The First Hours of Respite

Ever wonder what the first hours of respite are like for foster care?  This evening we welcomed three brothers aged 14, 13, and 9 to stay with us over the weekend while their foster dad is out of town.  Here’s how it’s gone down so far.

On Monday, the placement worker emailed us asking if we could take three boys for a couple of days, beginning on Friday.  All we knew were date, ages and gender.  Since we were interested, she emailed us more info – a paragraph on each child listing their name, a sentence about their individual personalities, one or two of their interests, their academic performance, and the medicine they take.  We asked for the diagnoses to go along with the medication and whether their symptoms were well controlled by medication.  So with this scarce info we said yes.

We drove half way to pick up the boys, agreeing to rendezvous with their foster dad in the parking lot of the local grocery store.  We had no idea what they looked like, but knew their foster dad drove a blue Ford Explorer.  We saw a car that we thought was them, but when we waved and they didn’t wave back – well oops!  Not them.  Another Explorer approached.  We waved and they waved back.  Yay!  We found them.

They pulled over and everyone piled out.  We introduced ourselves and the boys immediately jumped into our car.  I made a bit of small talk with the foster dad, who we were also meeting for the first time.  But it was cold.  And we were in a busy parking lot.  So after 2-3 minutes my husband and I hopped into our car and drove off.

basketballmeatball-pizza

Food’s always an easy topic, so my husband asked the boys if they liked pizza and, if so, what they’d want on theirs.  After an enthusiastic yes and a lively conversation on the merit of pepperoni over plain cheese, we called in the order for delivery.  We moved on to the topic of sports.  Basketball was a favorite so we talked up the hoop in our neighborhood.  Two things for the kiddos to look forward – a great way to overcome the weirdness of staying with strangers.

When we got home, the boys wanted to see their room right away.  They dropped their stuff off.  A few awkward moments while our teens were figuring out how to find common ground.  A quick suggestion of video games solved that.

We purposely have video games for up to 6 or even 8 players, so a large group can all play at the same time (no having to wait for your turn!).  But a few of the remotes had dead batteries, so I made a quick run to the grocery.  Since I was at the store anyway, I picked up syrup for tomorrow’s pancakes.

While I was on my battery run, the pizza came.   We let the kids watch anime while eating.  Then back to video games.

So that’s the first two hours.  And we’re all having fun.

Activities for Newly Arrived Foster Kids

keep-calm-i-ve-just-arrived-4

We’re hosting two boys for about a week as their foster parents go on a trip out of state. Helper turns 13 next week and his little brother Excited is 7. They are very adorable, helpful, and have good manners.

Having Helper and Excited here reminds me of the first days of settling in new foster children. Here’s some of my “Foster Kids Have Just Arrived” activities.

1) Give them a tour of the house. Let them see where they will sleep and point out where they will keep their things. I point out the dining table and tell them we will eat our meals there (helps them know what to expect), show them the kitchen and tell them we all work together in cleaning up after meals, show them the living room with the video games and tell them they can play games later, etc.

2) Offer them food. A small snack can help anxious kids relax a little. They may have not had much to eat recently, either because the social workers took a long time in processing their in-take or because there wasn’t much food in their home. Also, kids generally like to eat. 🙂

3) Let them play video games. Video games are a distraction and can help children take their minds off the major upheaval that has just occurred. While they play, you can do paperwork with the social worker. Your kids can play video games with them, which is a non-threatening way to meet new people (don’t have to look at them, talking is optional, but doing the same thing together). Since I told them earlier that they would be able to play video games and I let them play video games, they begin to learn I am a person who keeps her word. This is a baby step towards developing trust.

4) Run to Target. If the kids arrived with nothing, you’ll need to buy some essentials. If the kids came with their things, you might want to take them to Target so they can choose a toy. This gives them something that they have control over (they decide what to purchase). It also ensures they have a toy they will want to play with in the coming days.

5) Take photos for Mom & Dad. Their parents will be very worried about how their children are doing, so take a few photos of the kids and your house. You can even let the kids take a few photos. Print them out so the kids can take them to their first visit. Later, if you get their email or phone number, you can send updates digitally.

6) Write a note for Mom & Dad. I think it’s good to write a short note saying that you promise to take good care of THEIR children and that you hope they are reunited quickly. This reassures them right off the bat that you are not trying to “steal” their children and that you will help work towards reunification.

7) Walk around the neighborhood. Exercise is always good for little bodies built for running, but it’s a good way for them to learn about where they are living while burning off extra nervous energy. I point out the houses of neighbor kids, the bus stop, the playground, etc.

8) Give them a daily chore. Part of the goal for children in foster care is to learn how to behave in a healthy family setting. If a child is in a fragile emotional state, I might simply have him bring his plate into the kitchen after a meal and then praise him for helping out. Otherwise, the child can continue to help clean up after the meal with my whole family joining in. When everyone helps out together, it demonstrates that helping is a normal family behavior and not a punishment.

