Raw Truth: The Stresses and Joys of Being a Foster Parent
Let this sink in: Mississippi alone has approximately 5,000 children in need of foster care at any time.
The state ranks at the very bottom of the list in child welfare. Despite the need for homes for more than 5,000 children, there are only 1,486 licensed foster homes in the state. Do the math. What happens to these kids?
Countless factors result in children being unable to live with natural parents: death, abuse, drugs, incarceration, poverty, illness. Lack of basic parenting skills often requires removing a child from the home. Unless a grandparent or other relative steps in, the child becomes a ward of the state and goes into foster care. My husband and I started our journey of foster-parenting when a social worker friend cried as she shared heart-wrenching experiences of placing children in less-than-appropriate situations because of lack of foster homes.
Becoming a licensed foster parent isn’t easy. It involves hours of training, massive questionnaires, interviews, health checks, references, background checks and home visits to insure adequate space and plans.
My first clue that life was about to change for us was the trip to the police station to be fingerprinted. We finally received our license and eagerly awaited our first winsome toddler whose needs would be met by a bath, clean clothes, a nourishing meal and lots of rocking and cuddling. Instead of a little darling, we welcomed angry 14-year-old Billy, who had lived on the streets for two months since his mother’s arrest for solicitation while his father was in prison. Angry and stinking, he loudly and profanely proclaimed his ability to live on his own, while the social worker literally dragged him from her car into our house.
Foster children always come with all their possessions in a black plastic trash bag. Billy’s consisted of a pair of gym shorts, a grungy T-shirt, one sock, a tattered comic book and a pair of numchucks.
The worker patted his shoulder, told him to “be good,” and told us to contact the office about the initial clothing allowance provided for children in first-time placement. As she drove away, Billy screamed obscenities at us. Our career as foster parents, which would span more than 28 years and 70 children, had begun. Not all were like Billy. Some were better, a few worse, but all came with baggage. Some problems were the result of tragic circumstances, but most were from incredibly bad parenting.
We provided a home to children from toddlers to 17-year-olds. Some stayed two weeks, some until graduation from high school. Some returned to parents, and many were “turned loose” at age 18. A few ended up in college, others in reform school. We dreamed of changing lives, but learned early that we’re not miracle workers. We provided a stable environment, good food, medical care and opportunity for education. I’m blessed to believe that some lives are better because I was there.
To be honest, our family paid a price. It isn’t easy to invite problems into your home. Our own kids had to learn to share toys, time and their parents with kids who demanded far more than their share. Even today, our adult children verbalize resentments at having had money, clothes or toys stolen or broken, or embarrassment over something a foster child said or did. Despite problems, blessings abounded. Large families are fun. We wore out two Monopoly games. Roasting marshmallows and singing around the campfire is better with eight people than four. Can you imagine Christmas morning with children who have never experienced it before? What a thrill! Our own children learned compassion and forgiveness. Sitting in church with a row of children who would not otherwise be there was a blessing even as I reached over two heads to “remind” someone not to pop bubblegum or fold airplanes from the bulletin.
Without a doubt, the biggest reward of fostering is knowing I’ve impacted lives. Even kids who rejected it experienced love, patience and commitment. They’ve been exposed to work ethics, clean sheets, hugs, family vacations and homemade ice cream.
Sadly, for the most part, Mississippians have failed to step up to the challenge.
The problem is that these children have never become REAL. We’re aware of them as statistics, but not as hurting kids. We never hear details of five-year old Lee, who was in a car when it was deliberately wrecked to collect insurance money. Or eight-year old Jeff, whose stepmother poured dishwasher detergent down his throat because he argued with her.
The casualty list is endless, with a steady stream of hurting children.
Not every family can take in strays, but many can. For those who can’t, other options exist. One is respite care for weary foster parents, or even taking a foster child for an outing with your family. We can all work for better laws/more money for foster care. We can become surrogate grandparents. We can show extra compassion as a Sunday school teacher, neighbor or friend. If you look for opportunities to become involved in foster care, you will find them.
For more information, google “Foster Care in Mississippi” or contact the county foster care office. Of course, involvement in foster care brings risks,but it is also a challenging adventure with limitless rewards.
Joy A. Sterling is author of “Dare to Care: A Christian Response to Foster Care.”