What do you do when a foster child you have raised for several years is suddenly going home to her birth parents?
How do you react the first time the school principal calls you in to discuss a behavior problem with your foster child?
Visits are being arranged with your foster child’s birth mother. How does this make you feel?
The chances are, if you belong to a Foster the Family group, another foster parent may be going through these same challenges or already has and can offer some advice.
The important thing is, you can share the struggles, the challenges and the triumphs of being a foster parent with someone who knows exactly what you are going through. That is the primary goal of Foster the Family.
The nation-wide program that offers support to foster families and adoptive mothers was founded in New Jersey by Alan and Jamie Finn. Foster mom Jessica Willman found out about it through Instagram.
“I saw this post about this woman who had fostered a child in her home for three years who was now going to be reunited with her biological family. I was so impressed how Jamie went through that and how we can encourage the birth families,” Willman said. She started following Jamie’s posts on Instagram.
“To see her being so uplifting, even as she grieved the loss of the child was so inspirational,” Willman said. Through Foster the Family, Willman was also gaining and sharing information about trauma, birth families, and regulations.
Admitting that she is not a support-group type of person, Willman said she found Foster the Family to be so encouraging and professing such a can-do attitude that when last September the organization was looking at starting support groups across the country, she thought it would be cool to start one in the Twin Cities. Willman said over 200 applied and at the end of the year, 10 were selected to be Foster Family support groups.“The Twin Cities was one of them, so we started in December 2021,” she said.
“We meet in person at the Knox International Center in the Hamline Midway area on the third Wednesday of each month from 6:30-8 pm,” Willman said. “We continued to meet in person as long as we could during the pandemic, because the basis of the group is connecting with people. That’s hard to do with strangers over Zoom.”
Now the group is meeting in person again, and held its last meeting at a park.
“We have stayed a pretty small group,” said Willman. “Our Facebook page has 60 members, and about 5-10 meet regularly.” She and two other leaders attend every time, with others coming by each month, not necessarily the same ones each month.
Willman said she went into Foster the Family thinking it would be one thing, but finding out it was different. “You can learn in depth about trauma, but it’s not necessarily just educational,” she noted. It’s meant to be relationship-building.
Half of the people who come to the group come from over 45 minutes away, because they are really isolated. People are craving not just community in general, but specifically people who understand the foster and adoptive world and the unique challenges.
CENTERING SELVES TO BETTER CARE FOR OTHERS
“You can relax into the group,” Willman stated. “You can connect with others who are going through the same things you are, or have gone through them. A lot of it is how we can share our calm and our peace with the kids in our home. We can center ourselves to better care for the kids in our home.”
Willman has two biological children and has adopted two children that she fostered. She said when her family first started doing foster care, almost all of the answers to questions were “it depends.” She said in the current Foster the Family group, about half of the attendees don’t have a placement at the moment. “A quarter of them are waiting for their first placement,” she said. Willman explained that placements can be long or short-term; a mixture of fostering to adoption and emergency care.
CHALLENGE OF SAYING GOODBYE
One of the toughest things about being a foster parent is having to let a child go, according to Willman. She said it is so difficult loving a child, knowing the child won’t be with you forever. “It becomes easier, but I don’t know anyone who could keep their distance. You’re going to love that child not any different than any other kid in your life.
“One of the things we hear most often is about navigating the system and the lack of control,” Willman said. “No situation is the same, every kid is different, and we never know how long things will take.”
Willman said another big challenge is the relationship between the foster parents and the birth family. “I am licensed through Ramsey County, but I was not trained on how to interact with the birth family. You have a relationship, but you don’t.”
She said her adopted children are half siblings, with the same mom. “We will have that person in our lives, even if there are no visits. We build relationships that are good for our kids. Our group talks a lot about birth families; it is never really clear how much control to give them.”
Willman explained that situations can be hard. “You know the kid, and you know the situation,” she said. “We want to see families re-unified, and we look at how we can support them.” She said the foster parent can sometimes help babysit to provide the birth mom a break and to help her succeed. “Ultimately, we have very little control over what happens,” she said.
COVID-19 DISRUPTED EVERYTHING
When COVID-19 happened, it hit both biological and foster families hard. “Everything was disrupted,” Willman said. “We did not know how to do visits, and we were just lost. You have these babies, and you can’t put them on Zoom. It’s not the same as the birth mother being able to hold her child for a couple of hours. But we figured it out.”
COVID-19 upended everything. Social workers could not make home visits. Training was postponed. A lot of mandated reporters could not meet with kids, and their teachers were not seeing them every day.
“I feel like our social workers are still scrambling to catch up,” Willman said. “And a lot of families are getting caught up on everything.”
HELPING EACH OTHER
Willman said there is a waiting list of foster families for children under age two, but it is difficult to find placements for children with high needs, siblings or older youth. “Unless there is a shared trauma that separates them, we try to keep sibling groups together in foster care,” Willman said. “Taking a sibling group is a big commitment.”
Willman re-emphasized that the Foster the Parent group is to provide support for foster and adoptive families, whether it’s providing a meal when needed or encouragement.
“We find the tools to change what we can while we navigate this tricky world and help each other,” Willman said.
Anyone interested in finding out more about Foster the Family can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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