Excerpted from the May/June 2016 issue of Christian Woman Magazine, this article discusses one family’s journey to becoming a foster family.
Our fostering and adoption adventure started when our daughter came to ask for a baby sister. We answered a definite “No.” We were homeschooling our children and maxed out in the areas of time and energy, and well, three just seemed like the right number. Our determined daughter quickly suggested adoption. Her response to our second “no” was that she would pray about it and informed us she already had her sister’s name picked out.
Fast forward seven years. Our oldest son had graduated from college, our second son was attending college, and our daughter was finishing high school and preparing to leave for college. Because we had unequivocally enjoyed the relationships with our children, we couldn’t imagine having an empty nest. That is when we signed up for STARS (Specialized Training, Assessment, Resources & Support), which is required for families pursuing foster care or adoption of children in the custody of the state of Missouri, as well as most other states. I imagine you can guess the rest of this story.
Even before we received notification that we were officially licensed, we got the phone call that a 2-year-old little girl needed a place to live. Her biological mother shook another child, resulting in permanent brain damage, thus losing her toddler to the foster care system. Long story short, we cared for her in foster care and adopted her two years later. In the past 15 years we have provided foster care to at least 16 children and therapeutic respite care for many others, adopting a total of four children.
For us, foster care was a passion and a ministry, and we viewed adoption as a possibility. But we knew that the goal of foster care is to reunite children with their biological family. As we soon learned, one of the most detrimental elements of foster care is the rejection and loss a child feels each time they are moved from one home to another.
Being removed from one’s family of origin is gut-wrenching. But then to be moved from place to place because of bad behavior, medical needs, system failures or a home that can’t adequately meet needs only further damages the child. This causes them to live with perpetual grief and loss, often blaming themselves and resorting to self-destructive behaviors. For that reason, we decided to make every effort to give the children we encountered as much stability as we could.
Because of our commitment to stability and our willingness to commit to long-term care when needed, we were assigned some of the most difficult foster children in the system. For example, there were the 8- and 10-year-old brother and sister who planned to run away by stealing our car; the 10-year-old girl who hid a knife under her pillow to kill us; the child who tried to murder her sibling; the pre-teen with severe disabilities who came to us with her hair so matted that it had to be cut off and her wheelchair fumigated for bugs; and the child who had disrupted 13 foster home placements in two and a half years. Feeling confident that we would be able to meet many of their needs and were up for the challenge of doing so in a way that would also serve God made foster care very appealing to us.
The requirements to become foster/adoptive parents are fairly uniform. One thing that varies from state to state is whether the state agency is responsible for training and licensing or whether that falls to contracted agencies such as Catholic Charities, Cornerstones of Care, Midwest Foster Care and Adoption, or others. The names of state agencies vary. Some may be called Division of Family Services (DFS) or Department of Human Services (DHS). So, the first step of the process is to contact the proper agency for training and licensing.
States require approximately 25 to 30 hours of training, with some additional training when one plans to adopt. During the initial training, a home study is completed that includes fingerprinting, a background check and a complete personal and family history that will recognize your abilities and limits, as well as medical exams and questions that address your emotional history and stability. It is also at this time that you are asked to consider the types of foster care situations you are willing and able to handle.
What age, race and gender child would be best for your family? Would you be able to handle a child who lies, steals, hides food, has sexual identity issues, has been molested or runs away frequently? Some people choose to foster only teens, maybe babies, all girls, all boys, or maybe they choose to specialize in children with physical or mental disabilities. Your first decision is not necessarily your last, but experience will help you decide what best suits your family. Licensing takes place every two years and additional training is ongoing. The hours of training vary according to the level of care you choose to provide. Caring for children with severe behaviors or mental or physical disabilities requires additional training.
The need for good foster homes is particularly high right now, especially for older children and children with special needs. Foster parents in Missouri, where we are licensed, receive a monthly non-taxable reimbursement for each foster child in our home, but it does not cover all expenses. The base maintenance pay for children in Missouri is from $294 per month to $388, depending on their age. These children also need the normal childhood experiences of sports, music or other extracurricular activities, so loving foster parents pay for those expenses as well.
