What to do if your kids are placed in foster care

I was hanging out at my sister’s house when a friend called frantically. Child Protective Services had taken her children and placed them into foster care.

Since I’ve been a foster mom to 10 kids, they asked me my advice. And I’m sharing it for any other parent who is going through this very painful and scary experience.

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Always remember that you want your kids back. This seems stupidly obvious, but you need to make getting your kids back your top priority and tell yourself over and over that you will do whatever it takes to have them living with you again, even all the things that you totally disagree with.

Here’s the top five things to do next:

1. Don’t do anything drastic
Parents are understandably very upset when their children are placed into care. It can be very tempting to let your emotions go crazy and do things you might regret later. You may want to scream at the social worker. You may feel so bad you just want to get drunk or high to make the bad feeling go away. You may have been struggling with depression or other mental illness and be tempted to stop taking your meds or attempt suicide.

Don’t. There is hope.

2. Go to every visit

Judges and social workers will look at how regularly you attended visits with your children. If you go to all or nearly all, this is evidence that you care and are trying to be a responsible parent. This is completely within your control, so go to every visit.

Some people may want to see their kids, but don’t feel motivated to go to the visits. It can be hard to be reunited only to have to say goodbye again. If you feel guilty, you may feel this more intensely when your kids ask to come home with you and you have to explain why they can’t. It may feel awkward to hang out with your kids when a social worker is present, observing your interactions. The process for getting your kids back can see unnecessarily bureaucratic and long, tempting you to give up. Don’t. Stick with it and go to every visit.

3. Express desire to get your kids back

It may seem very obvious to you that you want your kids back, but it may not be obvious to others. Tell the judge, social workers, lawyers, CASA (if one is assigned to your case), and foster parents that you want your children living with you again. Tell them about your concerns regarding the impact of living apart.

4. Do the things the judge says must be done.

The authorities will write a plan that lists the conditions which must be met in order for you to get your kids back. Ask to see this plan and make sure you understand what you need to do. Then do those things.

Psychological evaluations and substance abuse evaluations are common first steps. Some people don’t like to go through testing, especially if they don’t believe they have any mental health or drug/alcohol problems. Do them any way.

If you don’t do them, the authorities will think you are hiding something. If you do take the tests, it will show your willingness to do whatever it takes to get your kids back.

Your plan may also include parenting classes, therapy, anger management classes, or various treatments for mental illness, substance abuse, sexual abusing, etc.

I have seen cases where social workers and therapists didn’t think parents would be able to get their children back, and then parents worked really hard to do every item in their plan. They made positive changes in their lives and were successful in reuniting their family.

That could be you. You could be the parent that does whatever it takes and gets your kids back.

5. Ask relatives to raise your kids temporarily

Many parents feel uncomfortable having strangers raising their kids. This is 100% understandable.

You can ask relatives or close friends to act as foster parents while you work on meeting the requirements of your plan. They may need to take foster parent training.

Some people would prefer that family or friends not foster their children as they worry this may complicate their relationships. That’s ok, too.

However, if you do want someone you know to help out, it’s best to ask early as the vetting and training may take several months.

6. Befriend the foster parents

If you have non-related foster parents for your children, try to get to know them and have a positive relationship with them.

Some people may disagree with how the foster family is temporarily raising their children, wonder if the foster parents will judge them, or worry that they need to compete for their children’s affection.

However, keep in mind that foster parents want to help the parents and their children have healthy relationships and live together. This is why they became foster parents. Give them a chance.

When you befriend the foster parents, they are more likely to go the extra mile to help you stay connected with your kids and help you navigate the foster care system. You can ask them to send photos, facilitate phone calls/skype/email, or make reasonable changes to their parenting style. (Examples of reasonable changes could be how they dress your children, how they ensure your kids follow your religious beliefs, etc.).

If you are going through a hard time right now, my heart goes out to you. I hope whatever caused Child Protective Services to remove your children is resolved and you and your children can live together again soon.

10 Foster Kids and Counting!

We’ve seen 10 kids come and go since we started our journey as a foster family in 2013. Some have stayed with us for nearly a year and a half, others just a handful of days. But one thing has become abundantly clear to me. I love being a foster parent!

I love cuddling the ones open to a hug. I love playing in the sand at the beach with them. I love teaching them how to cook, how to use a bicycle pump, or how to dust the furniture.

