Foster Parenting...Our Story
Earlier last year, we started foster parenting, but our foster parenting story really began many years ago, when God placed the desire in my heart. I'm not sure when it really began, but I do remember when our oldest daughter, Megan, was in Early Intervention (she has Down syndrome) and there was another mother there who was a foster parent. I remember her telling me about the cocaine-addicted babies she would take in, and what it was like to care for them, especially through the hard first months.
I also remember that, a few years later, I became friends with a woman at our church whose family was fostering. I had some of her foster children in my Sunday School class when they were little. They adopted some of their foster children. I remember thinking about what she and her family were doing, and what a loving thing it was, and so needed, and maybe that's when the desire started.
Then, over the years, I would read in the newspaper or hear on the news about some tragedy within a family, maybe drug use, or abuse, or neglect. It would break my heart, and my husband Michael's. Every time, I would feel my heart strings being pulled, and think, someday, I want to be there for those children. God was working in my heart and my husband's, pointing us in the direction of foster parenting, but we always felt we wanted to wait until our own children were older. We also were trying to have more children, and wanted to wait to foster until we were "done" having more ourselves.
God had other plans for our family. After trying to have more children for 9 years, including four years spent working with fertility doctors, God said the time was now. So last year we made the call to our local Department of Social Services office, and started the ball rolling towards realizing our dream of foster parenting. It has been a long journey, but God worked in almost miraculous ways to get us into this adventure. We faced some unexpected hurdles, and God helped us over them when we thought it was impossible.
One such hurdle was the fact that our town was, several years ago, re-districted to fall under the "control" of another regional DSS office, one that is 45 to 60 minutes away from our house. Our local DSS office is 15 minutes away from us, a big difference! In order to become foster parents, we needed to go through MAPP classes (training classes) for 10 weeks, which are held at the DSS offices. Because of my husband's working hours, there was no way we could even make it in time for the classes in the far away town. When presented with this problem, that office allowed us to take the classes at the office that was close to us! And that closer office was starting a new session of classes in 2 weeks! Since we were so eager to start, this was very good news!
Once we started classes, we told the instructors how hard it would be to work out of the other office. They said that we could call and ask to be allowed to switch offices, since we are on the town line, but that the other office could refuse. Another couple in our MAPP classes was from the next town over and going through the same dilemma. They also were advised to contact the other office and ask to work through the closer office.
One night when we came to class, the instructors informed us that they themselves had called the other office and asked if we could switch (we hadn't asked yet). The office agreed! That same night, the other couple came in and sorrowfully told us all that when they requested to work with the closer DSS office, they were denied. They were told they had to work with the one far away. God had intervened on our behalf, and after being a foster parent for 7 months now, we can see just how much of a blessing this truly is. Every week the foster children have a visit with their parent, at the office because they start out with supervised visits, and that involves me transporting them one way. There are also case reviews when scheduled, not to mention the phone calls to the office to our family resource worker or the child's social worker. The other office would have been long distance calling.
God blessed us in other ways. We knew that for now, we only wanted to take in babies and toddlers. We also mentioned that we're interested in special needs children. With our daughters being 12 and 9 at the time, we had long since given away our baby "equipment." Now you know that as homeschoolers, most of us have one parent at home, which means we are basically a one-income household. I still had my paper route, but was planning on giving up half of it at the end of July. That doesn't leave much money to set up a house for having a baby! But we have learned that many things are not necessary, and God truly blessed us in this. We put the word out among friends and family that we were doing this, and soon items began trickling in.
One morning while out early with our daughters, I passed a house with a changing table out in front, with a sign that said "FREE." Well, that was certainly all I needed to stop and back up! Caitlin and I got out and carefully examined the changing table, to find that, except for a small area on one side where it looked like the owners had started to repaint it, it was in excellent condition. The two of us hoisted it into the back of the station wagon and hauled that precious find home! A couple of days later the girls and I washed it down with soap and water, washed the pad, and set it aside to wait. We all were so thankful for the Lord blessing us in this way!
Another morning, Megan, Caitlin, and I set out to go yard sale-ing. We knew we might have to spend some money, so we figured getting items second hand though yard sales was a good use of that money. And oh how God blessed! That morning we went to one yard sale and found a new toddler bed with mattress, a high chair, a car seat, a booster seat (car), and a new porta-crib (Cosco). I can't remember how much we paid for all this, but it was so little. The girls and I felt we had hit the jackpot!
