Crystal* has been fostering children for the past twelve years and has kindly allowed “The Forever Years” to conduct this interview with her about her experiences, which we believe will be insightful and useful for anyone considering fostering or who is new to fostering. It is important for the community in general and, in particular, teachers, social workers and others who work with children, to be aware of how a child taken into care might view their world.
1. Why did you and your husband decide to become foster parents?
We had tried for about two years to have children of our own and that just wasn’t happening. We looked into the possibility of international adoption, which was very expensive. We had both trained as social workers and knew some of the stories of kids in care and this lead to the decision that fostering was the right choice for us. It also seemed like a way to make the world better for one or two children when there were so many out there in need. I remember when the social worker visited for our home assessment, I was nervous all that day and scrubbed the house from top to bottom. She was really lovely though and just sat at the kitchen table and talked to us.
2. What was your family and community’s response to your decision?
I know some people have had negative responses to their decision to foster. The classic one I always think of is Rachel Lynde in “Anne of Green Gables” telling Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert that they were making a “grave mistake”. I guess this is the “fear view” of fostering. Certainly some people worry, particularly with fostering older children, that the kids will be “too damaged” and that this will manifest itself in negative behaviour towards the foster parents and their home.
In my personal experience, I have never felt discriminated against or looked down on for being a foster parent. If anything, people always assume I must be “super nice” to be doing it (I can be a grumpy Mum as much as any). My own family were supportive because they knew about our infertility issues and my parents have been wonderful grandparents to the children in our care. We were young when we started fostering, so we made friends with older couples who had been doing it for years. Some of them had had more negative experiences with other people’s reactions. One couple said they volunteered to be on a stall promoting foster parenting and had people come and yell at them about “taking kids away” (I think the people in question assumed the couple were social workers). Some years ago there was a more “Victorian” attitude that children who were unable to live with their parents should live in a “care facility”, there was a fear of “bad kids”… and lots of people just didn’t want to think about the problem. I do believe there’s a much greater understanding of fostering in our society now and a greater acceptance of the fact that it’s a need which must be met. In an ideal world that need wouldn’t exist, but while it does there are kids who need somewhere to go. I guess the ideal would be to break the cycle of needing foster care.
3. What has been the biggest challenge about being foster parents?
As I said, my husband and I both trained in Social Work at university and, like all prospective foster parents, we had three days of training with CYFS [New Zealand’s Child Youth and Family Services]. None of this, however, prepared us for the behaviour some of the children in our care displayed as a result of the backgrounds they had come from. Theory and reality are not the same thing. Our first foster children were six year old twins, a boy and a girl, who had been living in a situation of severe neglect. When you choose to foster, you can take on children transitionally or permanently. We were told from the outset that the twins would be a permanent placement. Most fostering situations these days involve regular contact with the children’s biological parents. The children’s behaviour following the contact with their birth mother could be quite challenging. Our foster daughter, Kara* often became violent after these visits. I understand that she had a conflict of loyalties: she loved us, but she also loved her Mum. We loved Kara too, it was and difficult to see the kids go through that. We felt for the birth mother too– her intentions were always good, but she just couldn’t do it [raise the kids herself], despite desperately wanting to.
4. What have been your happiest experiences as foster parents?
Oh, there are so many! Like any parent, you’re thrilled to see your child overcome challenges and achieve success. In the case of foster kids these victories can be hard won– any success they have, be it moving up a reading level at school or achieving on the sports field– it always feels twice as amazing when you know these kids’ stories. After the twins my husband and I went on to foster more children, some transitionally. We currently have five children permanently: three foster children and two biological. Yes, contrary to what we were led to expect, we have also been blessed with two biological children! It has been lovely to see the transformation of some of the foster children who have been in our care– to watch kids from violent backgrounds change in character from being “flinchy”, afraid, frightened and insecure to becoming more confident and comfortable within themselves.
5. What have been your saddest experiences as foster parents?
Saying “goodbye” to kids who are in transitional care would definitely be one of these. If they are moved to another foster situation or back with their birth family, it can be difficult to keep track of them. It would be great for foster parents if CYFS could return kids whose later placements break down to foster parents who express that they would like that. I’m not sure why, but this doesn’t tend to be what happens and it’s sad to see children moved around so many different families. Research says that foster children’s academic performance regresses by six months every time they are moved into a new home environment. They regress in other areas as well. Molly*, one of the girls we have now, came to us when she was not quite two. It took ages for her to “settle”. She frequently took food from the fridge and would run for the door at the sound of any raised voices (even siblings fighting would cause her to do that). I often found her in the middle of the night with ALL her clothes on– swimming togs and everything– at the age of two! We think this may have been a strategy learned from her birth mother, who was in a number of violent relationships and often had to move quickly. We’ve had girls in our care who have constructed “traps” in the night, that’s also really sad to see. By “traps” I mean setting up furniture and other things in their bedroom so that if anyone comes in while they’re asleep the stuff will all fall down and wake them– and the entire household– a response to sexual abuse. Molly is still very sensitive (and I think she always will be) to the fact that she has been fostered– children all have their own ways of coping. She presents a “tough, independent” mask, despite being so young.
