by Dionne Joseph
The word “foster” has Germanic and Old English origins. It simply means to nourish. As a foster parent for more than six years, I believe foster parenting is about nourishing children and the families they come from. It’s a flexible definition because the needs are nuanced, vast and varied.
So how does one prepare to foster a child? Assuming you’ve already completed the state-required training, passed background checks, and answered a bunch of questions, all that’s left is a heart ready for adventure and a child to love.
Here are my 10 tips for nourishing the children who enter your home.
- You’re expecting! Whether you are licensed for a newborn, a preschooler or teenager, your imagination is in overdrive with thoughts of life with this person. It’s time to stock up on essentials, remembering the older a child is, the more choices they’ll want to make for themselves.
If you’re expecting a baby, set up a room with a crib, changing table, diapers, wipes and some comfy sleepers and onesies. A stroller, car seat, baby swing and highchair purchased in advance will be helpful, too. An older child should have a clean and neat sleeping area with a dresser for clothing and personal things. Give yourself a head start by purchasing new pajamas, underwear, socks and toiletries and after your child arrives, plan a shopping day so they can choose things they need and like.
- Let’s eat. Use the time before your first child arrives for meal preparation. Since food is age dependent, discern what your child or youth is likely to enjoy. What brand of formula will your new baby require? Do you havechicken nuggets and Ramen noodles on hand for an elementary-aged child? Do you have a pantry of snacks and frozen pizza for teens? Fresh fruit and snackable veggies (like baby carrots and cucumbers) with dip are ideal. Have quick meals or protein shakes on hand for yourself too. It’s easy to overlook healthy eating during a significant life change — and that’s precisely what this is.
A note about food: Children coming into your home are used to eating in different kitchens. Some have grown up on fast food or are accustomed to ethnic meals you’ve never prepared. Eating is fundamental but also personal. Please give grace if your dietary expectations collide with that of the child who comes to your home. Their favorites likely won’t be yours. Additionally, allergies, food sensitivities, hoarding, overeating and undereating are common.
- Call the professionals. In my state, there is limited time to establish primary medical and dental care for a child in foster care. Have a pediatrician, dentist, mental health provider, optometrist and occupational therapist on your shortlist.
I have a list of providers who take state insurance (not all do). These relationships will lead to future referrals if necessary and give your child access to health care.
These health care providers also add an extra layer of protection because behaviors and medical conditions can be treated and documented. Remember to get any special accommodations in writing from your child’s doctor or therapist, such as permission for a weighted blanket. Choose a pharmacy and fill all prescriptions promptly, remembering to keep them in a locked area in your home.
- Teamwork makes the dream work. Though it may feel like you’re the one doing all the work as a foster parent, you’re really part of a much larger team. It takes a lot of trained people to parent a child when their parents aren’t able to do so. Your child’s starting lineup likely includes at least one state-appointed social worker, a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate, or a compensated Guardian ad Litem. The social worker collaborates with the parents to help address the issues that led to the child’s placement in foster care, and is often balancing the best interests of the child while working to address barriers to reunification. The child is often provided a CASA or GAL, to separately represent their interests.
If you’re licensed through a Child Protection Agency, you’ll also have a caseworker. In addition, you’ll interact with attorneys and judges who oversee the decisions made that impact the child and their family of origin. It’s also important to get to know educators, daycare workers and coaches who work with your child regularly.
Perhaps though, the most important members of your child’s team are their biological family, as well as extended and fictive kin. As much as possible, build bridges. I’ve broadly defined foster care as providing physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment. If a child has become a ward of the state, it’s possible the extended family’s malnourishment has existed for generations. They can’t easily come to you, but you can go to them.
Start a “share journal” and record details of the child’s day for their family, or create a care package. Reach out to a “sister” foster family caring for siblings and schedule playdates. Show compassion and respect, and build trust while establishing boundaries. If all goes well, you’ll have an opportunity to not only foster the child but the whole family.