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When kids in care are in our home, there’s a hustle and bustle that energizes me. Is there a family visit, a social worker dropping by, a sporting event, school science night? Have the children been bathed, is it time for homework, time for meds, oops ran out of milk let’s’s run to the store?

There’s the thrill of meeting of a child and learning his or her distinct personality, likes, dislikes, needs, and rhythms. Joyful loves spaghetti and would eat mounds of it, but Turkey doesn’t care for pasta. Helper wants to say bed time prayers every night with us, but Jumping Jack doesn’t believe in God and is weirded out by the whole concept of religion. Watchful calms down best when left alone in his “safe place” for a few minutes, but Explorer wants to have his back rubbed. Excited and Watchful are both early risers, but while Excited wakes up in a sunny, bouncy mood, Watchful needs the quiet routine of setting the table before engaging with others.

When you have foster kids in your home, there’s the joy of watching them overcome the trauma in their lives. Joyful stopped burying her nose in a book all day long and was willing to reach out to make friends. Harry Potter started using words to encourage his brother, rather than constantly insult him. Another learned that bed wetting as a pre-teen happens to some people and that wearing appropriate undergarments is not a big deal.

I love watching my husband and permanent children develop even greater kindness, empathy, and understanding as they are confronted by our foster children’s more challenging behaviors. My husband searched out the recipe, got special ingredients, and cooked a Filipino dish to help comfort Big Ben with a familiar, favorite food. Sassy willingly worked out differences with another child who was being aggressive. Silent One has learned to be unruffled by tantrums.

Last weekend, we said goodbye to Harry Potter and Explorer. We’ve been asked to take two brothers for two weeks in August, which we’re debating as the timing is not great for our family and we would prefer a long-term placement. We were asked about a four year old girl, but luckily her grandparents have stepped up and she won’t be coming into care. We talked with our social worker today, who asked us if we’ll be home over Memorial Day weekend in case there are any emergency placements.

But at the moment, it’s quiet. I’m seated on my sofa, sipping tea, with my dog beside me. And while that’s nice, I can’t wait to see who will walk in the door next, get to know them, care for them, and watch them transform their inner hurts.

Of course there are days when I wonder “why the heck did I sign up for this,” but all in all….Life as a foster parent is a joy and a privilege!

Forensic Medical Exams

Sometimes a doctor needs to examine foster kids to gather evidence to be used in court when allegations of abuse or neglect are made.  This is called a forensic  medical exam.  Here’s what one is like.

Child Protective Services will request that a particular doctor examine a particular child.  Where we live, the county uses a special unit at a children’s hospital.  The foster parent takes the child to that clinic.

The waiting room is small, but has lots of toys to keep kids busy.  While the foster parent fills out paperwork, someone comes to explain to the child what the exam will be like.  I forget what the exact title for that person, but it’s a child specialist whose job is to keep a child calm during a medical exam.  She does this by first showing the child different medical instruments and showing him/her what they are for.  Then she talks about the exam, using easy-to-understand terms.  “You will wear a hospital gown that opens in the back.  It’s like putting on a jacket backwards.”  “The doctor will look at your skin from head to toe.”

During the exam, the doctor begins at the head and works his way down, documenting any injuries, such as bruises, cuts, burns, scars, etc.  He will set a ruler next to the injury and take a photo to document the size and severity of the injury.  He will also use the stage of healing to determine how frequently injuries are occurring.  If physical abuse is particularly severe, the doctor may take x-rays to see if there is evidence of previous broken bones.  If sexual assault is suspected, the exam may include swabbing genitals for evidence of semen or hairs.  If severe neglect is suspected, weight and blood work showing nutritional deficiencies may be ordered.

During the exam, the foster parent can be present if the child feels comfortable with them in the room.  The child specialist will be charged with distracting the child during the exam.  At our clinic, she uses an iPad with games on it.  And if a child becomes anxious during a particular part of the exam, she will redirect their attention to the game or ask them a question or otherwise distract them.

At the end of the appointment, the child gets to pick out a toy to take home.

The forensics doctor usually only gives the foster parent a cursory read out – something really general like diagnosis suspected child, bruises and burns.  You can get a fuller report from the social worker, who may say something like the number of injuries, what may have caused them (e.g. cigarettes).