9) Find something to compliment. There will be lots of need for corrections over the coming weeks, so it makes sense to fill up their “tank” letting them know when they are doing something right. Also, when you compliment, you are shaping their behavior in a positive direction and minimizing the amount of undesired behavior. It can be as simple as “good job of coming to the dinner table when called” or “nice job in brushing your hair.”

10) Love them just the way they are. It can be tempting to see kids, especially those who have experienced trauma, as in need of fixing. And while they do need to be actively parented and guided, more than anything they need to be loved unconditionally. When humans are loved – faults and all – they feel safer and more confident, knowing they have a safety net of love to fall back on. This safety net of love enables the risk-taking necessary for true healing to occur.  And, I guarantee that these kiddos are totally lovable!!!

New Placement of Siblings!! Meet Joyful and Watchful.

So, right after I posted that the three baby boys were not coming, we received another placement call!!  We said “yes” to two wonderful kiddos who arrived just one hour and 15 minutes after we agreed to be their foster family.  Here’s what the first night was like.

We received a call late in the day asking us if we were interested in becoming foster parents to Joyful*, a 10-year-old girl, and Watchful*, an 8-year-old boy.  The social worker mentioned that there was a 3-year-old sister, who was currently traveling with a relative.

The social worker was able to tell us that the children did not have special education plans, no known health problems, the reason why they were coming into care, their age, gender, and race.  This was an emergency removal, so that’s about all the info and it wasn’t entirely accurate.

It didn’t take us long to say yes.  Our main concern was the distance between their home/school and our home – a one hour drive!  We knew this would mean lots of time in the car for the kids and us as we would drive back and forth to school each day, to visits, etc.  We negotiated with the social worker that we’d say yes, but that the county would need to pay for transportation and after school care, if needed.  They readily agreed.

Then it was a race to beat the clock.  You’ll remember that we had planned on three babies, so we madly worked to remove the cribs, baby clothes, and other baby paraphernalia – rushing to get it all done before the kids showed up at our front door.  We had to reconfigure bedrooms, so we had to move the twin beds from upstairs to the room downstairs and bring the queen bed up.  What a work out!!  And an excellent way to work off nervous energy while we waited for their arrival.  Luckily we had just finished when the social worker pulled up into our driveway.

The Child Protective Services social worker stepped out and Joyful and Watchful bounded up our front steps.  The biggest surprise?  The kids were super smiley and super happy to become our foster children.  I was expecting sad, scared, angry and/or confused.  Happy was counterintuitive.  But it soon became apparent why they were laughing and bright-eyed.  Life at home was so difficult and the relationship with their mom was so contentious, that they were extremely relieved not to have to go home.

The kids arrived with the clothes on their backs and their homework.  That’s it.  Nothing else.

We welcomed Joyful and Watchful, introduced them to our family, and gave them a tour of the home.  We let them get to know our dog, who licked them and won the children over with her eager, wagging tail.  We let Watchful choose which twin bed would be his (he’s bunking with our son Silent One), and he chose the one closest to our pet gerbil.  🙂  Our two children Silent One and Sassy took them into the adjacent room and they all played video games together.  What a big hit!

While kids were busy racing cars on Mario Kart, we sat down with the social worker, who said the three-year-old sister was actually a five-year-old brother.  She let us know that if the younger brother is brought into care, they will ask us first if we would be willing to be his foster family, too. (The next day, we found out the five-year-old is actually just turned four.)  So our “yes” to two children may morph into “yes” to three.  *surprise*

Do you remember that during the placement call, the social worker said the kids were both healthy?  Well, the social worker who showed up at our house had new information that there was a health condition, but mom wasn’t telling anyone what it was.  *surprise again*

The social worker gave us paperwork naming us as the emergency foster parents, and another document authorizing us to obtain routine medical care for them.  The social worker gave more details about the reason for the emergency removal.  She authorized us to spend $100 per child for immediate clothing and toiletry needs, since they arrived with nothing.  After about half an hour, she left.

We had a quick dinner.  (Luckily, I had ordered pizza to be delivered and it arrived just before the kids did.)  Then we had to dash off to Target.  Let me just say that $100 does not go very far when you need socks, underwear, jackets, pants, shirts, pajamas, and hair brushes.  (I already had spare tooth brushes.)  We wrapped up shopping just before Target closed.

Then it was back home and bed for everyone.  Amazingly, there were no issues with getting on jammies, brushing teeth and getting into bed.  Even more amazingly, they slept well through the night.

Whew!  First few hours were successfully under our belts and our family of four had grown to include two more truly wonderful children.

*Not their real names.  Nicknames are used to protect their identity.