Wednesday, May 23, 2007

My Experience as a Foster Parent - 1

Note: in order to protect the privacy of individuals, all person's names have been changed.

For over a year, my wife and I have been foster parents in our home state of Kentucky. I have decided to post information about our experience partly because we get a lot of questions and partly because it is helpful to talk about it, even if it is just in the blogosphere. Some topics are difficult to talk about without using blunt language, so expect occasional crudeness.

My wife and I got into foster care hoping to adopt a child. We have a daughter of our own and wanted to have another child, but biology did not seem to be cooperating. Since we were both in our early forties, we thought that pursuing fertility treatments might be risky. Domestic adoption is very expensive and can take years. Foreign adoption is faster, but also expensive and, in many ways, riskier. Since we knew that there were children here in the U.S. in need of good homes, we decided to look into foster care, specifically, a private institution, St Joseph's Children's Home.
I cannot say enough good things about the people that we have dealt with at St Joe's. They have always been highly professional and uncommonly compassionate. They work very hard and go well beyond the call of duty whenever the need arises. They bend over backwards trying to fill the needs of both children and parents and never forget what is in the child's best interest. These are truly wonderful people.

My wife and I went through several weeks of training starting in January of 2005. Much of this information is from those training sessions.
Some is from my personal experience and some is information passed onto me first hand by other foster parents. I am not a psychologist or a social worker or a mental health expert. I am only presenting information as it was presented to me and how I understood it.

How children end up in foster care.
Sometimes, through a combination of bad choices and bad fortune, parents find themselves in situations they are not equipped to handle either emotionally or physically. Other times, parents have children they are simply unwilling to care for. When this happens, the children end up being abused by the parents. If someone reports the abuse to authorities, Child Protective Services (CPS) may intervene and remove the child from the home.
Children end up in the foster care system after CPS has removed them from their homes. This is not something that is done lightly. CPS will only remove a child if they feel the child's welfare is in immediate danger. Abuse can take many forms including physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse or neglect.
Sexual abuse covers a wider area of activity than most people realize. When people think of sexual abuse, they generally think of child molestation (the rape of a child.) While the term certainly covers that, it also covers other activity, like
inappropriately exposing kids to sexual situations (ex: having orgies in the same room, showing them pornography...). Also note that child molestation does not differentiate between a willing and unwilling child. The law assumes that anyone under the age of consent (16) cannot willingly engage in sex.
The state only breaks up families in extreme situations. After the child (or children) are removed, the parent(s) go before a judge and given conditions that must be met in order to have their children returned to them. These generally include counseling, and/or training. The programs are rigorous and may be difficult but are not impossible to complete. During this time, the judge may award temporary custody to an extended family member (whose home must qualify for foster care), but if no suitable relative comes forward, the child is placed in foster care. If possible, sibling groups are kept together. If a child has medical or behavioral issues that make foster care impossible, they are moved to a residential facility where they are cared for by facility staff (St Joe's has their own residential facility). Visits, often supervised, are arranged between the parent(s) and the children.
To qualify as a certified foster home, the parents must go through a training course and the house is inspected to make sure it is safe, has electricity, running water, the proper number of smoke alarms, etc.
A state social worker is assigned to the case and monitors the parent's progress as well as the child's welfare. State social workers in Kentucky are often overwhelmed by caseload. The last state social worker I talked to had over 60 cases. That's not 60 children. That's 60 families - each with potentially two adults and several children.
If the adults complete whatever program the judge assigns to them, the families are reunited and continue on with their lives, though they have continued access to resources, such as counseling, for some time after that. If the adults fail to comply with the judges order, then the state will pursue a Termination of Parental Rights (TPR). Many adults will fight the TPR and may get their time extended if the judge feels they are putting forth a good faith effort. Others will voluntarily give up their rights. The entire process, from CPS taking a child from a home to a TPR, generally takes about 18 months. Once a TPR has been issued, the parent looses all legal rights to the child and is no longer allowed to have contact.
After a TPR, the child becomes a ward of the state. If possible, they are placed in foster care with a foster family looking to adopt a child. Foster parents can start the adoption process once a TPR is finalized. The adoption process may take anywhere from 2 months to a year.

As previously mentioned, the state tries very hard to keep siblings groups together, but this is not always in the best interest of the child. Sometimes older children abuse younger children just as they were abused by their parents. This abuse usually continues if the children are kept together. Other times, a single child may report the abusive behavior of the parents and when the state removes them from the home, the other children will blame that child for what has happened. That child becomes he target of resentment and anger from their siblings.

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children in state custody. This is at least partly due to the rise in drug abuse in Kentucky, particularly with
Methamphetamine. Very often, drug addicted expectant mothers will continue to take drugs throughout their pregnancy. This can be extremely damaging to the children causing both physical and mental disabilities. Some amount of mental retardation is fairly common along with Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD).