The medical report will be used by the county to substantiate their claims of abuse or neglect.  This helps the judge determine whether the county was justified in removing the child from his/her home.  The medical report may also be used to prosecute a criminal case, if the county decides to file charges against parents for the maltreatment of their child.

We really like our local forensics pediatrician.  You would be surprised, but kids actually kinda have fun.  They get to play video games and get a nice toy (think remote control car, teddy bear, etc.).  The exam doesn’t include any vaccinations, so no shots – a bonus in most kids’ minds.

Bottom line:  It may seem scary to take a child to a forensics pediatrician to have their injuries documented, but really it’s not bad at all.  I recommend foster parents go along and keep calm, lending their strength to these young children in need.

When are Parents’ Rights Terminated?

Ever hear of the 15/22 Rule? There’s a federal law called the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), which requires state agencies to ask a judge to terminate people’s rights to parent their children when their children have been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. Of course, there are exceptions…

When can termination of parental rights (TPR) be faster than 15 months?

Under ASFA, parental rights can be terminated sooner if a court decides that:

  • Children were abandoned as an infant
  • The parent murdered their child’s sibling, or attempted to kill their children
  • The parent committed a felony assault that resulted in serious bodily injury to the child or another child of the parent

Some states have passed state-level laws that require parental rights to be terminated sooner than 15 months out of the past 22 months.  Also, some states have other types of exceptions.

When does the 15/22 rule not apply?

About 60% of states have exceptions to the law that the state agency must seek termination if children have been in foster care for 15 months out of the past 22 months. These exceptions depend on the state and can include:

  • The child has been placed under the care of a relative.
  • The State agency has documented in the case plan a compelling reason to believe that terminating the parent’s rights is not in the best interests of the child.
  • The parent has not been provided with the services required by the service plan for family reunification.

Why do parents lose their rights to their children?

The list is long and depends on the state. Find Law has summarized the major reasons why a court may decide that a parent no longer has the right to their children:

  • Severe or chronic physical abuse of the child
  • Any sexual abuse of the child
  • Severe psychological abuse or torture of the child
  • Extreme emotional damage to the child inflicted by the parent
  • Child neglect by failing to provide shelter, food, or other needed care as is required by parental obligations
  • Abuse or neglect of other children in the same household
  • Abandonment of the child or extreme parental disinterest
  • Long-term mental illness of the parent
  • Long-term alcohol or drug induced incapacity of the parent
  • Failure to support the child
  • Failure to maintain contact with the child
  • Failure to provide education
  • Felony conviction of the parent for a violent crime against the child or another family member
  • Felony conviction of the parent when the term of imprisonment is long enough to negatively impact the child and the only other source of care for the child is foster care
  • The child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months, and the parent is still not ready for reunification.
  • Failure of reasonable efforts to rehabilitate the parent and reunite the family
  • Failure of the parent to comply with a court ordered plan
  • The child would be at risk if returned to the parent’s home.
  • Risk of substantial harm to the child
  • Inducing the child to commit a crime or crimes
  • Unreasonable withholding of consent to adoption by the non-custodial parent
  • The child’s need for continuity and care
  • The identity or location of the father is unknown after a reasonable attempt to determine or find him
  • The child was conceived as a result of rape or incest
  • The putative or presumptive father is not the child’s biological father
  • A newborn child is addicted to alcohol or drugs
  • Giving birth to three or more drug affected infants
  • Other egregious conduct or heinous or abhorrent behavior by the parent either to the child or others in a way that affects the child
  • The child has developed a strong and healthy relationship with his or her foster or other substitute family
  • The preference of the child
  • Voluntary relinquishment of rights by the parent

For more information about termination of parental rights, check out Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Should Survivors of Abuse be Foster Parents or Adoptive Parents?

Our social worker said that adult survivors of abuse, neglect, sexual assault and other forms of trauma often make the best foster/adoptive parents.  However, she said there is a big “but” that can disqualify people from adopting or becoming foster parents.  Read on…

Survivors Can Make Fantastic Parents – Adoptive or Foster

Empathy:  Adult survivors can truly empathize and understand what foster kids are going through.  They can easily love traumatized children as the child’s difficult circumstances don’t scare them away, and similar histories may actually be something that bonds them together as a family.  Survivors almost instinctually get that an outburst is due to fear of abandonment or that a tantrum is about anger over not having control of one’s life, which means these parents can see and address the root cause of their children’s less than desirable behaviors.  They may even have an innate sense of what to do to calm a child who’s acting out or feeling blue.