6. Now you have biological children as well as foster children. How does the blend of both work for your family?
Our biological children don’t know any differently, this is our family, all the kids see each other as siblings. The twins have left home now, but they still see the younger ones, the five still living with us, as their brothers and sisters. I hope that all the kids will learn compassion from our situation. They fight sometimes, as siblings do, but there is real love and respect there too.
7. You mentioned earlier that children in foster care maintain frequent contact with their biological families. How have you found this, both for yourselves and for the foster children?
Children are put in foster for a reason: CYFS don’t remove children from their biological families lightly. The situations are so sad, you really feel for the children concerned and for their parents. I can’t imagine the pain of not having your own child and being a kind of “visitor” in their lives. As I said before, many of these parents desperately want their children back– some do manage to achieve that. Others, however, just won’t ever be able to. Perhaps they have had childhoods where they themselves were abused or neglected and they don’t have a base from which to kick off as parents themselves. Sometimes there are other factors such as drugs, alcohol, mental illness or violent partners they feel they must stay with. Molly, the foster daughter I mentioned earlier, has a biological mother who sees her regularly, but struggles to follow through with things. No matter how bad things have become, parents still love their kids and want the best for them, which can sometimes lead them to saying what they think the children want to hear “I’ll bring you a present next time I see you”, “I’m sorting things out so you can live with me again”. This can cause a lot of pain and heartache when these things are not followed through and as a foster parent you have to deal with the fall out of that. Molly’s mother forgot her birthday and Christmas one year. Molly holds onto what her birth mother says as though it is gospel and will make excuses for her “she said she’ll remember my present next time, she just forgot because it was raining”.
Despite all this, I do feel it is important for foster children to continue contact with their biological families. There has been so much grief in generations past from adopted or fostered children growing up without a sense of their own roots or heritage– and consequently without a sense of self or self worth. Kids need to grow up knowing that they are safe and loved, but they also need to know their past and where they came from.
8. Finally, what’s the most important advice you’d give to someone considering fostering a child?
Make sure you have a good support network around you: as I said, we made friends with a lot of older couples who had been fostering for some years and their advice and experiences were invaluable. Friends who foster can understand some of the more frustrating challenges that come with the territory. At times Kara, my first foster daughter, was very hard work and I had friends with biological children who asked why I didn’t just “get rid of her?” I’m sure they wouldn’t have said that had she been my biological daughter. And things go wrong with biological children too! We have had kids stay with us transitionally whom we’ve known wouldn’t be able to be permanent placements. But once a child is put with us permanently, we commit to them, they are our kids! Sometimes it works the other way round– Molly was only meant to be staying with us for a weekend, but has remained in our permanent care.
Money can be tight: there are allowances for having foster children, but there used to be more help– I heard that years ago there used to be help in getting items of furniture for equipping a room for a child. As in any family, the more children you have, the more organised you need to be. And it’s important to make time for each child on their own.
Another piece of advice I’d give is to nurture your marriage or relationship with your partner. I’ve known single people who have been very successful foster parents, but if you’re in a relationship you both need to be on board with what you’re doing and to work at it as a team.
Make use of all the resources and help that come your way: they will benefit you and your children.
Keep a “paper trail” of correspondence– I deal with my foster children’s social workers by e-mail in order to do this: it can save a lot of stress in a big and busy family to have things in writing.
Lots of people fear fostering an older child: the fact that they’re older doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more “damaged” or have worse behaviour than a younger child. For some people, particularly those who are older and/or those who have never had children before, fostering an older child can be easier than a toddler or baby. For a start, the child will be in school a certain amount of the time, which will give you a breather and a chance to get used to the new situation.
Fostering has been one of the most challenging things we’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding. There are good times and tough times, but I love all my children so much and we wouldn’t have things any other way.
*Crystal’s surname has been witheld, to maintain privacy for herself and her family. Children’s names mentioned in this article have been changed for the same reason.