Other states do provide better for their foster children, but it is usually considered a volunteer position. For this reason, a child who resides in your home for at least six months of the year is considered a dependent for tax purposes. Children with very difficult behaviors, specialized medical needs, etc., do receive higher maintenance payments. Some states provide allowances for diapers and an annual clothing allowance, and private organizations often help with birthday and Christmas expenses for the children. All medical and dental needs are covered for children in foster care. Most states also pay for some respite when families need a weekend break from fostering, but it is limited to only a few days each year. For families where both parents work, most states also provide day care or before and after school care.
The placement usually begins with a phone call asking if you have an opening. It is extremely important to ask the right questions before saying yes and to dig for information that may not be freely supplied. Sometimes the callers can’t or don’t disclose all the information. However, to be fair, when a child is first taken into custody, no one, including the worker, really knows much about them, so information is sketchy at best.
Some things to consider would be the child’s (1) age, sex, behaviors; (2) Where do they go to school and will you have to transport or will they attend in your district?; (3) Will they have visits with biological family, and is their family in any way dangerous or threatening?; (4) Are there special medical needs?; (5) If siblings are living in other homes, will you have to provide transportation for visits?; (6) Do they have special religious requirements; and (7) Will they fit into the dynamics of your family, and will extended family be welcoming if they are of another race or if they have difficult behaviors or disabilities? Once you decide that this child is one you could accommodate well in your home, you must get final approval from your licensing worker.
Making the Adjustment
One of the busiest and most stressful times for foster parents is the first few weeks of a new placement. It is also a traumatic time for the child as they are moved into a foreign environment with new rules, different food from their normal diet, strange bed, new school, often without any of their familiar clothing, toys, or activities, and a whole new set of expectations. For the foster parent, it is a time to help stabilize the child and to give them assurances that they are safe with you and that you will meet their needs as you help ease them into their new home. Missouri foster parents must see that the child has a physical within 72 hours to check for additional signs of abuse and unattended medical needs.
Within the first few days, a meeting will be conducted that includes members of the biological family and their attorney, foster parents, social worker and supervisor, and a guardian ad litem (someone assigned by the court to assure the best interest of the child). The case will be reviewed and the child and members of the biological family will be offered services to help facilitate reunification.
If the child is not returned to biological family right away, there will be periodic court dates, approximately every three months, visits to your home by the child’s social worker, guardian ad litem and possibly a nurse case manager. All of these are to protect the rights of the biological family and the child and to facilitate the child’s return home. In too many cases, the child is never able to return and can remain in a foster home for two years or more. If reunification does not take place, then the foster family may have the opportunity to adopt the child.
Meeting the Challenges
In our training we were often reminded that when children suffer from the trauma of abuse and neglect it changes the way their brains work, making it difficult for them to love and trust the people who love them the most. While some children are resilient, others do the most unloving things in an attempt to be loved.
Physical discipline is never allowed, so foster parents have to be creative in setting appropriate boundaries and consequences and providing loving structure and firmness. Sometimes, friends or family view the child as a poor, pitiful, abused child, and therefore misunderstand the structure or firmness that these children need most. Also, there are always children in the system who hotline their foster parents when they disagree with a parental decision or in a misguided attempt to get sent back to their biological family.
Fostering is a difficult endeavor, but one we wouldn’t trade. We were able to introduce each child to God as we gave each one their own Bible, attended church together and exposed them to how a family who loves God functions on a daily basis. As the children have grown up, we find our job continues with the now pregnant, unmarried 16-year-old who calls from the shelter because she is homeless, but knows we love her and will give her guidance. And there is the 24-year-old mentally challenged individual who moves from place to place but calls for advice when life gets hard. While there are some happy endings, others will continue to struggle; but there is hope because we introduced them to God’s love. After all, aren’t all of us loved by God in spite of being unworthy and unloving?
Janet Richardson and her husband, John, live in Independence, Mo. They worship with the Liberty Church of Christ where John is an elder. They have seven children, ages 8-42, and 8 grandchildren. Their oldest son has adopted four children, and their daughter Rachel (who wanted a little sister) is getting ready to adopt her second special needs child.