At the next yard sale we stopped at, we found another car seat and booster seat. When I went to pay for them, the lady mentioned that she had had another car seat but someone bought it just before we came. Just chit-chatting, I mentioned that had it been there, I would have bought it also because we were getting into foster care. This woman, bless her heart, told me to wait a minute. Rummaging around in her garage for a minute or two, she soon reappeared with another car seat. She told me that she had intended to sell it that day too but hadn't had time to wash the covering and felt funny about selling it without having washed it. She said that I could have it for free if I wanted it. IF I wanted it; of course I wanted it! I thanked her profusely and the girls and I went on our merry way, thanking God for blessing us on our mission.
In looking for a crib, we once again set out yard sale-ing one Saturday morning, only this time Michael went too. We had marked in the paper all the ones we wanted to visit, mapped out our route to make the most of the time (and gas!), and set out for a crib. After approximately 15 yard sales, we finally stopped at a Salvation Army thrift store in our area. They had no crib, but there was one more yard sale we hadn't hit yet, and it was about half a mile from the store. There was our crib! It was beautifully made, and in excellent condition, with not one scratch on it. The price was marked $45, but we didn't have much more than that, so I asked Michael if I should offer the lady $40. He said yes, so, with a little trepidation, I smiled at her and asked if she would take $40 for the crib. She hesitated, and looked as if she were about to say no, but then she looked at me and said yes! That crib, in such excellent condition, was ours! Praise God!
As we were hoping to have two children placed with us, and as we have two cars (at least we did at the time!), we wanted to have four car seats. This would make it easier when we went out as a family, because we always went in Michael's car, and if he had two car seats in his car, we wouldn't have to keep switching the car seats to his car every time we went somewhere. We had the three already (2 we bought for very little at yard sales and one was given to us by that nice lady at one yard sale). We got the fourth one day as the girls and I were driving home and passed a house with a car seat outside. Around here, if someone wants to get rid of something for free that still has use, they put it on the edge of their lawn. We had actually passed this car seat many days, and finally that day I stopped to examine it. There was nothing wrong with it, and the covering had even been washed. So, not needing to be hit over the head with a blessing, I took it home! Thus, we have the 4 car seats that make our life a lot easier.
So, God was blessing us in many ways as He ushered us into the world of foster parenting. Our MAPP classes went very well, and were very different from what we expected. They dealt a lot with what kinds of situations might bring a child into foster care, how those situations might affect the child, how a child might be affected by being removed from his family, etc. We did a lot of role playing and discussing. Michael found out that he went to school with another of the husbands there. One woman turned out to be someone we both know. We learned a lot from the classes; we learned a lot from the other foster parents.
One night in class, the instructors decided we should share a little about ourselves, and each in turn talked about themselves for a minute or two. They came to me before Michael, so I told them where we live, a little about our children, and that we homeschool. Well, you'd have thought that I just lit a firecracker in the room! Instantly there were questions from not just the instructors, but the other foster parents as well. Why do we homeschool? Is it legal? Were our children ever in public school? How do we do it? Do we have to test them? How do we show that the children are learning?
We kind of spent a little more time than anyone else on our turn! Everyone didn't really seem hostile about these questions; mostly they just seemed to be curious. It was a time of educating, and we are grateful for the opportunity, as awkward as it may have seemed at the time.
I have to say that in the time that we have been foster parenting and working with our local DSS office, I am sure that we have changed the opinion of at least one worker there, hopefully more. Our family resource worker, who had to make four long home study visits before we started, and continues to make home visits every other month, has complimented us many times on our family and our children. With all the paperwork and the questions and discussion during the classes and home study visits, they ask you about EVERYTHING! We were very open about our life, and she could see for herself what our own children are like during her long visits with us. We told her a couple of times, when she would compliment us, that our children are not perfect, but we feel that a loving home, with proper discipline, respect and manners taught, etc. have been the key. She knows we are Christians, also.
This worker has also asked us several times about the homeschooling. She could see, every time she came to the house, all the materials we use (we keep some of our things on the hutch in the kitchen), the two large floor-to-ceiling bookcases Michael built to house our many books (I still don't have enough for them all!), and she also saw the girls and I working together. Once she asked me if we have to report to the school, so I told her about Massachusetts' homeschooling law, and told her that I send our local superintendent a progress report every year. She asked what it was like, so I got the ones I had just sent (this visit happened in August) and showed them to her. She was amazed because she had never seen one by a homeschooling parent, and having her own misconceptions about homeschooling, this was like an eye-opener for her that homeschoolers are not just sitting at home doing nothing and "pretending" to educate their children. We are grateful to be used in this way to educate people, especially those at the sometimes dreaded DSS!
By the time we had finished our MAPP classes, it was the last week of June, and we were still going through the home study process. As the weeks went by, we were so eager to get started. Everyday we would pray for God to work in our lives and use us in foster parenting. For me it was especially hard. This was my dream, a dream that had started so long ago, and now I was so close to realizing it but had to wait. When I prayed, I also prayed for Him to work in me whatever He wanted, to prepare me and Michael for the children He would send into our lives, and to help me be patient! But I also called our worker a few times during that time to remind her that we were so excited about doing this.