- Write it down. Document details like prescriptions, information shared in conversation, behaviors at school, and suggestions from health care providers and educators. Much of foster care is unraveling mysteries, and seemingly insignificant details are sometimes the key to understanding. Report all injuries or accidents immediately and follow-up with medical or therapeutic attention promptly. Keep a log of medicines and even a personal journal of the day’s events. Communicate with your child’s team by email frequently. Social workers love updates!
- Advocate! Advocate! Advocate! If ever there was a time to use your voice and email skills, this is it. Advocate for the child in your care. It’s entirely possible they have unmet needs others have missed or ignored. They may learn differently or require special accommodations. As you expose them to your world, they may struggle to acclimate. Your child has lived through traumas, like the loss of their biological family, that would be difficult for an adult to process, and there are consequences for that. Be a voice for the voiceless.
- Expose and expand. Being in foster care doesn’t have to mean everything is negative. Foster parents have the opportunity to expose children to new foods, different customs and even fun experiences. During the season a child is with you, offer them piano lessons or the chance to participate in gymnastics. Take them on vacation and to different types of restaurants. Introduce them to your extended family members and friends. Invite them to the church or clubs you attend. Offer experiences and education they may not have yet experienced. You are planting seeds that will sprout over a lifetime!
- Gather. Tip 4 was about joining your child’s team, but please remember to build yours. Being a foster parent is a beautiful and unique calling, but it can also be lonely. Well-meaning friends outside the community may struggle to understand your frustrations. Biological and adoptive children in the home (your first priority) may also struggle with aspects of your decision to foster a child. People who are unfamiliar with the system often say thoughtless words or ask inappropriate questions.
I cannot stress the importance of deep, meaningful relationships with other foster families. They get you, and you get them. Good friends can be a source of comfort when the going gets tough, function as extended family to the child in your care, provide respite care, or be available to drop off a meal or offer a ride when you’re overextended. It’s helpful for the children in your home to connect with peers who are familiar with foster care and adoption. To support others, we must be supported.
- Rest and recover. This might be the most challenging tip for the foster mom or dad who is used to doing everything, but it’s essential. To be a good parent, especially to a child likely experiencing trauma, you have to enjoy parenting. Sometimes, the daily slog is so discouraging and challenging that it dampens joy. Many foster parents have endured secondary trauma from their time in the trenches. The chaos of riding the emotional rollercoaster for an extended period of time creates a trauma response, and we need time to process and heal.
What does that mean for you? Set boundaries on your time or decline to take a new child so you have time to grieve or recover. Ask a friend to babysit or set up a respite care weekend so you can take a break. Take a Sharpie toyour calendar and free up space. Use a grocery delivery service or hire a local teen to do the yard work. Seek spiritual sustenance, physical movement and therapy. Model healthy living to your children by knowing how to ask for help. To have longevity as a foster parent and provide quality care, you must ensure your needs are met.
- A miracle in the making. So much of fostering involves big feelings and heavy burdens, making it easy to lose sight of the wonder of it all. As foster parents, we’ve been given an extraordinary gift, the opportunity to bring comfort to a weary child. We’ve connected with a child and family we likely wouldn’t have met otherwise.
It’s miraculous, so enjoy unwinding the mystery of it all. It’s a discipline to surrender to the truth of the moment, to find the joy in (portions of) the day, to learn from mistakes, and try again tomorrow, so embrace it! Unlike biological parenting, foster parenting is something we get to do. It’s not an obligation but a privilege.
Though certainly not comprehensive, these 10 tips will hopefully give you inspiration for the journey. Thank you for stepping up for children and families who have been cast down. My hope is that the trajectory of everyone involved will be better because of this connection.
Given the name, “Auntie Mom” by her first foster daughter, Dionne Joseph has been fostering since 2016. She is an adult transracial adoptee who has also had the privilege of adopting. Joseph serves on Washington’s Parent Advisory Group and is an advocate for children and families. A writer and runner from the Pacific Northwest, Joseph, and her husband have five children, Goldendoodles, cats, and an ever-growing number of chickens.