Emotional and behavioral problems can be caused by poor or abusive parenting.
When a child is first born, there is a cycle of dependency that happens between it and it's caregiver (mom, dad, daycare worker...).
The process is very simple:
1) Baby senses that something is wrong (hungry, thirsty, stinky, in pain...)
2) Baby cries
3) Caregiver arrives
4) Caregiver addresses and fixes the problem (feeds baby, changes diaper...)
5) Baby senses that everything is OK and stops crying
6) Time Passes
7) go to step 1

This cycle repeats thousands and thousands of times in the first months of a baby's life. Through this process, the baby learns several important lessons:
1) I can effect the outside world (when I cry things happen)
2) Adults are here to help me
3) I am worth being taken care of

This assumes that the caregiver is doing a good job and the babies needs are being met. People are human and make mistakes, so caregivers don't always get it right the first time they show up, but in general, they are always making things better for the child.

However, if the caregiver is doing a poor job, the cycle starts to fall apart in step 3. The caregiver may ignore the baby, stop trying to help too soon, or, if they are physically abusive, hit the baby, shake the baby or yell at the baby. When this happens, the baby never gets to step 5. Obviously, if the caregiver NEVER did the right thing, the baby would die. But, what often happens is that the caregiver does enough to keep the baby alive but fails so often that the baby doesn't learn the lessons that the good caregiver's baby learned.
An abused/neglected child might learn:
1) Nothing I do effects the outside world (crying may bring help, harm or nothing so it is not effective)
2) Grownups are here to harm me as much as help me
3) Grownups are not predictable
4) Grownups cannot be trusted
5) I am not worthy of being taken care of

As the child grows up, the abuse can manifest in several different ways, often in combinations. Add to this, problems caused in vitro drug abuse (ADD/ADHD, mental retardation) and you have a child that will have a very difficult time in life.

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)
If a baby thinks it cannot effect the world around it, it does not learn about cause and effect. The world is just a series of unrelated events that happen for no reason. As they get older, they can't help but get past some of this when dealing with the physical world (gravity is pretty constant), but when dealing with people, the lessons they learned as a child are very hard to change. It's much easier to learn a new behavior where none exists than to replace an existing behavior. RAD sets in when they cannot learn to properly attach emotionally to another person.

Complicating things, children have a built in attachment to their parents, even abusive ones. Their distrust of adults often gets worse when CPS enters the picture. From the child's perspective, a bunch of adults come in and take them away from the only adults they know - the abusive parents they are attached to.
Most of the time, it is not discovered that a child is being neglected until it is 5 or six years old. Younger children can be shielded from the outside world. It is generally not until they go to school and their teachers see them and know that something is obviously wrong. So, you have a child that has been living in a highly dysfunctional environment for 5 or 6 years and then a bunch of other adults take it away from its parents. A daycare worker might also recognize the symptoms of abuse but these kids generally don't end up in daycare. They are generally left alone for hours on end while the parents (or parent) goes out and does whatever they do.

Because the child has been neglected, they have had to learn to do things for themselves. Their primary concern is for themselves. They care nothing for other people other than as a means to obtain what they want. RAD kids will steal and lie and think nothing of it. They place no value in other people. There is no such thing as "right" and "wrong" there is only "what is good for me" and "what is not good for me."

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
ODD is simple to recognize: the child will not follow directions and no amount of talking or negotiating will change their mind. They refuse to bow to authority, even when it is obviously in their own best interest. Their defiance often borders on the absurd. One of my foster children had ODD. At night time, I often read to both children, sitting in the hall between their rooms. One night, instead of getting into bed, she sat on the floor. I told her I would start reading when she got into bed. She told me she couldn't get into to bed because she wanted to sit on the floor. I told her that she knew the routine and that I didn't read until she and our biological daughter were both in bed. She continued to refuse and got more and more upset, claiming that she wanted me to read, but did not want to get into her bed. I remember her sitting there in tears saying that she wanted me to read and me telling her that I would be happy to read as she got up off the floor and into her bed. She just sat there and screamed "but, I CAN'T!" At other times, we had long fights about her not wanting to wear a raincoat when it was poring down rain or not wanting to wear any coat at all when it was below freezing and there was snow on the ground. While they don't act like this all the time, when they do, they act as if they are compelled to defy authority and are unable to comply.

Sometimes, neglected children are thrust into a parenting role. Both of my foster children were the oldest children in their birth family and put in charge of their younger siblings. This happened to each of them before they were six years old. Once this role gets entrenched, it can be difficult for them to behave as normal children. They can have a hard time playing with other children as equals. Parentification can also take the form of children taking care of parents. The child may be taking care of the home while the adult is sick, drunk or in a drug induced stupor.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much of r the information, I am considering foster-adoption too.