Our first night as foster parents arrived with about 40 minutes notice.
Is that normal? We’ve learned that there’s really no such thing as “normal” when it comes to foster care. Every situation is unique, and things tend to move and change quickly. Everyone involved is responding to the hand that’s dealt.
But before we describe that first night, let’s wind the clock back a few months.
The Preparation: “Okay, We Want to be Foster Parents!”
Fostering is something that we had actually thought about for a long time. We were just waiting for our family to be ready, and when we decided that moment had come we began to take the necessary steps.
We started by attending an information night at the office of our local Department of Children and Families. From there we signed up to take the mandatory training course … one evening each week for 13 weeks. As we discovered, there’s a lot to learn about working with foster children and their families and social workers.
The screening is intense too (as it should be). By the time you finish, you jump through a lot of hoops, and fill out enough paperwork to fill a couple of home office drawers.
But still, we had the uneasy feeling that we weren’t ready for all that being foster parents would bring. And, of course, we were right.
Here’s how we describe it with the benefit of hindsight …
Imagine having swimming lessons where all of the instruction is given in a classroom nowhere near the water. The correct swimming techniques are described in detail, and everyone practices imaginary movements, swinging their arms and legs in mid air — dry as a bone. And all the while, your instructors cheer you on with encouraging words about how well you’re learning everything.
Next, imagine they take you to an actual swimming pool that you’ve never seen before, and push you in the deep end.
That’s just what it feels like. Nothing can quite prepare you for your first night as foster parents.
But you know what? It seems to work. In reality, there’s probably no other way to do it. You’re told what to expect, your questions are patiently answered, but in the end you just have to be thrown in. You welcome a child to your family, and you figure it out.
Congratulations! You’re Now Licensed Foster Parents
Once we finished all of the training, we went through the checklists to make sure we’d submitted everything correctly, and then we waited for our “license” to arrive from the state.
That week we received a couple of phone calls from social workers …
- “Hello. We see that you’re about to be licensed. Would you consider taking 2 children just for a long weekend? Their foster parents need a few days respite care to attend a business function. This may be a nice introduction for you before a child is placed with you.”
- “Hi. Your license should be through in a couple of days, and we have 2 infant sisters who may need to be placed. Would you be willing to take them?”
Technically, we were still waiting for the license to arrive. We quickly realized that the need for foster parents is huge and it is constant.
During that week, the second call didn’t pan out. Family court decided that the sisters were not to go to foster care after all. So, we agreed to help out the foster family who needed the weekend of respite. After all, we didn’t have a child in our home yet, right? So, we met the 2 children, and arranged to pick them up from school on Friday afternoon.
The anticipated letter arrived in the mailbox. “It’s official. You are now licensed foster parents.”
Two hours later the phone rang again.
“Hi, Did you receive your license yet? We have a little girl here and need to make an emergency placement. She’s 17 months old Can we bring her to you?”
A few minutes of questions back-and-forth on the phone, and we finally asked, “So when would she come to us?”
“Well, we just need to grab a few things, and then it’s about a 20 minute drive, right?”
It suddenly sank in what the words “emergency placement” meant. We hung up the phone, ran to make sure the spare room was ready to go, and 40 minutes later the car pulled into our driveway.
That First Night as Foster Parents
Our first impressions of this little girl were that she was shy and very tired after a long, traumatic day. In time we found that she was not shy at all, but that first night she had been completely disoriented. She was in a kind of shock. And this was not her first foster placement.
Instinctively, Alli brought out a couple of toys and got down on the floor to focus completely on the child. Phil signed all the guardianship forms with the social worker. Seeing that the little one had settled with Alli, the social worker quietly left.
We changed our minds about the spare room for that first night. Our foster daughter wouldn’t let Alli out of her sight. We pulled a portable cot into our bedroom so she could sleep nearby. As it turned out, Alli had to hang her arm over the cot all night to give her reassurance she was still there.
We spent the following days figuring out her routines, and settling her into ours. After a couple of nights she was ready to move into her own room, and gradually she relaxed and we saw more smiles.
A Few Learnings:
1. Keep Things as Low-Key as Possible
You do want to warmly welcome them, but that first night as foster parents is not the time for balloons and streamers. Not even gifts or big meals. They don’t need to be overwhelmed. A celebratory mood may be sincere, but it would honestly be more about you than any real honoring of the emotions that they’re experiencing.
Being a foster parent requires that you keep putting yourself in the child’s shoes. Try to imagine how THEY’RE feeling. As you get to know them, you’ll understand more and more.
Love is the best welcome. And love can be real and powerful even when it is quietly expressed.Love is the best welcome. Click To Tweet
2. Don’t Drag Out the Drop-Off
The quicker the social worker can leave, and the child can get settled with just your family, the better.
It’s possible that a child may cry or scream, and not want the social worker to leave. They cling to the most familiar person in the room at that moment.
But, just like if you’ve ever dropped off a child to preschool, it does no good to prolong things.
3. Quickly Find Out as Much About Their Routines as Possible
The social workers may be able to give you some information. They know the family, and may have had conversations about the children. Whatever they can tell you will be of help.
After that it’s a matter of keen observation. Children do communicate what they’re used to, and what they anticipate should happen next. You have to watch and listen carefully, and they will guide you. Over time you’ll establish some new routines with the child that fit in with your family. But on the first night your goal should be to keep things as familiar for them as possible.
Keep saying to yourself (especially with younger children): Routine, routine, routine.
And along with that …
4. Let the Child Discover DAILY How Happy You Are To Have Them
“Welcome” isn’t a feeling you can give a child completely in a single hour. It’s a conviction that you have to build in them over time. You have to keep on reinforcing in them, no matter what, that you’re glad to have them with you. That this is their home. That you will be family for them.
We again highly recommend the book “The Foster Parenting Toolbox”, edited by Kim Fagan-Hansel.
Especially read chapter 29, “First Night Strategies”.
And also read chapter 24, “My First Night”, which is written from the perspective of a social worker who was once a foster child himself and vividly recalls his first night in a foster home.
Over to you …
We’ve told you about our first night as foster parents. Do YOU have a story to tell? It’s probably very different from ours. We’d love to hear it, and it’s sure to help others. Tell us in the comments section below.
8 5 1 70 1