One day at the end of July when I made such a call, our worker told me that they might have an opportunity for us to do respite care for a foster child. She was just turning 2, and her foster parents were going out of the country on vacation for ten days. They also needed respite care for her a week after they came back from that vacation, for another vacation trip. All this respite care would take place in August. After asking for some information about the child, we agreed. Our whole family was so excited, especially the girls. We were finally able to do something even if it was only respite care.
Our time of doing respite care for "A" was wonderful. It took a few days to get used to having a toddler in the house again, and after going so long without having to "worry" over what a child was doing, I suddenly had to always think, Where is "A" in the house and what is she doing? She was such a delight to care for, and we never had any trouble getting her to settle down for sleep.
Megan and Caitlin were very eager to care for her, so we had to take turns with diaper changing, baths, etc. I was eager too, so between the three of us mother hens, "A" certainly was not neglected!
Five days before "A" was scheduled to go back home to her foster family, we received a call from DSS saying that they had a twelve month old boy they needed to place, and would we be interested? This would be our own "real" placement (not just respite). After asking questions about why he was taken, any medical conditions, etc. we agreed. "T" came to us later that day. He was very tiny, and cute as a button! "T" was born to an alcoholic mother who drank heavily during her pregnancy, and he also tested positive for cocaine at birth. As I found out later when I took "T" for the required medical screening and physical, he is in the third percentile for weight and height. He is on Pediasure to help gain weight.
For the first few days, it was difficult as "T" adjusted to being away from his mother and placed with a strange family. I made sure that I did most of his care, changing him, feeding him, bathing him, holding him, etc. I felt that if he could "bond" with me as a mother figure, it would make him feel more secure. It worked. Gradually, over the next few weeks, the girls were able to help out more with him, after that bond with me was established. Children need this kind of security in this kind of situation, especially the little ones.
"T" has been with us for over six months now. We are very used to getting woken up in the night, "presents" in the diaper, and hats being torn off the minute we get in the car. "T" is in Early Intervention; a therapist comes every Tuesday morning to work with him. He recently got glasses and is doing pretty good keeping them on (except in the car!). He will be going home to his father about the middle of May.
The big question everyone asks is, "How will you ever let him go?" Well, it will be very difficult, as I couldn't love "T" more if I had borne him in my own womb. Our whole family feels this way. But he is not ours. His father has been wonderful throughout this time visiting every week, attending "T's" appointments to specialists and regular check-ups.
Our foster family-biological father relationship is a little unusual in that "T's" father has our phone number and comes to the house. That is not the norm in foster care. After a couple of months of seeing this dad, talking to him at the supervised visits, etc., we felt comfortable with him and intuitively knew that he was not the type to harass us. Having our number enabled him to call if he needed to cancel a visit or re-arrange one. He started having unsupervised visits a while ago, and he has never cancelled a visit. He only calls us to confirm a visit (which is very responsible) or to relay information concerning "T". He comes to the house to pick "T" up and to drop him back off. We would not do this with just anyone, and have not with the other two children placed with us.
We believe that God has orchestrated all this, especially our good relationship with "T's" father. He works about 1 mile from our home, and has asked us to baby-sit for "T" while he works, after he goes to live with him. His father is grateful that "T" knows and loves us, and that we love him too. Of course we said yes! We are so glad that "T's" father feels comfortable and trusts us this way. We would be heartbroken, but for this way to still be involved in his life. We praise God for His arranging of this.
We have had another little boy, a 17 month old, for two weeks in December. He went home after that. Right now, besides "T", we have "S", a seven month old boy who came to us at the end of January. "S" was originally placed with another foster family, but his excessive crying was too much for them. We still don't know anything about "S's" medical history, and he still cries a lot. Nights are sometimes, well.......like the day (being awake a lot!). We are seeing some improvement, as "S" gets up only two or three times a night most of the time now.
"S" does not like to be changed, dressed, or have his coat put on. He is quite a contrast to "T's" joyful, happy-go-lucky little self. He does have his happy times, which are increasing, but he is still quite a cranky, high-need baby. He is very strong-willed. We are persevering!
So, how has foster parenting affected our family life? Obviously there is more work involved in caring for two more children, especially babies! We have to work together as a family more than before because of this increased workload. More responsibility has been placed on the girls, especially Caitlin. At times she has relished this responsibility, telling me with delight that she "feels like a grown up," and saying that she can't wait to have a family of her own. And, at times she resents it. I guess this goes with the territory of living in a family with more than two children, whether the children are biological or foster.
