Time to celebrate foster care's successes
"These are the children we serve: the rebellious youth who strikes out against a world that seems hostile and unjust; the empty child unwilling to reach out for fear of being hurt again; the lonely child whose spirit has been crippled by neglect or failure; and the depressed child desperately wanting something or someone to believe in and believe in them."
-- Walden Family Services
May is National Foster Care Month, a time both to celebrate foster families and to encourage people to fill the urgent need for more Americans to open their homes to some very vulnerable children. Of the 76.1 million children who live in the United States, 513,000 are currently in foster care.
Foster care is meant to be a temporary haven for children who are separated from their birth families because of neglect or abuse, or who are otherwise in crisis. The reality, however, is that many children are fostered until they are of legal age. Those of us who don't know much about foster care, mostly due to a lack of personal experience with the system, think that the placement of an at-risk child in a safe temporary home pretty much describes what foster care agencies do. Their scope is actually much larger.
Some foster agencies design programs to educate or counsel the birth parents with the aim of reuniting the child with his or her family. Some also provide foster youth who are turning 18, and thus "aged-out" of the system, with the practical tools and social skills necessary for their transition to successful adulthood. Most agencies are continually fund-raising, and scramble to apply for grants and other monies available to them. All agencies train and certify foster parents, inspect foster homes, complete background checks, and coordinate every aspect of the foster experience for children and parents.
Most of what I have learned about the world of foster care has been by way of my oldest daughter, who works for a private foster care agency, Walden Family Services, at their corporate office in San Diego. She has the kind of job where she wears many hats in one day, as do many employees of nonprofit agencies. Founded in 1976, Walden serves seven California counties, including Kern, by providing "safe homes, compassionate caregivers, and loving environments to children." Their mission includes children with special needs, such as those with autism, cerebral palsy, developmental delays, or physical disabilities. And there are always more children than families.
My daughter believes Foster Care Month is a good way to showcase the good that "professional parents" do. Too often, she says, we focus on the ones who abuse the system or even the kids in their homes. The abusive or crazy foster parent is a dramatic stock character, like the gay uncle or the unabomber neighbor or the wisecracking waitress. The government system of foster care is widely viewed as inefficient and inept at best, secretive and corrupt at worst. And there are egregious examples, here and all over the United States, of children who have been harmed or killed while in foster care.
But the everyday foster experience is less sensational. My daughter notes "the families who allow their homes to be remodeled to take in a non-ambulatory placement, the ones who rearrange their own family's bedrooms to take in siblings, or the ones who open their homes for a placement in the middle of the night since some counties don't have an emergency shelter." She has seen firsthand the stories of sacrifice and heroism.
One very busy couple I know, who have been foster parents for 28 years, were kind enough to share their thoughts on fostering. They have formally adopted seven of the countless foster children -- they really did stop counting years ago -- whom they welcomed into their home and came to love. They say they have been blessed to see families reunited under better, healthier conditions, and to have taken part in "breaking the cycle": one of their former foster daughters, upon becoming a wife and mother, said that "everything she learned about mothering came from watching her foster mother." It is sometimes painful for them when well-meaning but thoughtless people tell them they couldn't be foster parents because "they couldn't let the children go, that they would love them too much, with the implication being that we don't love them enough . . . love hurts sometimes. The goal is reunification."
Foster parents are paid for their work, of course, but
it is hardly easy money. The people who foster from the heart seem to me to
be spectacularly underpaid for the difficult, exacting work they do. They
are more often unsung heroes, good people who quietly go about the task of
living what it means to be family. "You are not fostering because you want
your emotional, spiritual, or especially, financial needs to be met,"
advises my friend. "You are fostering to meet the needs of the children."
While we are not all called to be foster parents -- I
don't see me out there doing anything nearly as worthwhile -- we can all
celebrate the essential work of fostering. Just as important, there are
other ways we can pitch in and help the foster care agencies, both public
and private, in our midst. Walden, for example, maintains a wish list of
items they would like to have donated, as well as opportunities to mentor
children and youth, or to volunteer your talents wherever they may fit. You
know the proverbial village that it takes to raise a child? National Foster
Care Month reminds us that we are, in fact, that very village.
23 May 2012