Vol. 13, No. 1• November 2008

When a Child Must Move

by A Foster Parent

Being a foster parent is full of firsts. There is the first child that becomes part of your family, the first child that returns to his or her birth family, the first child placed with birth family members who are strangers to the child, the first time you say no to a proposed placement.

And then there’s the first time a child needs to leave your home to move to another foster home.

A Traumatic First
My husband and I have been foster parents nearly forever (over 20 years and counting). Our family has experienced countless firsts, but none has been harder than our most recent first. For the first time, two foster children (a youth and her toddler age daughter) left our home for new foster placements. To say that we are passionate about foster placement stability would be an understatement. Our mantra is “If this were our birth child, what would you be recommending?”

It wasn’t that these youngsters arrived at our home and it just did not work out. They lived with us and completely shared our lives for 18 months (the young mother) and 20 months (the toddler arrived at 5 months of age).

What went wrong? Was it even wrong? How do we regroup from this experience? What could we have done differently? And, finally, what will we do next time?

Our Perspective
Let me back up. Being a foster family requires ongoing education and support. The support has to be provided by other foster parents. Only foster parents have “been there and done that.” They don’t think you were crazy in the first place to have opened your lives to strangers.

We have taken multiple workshops dealing with grief and loss. We absolutely understand that socio-economics has nothing to do with being able to be a wonderful parent. Our own two adopted children (one an open adoption and one a closed adoption) are daily reminders of the incredible importance of birth family connections no matter the cause of the placement. Yes, I know that a child sexual molester can never have unsupervised contact with the child, but even so, to ignore that relationship is to harm the child. Being in protected contact with those who have hurt them can be very healing at some point to children in the foster care system.

My husband and I struggle more when children are placed with relatives with whom they have had little or no contact for the vast majority of their lives. Sometimes it seems to us that establishing an ongoing relationship with the relatives and placing the child with the foster parents as adoptive parents might be better for the mental health of the youngster. Attachment can be a very fragile thing.

Out of the Blue
But, then comes our recent first. The young mother had a planned, temporary move to a higher level of care so she could focus on mental health issues. The toddler was going to stay with us, with frequent visits with her mother. Then it all went so confusingly wrong. The mother decided she could not spend even one more night in our home and she bounced from home to home while waiting for her therapeutic placement to be finalized. The young mother told the judge that she did not want to be placed in the same home as her daughter until she was 18 (12 months in the future). The judge, knowing that we did not consider adopting the toddler an option due to our age, told all of the parties to the case to return to court at the next scheduled hearing with a concurrent plan in place. We supported wholeheartedly the need for the toddler to move to a home where she could grow to adulthood if her mother was not going to be able to regain custody. There was a transition period for the toddler, but at this point, a month and a half into the placement, things seem to be going very well.

And what about the mother? What would we have wanted to have happen if she had been our birth child?

In Hindsight
We second guess ourselves, wondering what would have been the best course of action. We feel that she should have been receiving much more intensive mental health services than she was prior to leaving our house and that she is receiving even now. Perhaps family therapy for the entire foster family—my husband and me plus our two children and the mother and her child—would have offered all of us emotional support and things to do as a family that might have stabilized the situation. At the time the mother stated she could no longer stay in our home, we were rather blind-sided. Family therapy might have allowed issues and feelings to be shared so that the family unit could have remained intact.

Foster parents are truly a work in progress. Every child is different. Their needs are different, their responses are different. Yet we must try our best to care for each one as though they were our birth child.

To protect the confidentiality of the children described in this essay, the author has requested to remain anonymous.

Copyright 2008 Jordan Institute for Families