supervisor, (3) Talk to a bureau chief, (4) Call the governor's ombudsman. Over five years of foster care support groups, we've seen and done all of the above. Each time, foster parents have been reassured that the behavior is unacceptable, but nothing changes with the caseworker or the case. The closest thing to accountability is usually just lip service.

7. Some social workers are way past jaded and cynical. They are desperate and dispirited.

Some social workers manage to keep the optimism that brought them into this field of work. Most, though, have seen the underbelly of the system, and they know there is only so much they can do. They focus on putting out fires and stabilizing where they can.

Because the focus is on putting out fires and stabilizing unstable situations, foster children who are seen as relatively stable can be put on the back burner. Simple requests and questions, even important ones, will sometimes not get a response for weeks -- sometimes months.

Things have gotten worse over the years, not better. One social worker said this morning, "In 1999, I had 18 kids. In 2012, I had 51. I could only put out the fire of the day. I was always one who knew all my kids and families, but with 51 kids, I couldn't keep thing straight. It was too hard to even make a dent or be effective."

8. Foster children often sleep in offices or cubicles.

Social workers place children in homes out of desperation because otherwise, the children on their caseloads will sleep in the child welfare office in a sleeping bag or on a cot. Even worse, some kids end up in shelters or group homes (i.e., modern day orphanages) for the long haul.

To get a child placed into a foster family, some caseworkers will often say anything to get a child placed and will neglect to share important information. For example, we had a child placed in our home once who had stabbed someone repeatedly and had been arrested for multiple assaults on different people. The caseworker, who had picked up this child from jail 4 days earlier, told us that the child had no behaviors. We later learned that this child had been sleeping in the office, and the caseworker was required to stay there with her. The caseworker was desperate to get home to her own family. She placed this child out of desperation because the Arizona foster care system does not have mental health treatment in place for children with these types of mental health challenges.

Over five years of foster parent support groups, we have seen this happen to families with absolute consistency. When we ask the caseworker why they did not disclose, they are clear, "Because you would not have taken this child." I have personally heard these words from four different caseworkers, and many foster parents in our support groups have heard the same words.

When we go up the chain to hold the workers accountable, they don't even bother to find out what happened. The response is always, "They probably just did not know that information." This, above all, makes foster parents want to run screaming for the hills, because the caseworkers don't even deny it. Yet, the administration denies it because they understand the legal liability of recognizing this problem. After all, the courts have indicated that foster families have a Fourteenth Amendment right to disclosure of known risks. And that's not even getting into the civil rights of the foster children who deserve to have their mental health needs met.

9. Social workers are stereotyped as much as foster parents.

Based on the last two points above, you've probably already got a distaste for social workers, but let me reassure you, again, that most social workers are good people doing their best in a system that constrains them.

They work long hours. They drudge through endless paperwork. They drive and drive and drive, trying to see each kid in their current residence each month. Imagine having 50 kids on your caseload, spread across more than 9,000 square miles with a population of nearly four million. Imagine having to visit each of those children in their place of residence every 30 days and visit their birth parents, too, all while coordinating services for the children and their parents.

Social workers also have to write a monthly report for each kid, write frequent court reports, compile evidence and information for the Attorney General's office, and send reports to the judges.

When a child has a mental health crisis, the caseworker can spend hours or days just setting up supports and services to stabilize the situation. When a child needs to be moved, the caseworker has to find the child a bed, and did we mention that there is such a shortage of foster parents that children are sleeping in offices...

All of these things cover only part of a social worker's job.

10. Parental rights are often considered before the best interest of the child.

The courts have ruled that parenting is a Constitutional right. The state can only intervene in parenting matters when the well-being of a child is endangered, and once the state intervenes, the state must make its best attempt to help the family heal and reunify through services, supports and visitation. In order to stop working toward reunification, the state must prove that parents cannot engage in "minimally adequate parenting."

This is both good and bad. In many cases, the birth parents are repeating the cycle of abuse and neglect that they learned as children. Many of these parents can and do learn to be better parents. Sometimes, poverty brings children into foster care, and love drives those parents to improve their situation for their kids. Family reunification efforts were meant for these families.

Then, there are the children who have suffered from severe, chronic abuse and neglect. Federal law says that egregious cases with "aggravating circumstances" (i.e., abandonment, chronic abuse, torture) can be expedited to protect children from being returned to unsafe homes and from staying in foster care for too long. However, loopholes and exceptions can be the norm for these cases, and children are routinely subjected to extensive reunification procedures that are unnecessary, harmful and risky. They, too, get an automatic case plan of "family reunification," including visitation between terrified, traumatized children and their abusers. Even when children express their fears and try to refuse visits, they are told, "Visits cannot be stopped."