Both Megan and Caitlin have learned childcare skills that will aide them in caring for their own children someday, should the Lord bless them so. Caitlin has learned to change diapers, dress, bathe, and feed the babies. She can prepare bottles, pack a diaper bag, and measure and administer medicine (with my supervision, of course). Megan, who has Down syndrome, also has learned to change diapers and dress the babies, as well as bathe and feed them. She is still working on technique, and it takes her longer to do these, but she is definitely on her way to becoming an expert!
But more than these physical tasks, the girls have learned so much more about caring for children: love, patience, sacrifice. These are the important things. They are also learning a greater degree of gratitude for the life God has granted them. They are now becoming aware, however limited it may be right now, that some children are not so fortunate to have families who love and serve the Lord; some children can't count on mom or dad to be there for them the way they should. They are learning the important lessons.
Having two babies added to the family necessitates some juggling to insure the girls get enough time with us. Yes, we do have the time we spend together "doing" school, but they each need time that is just for them. I try to make sure that I spend some time doing something with them, either separately or together. It could be playing cards with Caitlin, or cooking together. Just something that says to them that they matter to us. The babies do take up a lot of time and care; Megan and Caitlin need to still feel like they are important too.
Foster parenting children in many ways is the same as having more biological children, but there are many ways in which it differs, too. There are more doctor appointments, some to specialists, that are required just because a child comes into foster care. There are visits with the biological parents, sometimes separately if the parents are not together, every week. Every time the child sees a doctor, a form has to be filled out. And, DSS is involved in your life to a big degree. At times you can feel as if you're under a microscope, especially where your parenting skills are concerned. A supervisor once questioned me suspiciously about our faith, asking where we attend church and what "kind" of church it is. As Christians, there are many points in raising children on which we and DSS disagree. But where the foster children are concerned, we do have to go by their rules, no matter how we feel about them.
Now, has our homeschooling been affected by foster parenting, and how? Yes, in both good and bad ways. We are semi-structured home schoolers to begin with, so we do not feel we have to follow a schedule rigidly. Being more relaxed in our approach has helped, especially since the foster children we take in are babies, and therefore home all day with us (as opposed to being in the public school system). Homeschooling, for us, is more of a lifestyle, and we believe the children are learning all the time. We focus a lot on life skills that the girls will need, character-building, etc.; academics are second.
Having said that, we have had many times since we started fostering in which we didn't get to something we had planned because of the babies. The girls have been disappointed at times that we couldn't go somewhere, or do something, because a baby has been sick, or just very high-need. There do seem to be less hours in the day between the diapering, feeding, and getting one or the other out of something they shouldn't be into! But there are also many things you can do while still holding a baby, and ways of working your planned activities into a week filled with parent visits at the office, social worker calls and visits, etc.
We still do the things we used to do before foster parenting, but I have to admit that there are some things I say no to, sometimes with our home school support group, because it would be too hard to do with the babies, or because it might interfere with their nap time.
While I speak of how foster parenting has affected our homeschooling, I am speaking of babies. Foster parenting children who are older, school aged, poses its own added responsibilities and possible problems. Doing some things may not be restricted as it would if they were babies, so in that sense it might be easier. But some foster parents have found that their older foster children have become jealous of the biological children being homeschooled, asking why they can't stay home too. With older children, more adequately able to express themselves verbally, comes more parenting in the way of discussing things, discipline, etc. With babies there isn't as much of that; it's more physical care, along with the love.
We feel that our homeschooling has been blessed, also, due to our foster parenting. Because we are more concerned with character-building and learning the skills they will need in life, foster parenting has afforded the girls the opportunity to learn child care, to learn to give of themselves, to learn servanthood. They don't just read about how to care for a child, or baby-sit a cousin now and then. They live it daily through our foster parenting. The blessings we have received have far outweighed the few problems we've experienced.
There are times when things get so hairy around here, or one of the babies wakes up so many times a night that I'm exhausted and exasperated, and I wonder, why are we doing this?? But then again, there are times I get frustrated with our home schooling and wonder why we are doing that too. That's when I go to the Lord, and He fills me up again and gives me what I need to continue on. I do have a supportive family, and I also belong to a foster parenting-homeschooling e-group (HomeschoolingFosterParents@yahoogroups.com) . That is nice because we can talk about the foster parenting AND homeschooling.
One thing we know for sure: the Lord has called us to foster parent, just as surely as He has called us to homeschool our children. Knowing that has helped a great deal when we do experience difficulties or problems, because we know Who it is who has called us into this, and how great and mighty He is. He is the One who gives us the strength we need daily to carry out the work He's given us to do. We are thankful for His grace in giving us what we need to do this. "And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me...." 1 Tim. 1:12.