Vision:  These parents truly believe in a bright future for their hurt kids, even when those kids are struggling in school or are having a hard time making friends or even just being part of a family.  They know that hurt kids can heal and turn their lives around, because survivors know from their own experience of healing themselves that it can be done.

Dedication:  Parenting kids who may exhibit difficult behaviors can be exhausting.  Imagine handling a child who hits, who wets the bed, and yells a lot.  Now add time for doctor appointments, counseling sessions, teacher conferences, and visits with birth family.  And kids typically don’t thank parents.  Survivors can be tenacious, though, holding onto the vision of a healed child.  Perhaps they vowed that they wouldn’t give up on children like adults gave up on them when they were younger.  Perhaps they’ve vowed to make their own suffering mean something.  Perhaps they promised God that if God got them out of their previous bad situation, they would help others in the future.  Or maybe simply reflecting on how hard their journey of healing was will give them strength to stay the course.  Regardless, survivors tend to be dedicated to helping kids, even when the going gets tough.

Believing It:  Foster children’s stories can be horrific.  Their mother sold them to a pedophile in order to get drug money, their father tried to strangle them with a belt, or they have been eating carpet since their parents haven’t brought home food for weeks.  If you lived a typical childhood, it can be really hard to believe your new children’s stories of what happened.  You can be shocked by the tragedy and may have a hard time coping when your view of the world “as a good place” is turned upside down.  Survivors, however, know from experience that terrible things can and do happen; it’s not really that shocking when it happens to others, too.  Abused children benefit when parents validate their experiences, when parents trust that the children are telling the truth.  Traumatize children also benefit when their parents aren’t bowled over by their histories. They sense that their new parents are strong enough to handle their darkest experiences – giving them confidence that in time they will be able to cope, too.

When Survivors Should NOT Adopt or be Foster Parents

Triggers:  Your children’s troubles can trigger your own personal memories or emotional turmoil.  For example, imagine that your child reveals to you that he or she was sexually abused, and you were raped previously.  You may relive those experiences, and/or become sad, angry or depressed.  It’s already challenging to parent a traumatized child, but it can be incredibly tough to parent a child when you’re in your own emotional tailspin.  Will you still be able to work towards reuniting your foster kid with their family?  Will you have enough emotional energy to heal yourself and your children simultaneously?  If you haven’t healed from your trauma, now is not the time to take on responsibility for an abused or neglected child.

What’s Changed?:  Are those people who hurt you still in your life?  Sadly, the perpetrator who hurt you when you were younger may be a family member, such as a parent, aunt/uncle, or sibling.  You may have jumped from one bad previous relationship into another bad relationship.  How will you protect your children from abusive or neglectful relatives, significant others or friends?

How Social Workers Decide

Resolution? Counseling?:  Social workers will ask you about all of the losses in your life, how you handled them, and assess whether you seem to have resolved any trauma.  If you have gone through therapy and successfully addressed your own trauma, social workers will recognize this.  Be honest with them about what has happened in your life, and what you’ve done and continue to do to compensate.  For example, if you know bed wetting reminds you of being beaten as child and triggers big emotions, but you’ve made arrangements for your spouse to handle changing bed sheets if your child has an accident, then you’ve shown an understanding of yourself and the ability to handle that particular situation.  However, if social workers think you may have unresolved issues, they will ask you to seek counseling (on your dime) and then come back afterwards to finish your home study.  Your willingness to seek help will demonstrate to social workers that you’ll do what’s necessary to keep your family healthy.

Lifestyle:  Social workers use something called a genogram to dig through your family relationships.  In short, it maps out your relationships and acts as a guide for your social worker to talk with you about how well you get along with relatives.  If you had abusive or neglectful relatives, it gives you an opportunity to discuss how you’ve either resolved the situation, whether you have terminated the relationship, or how you would otherwise protect your foster or adoptive children.

Footnote

A 17 year old liked Should Foster Teens Seek Adoption?, so I checked out her site and saw a young woman in a lot of pain.  But I have faith that she can grow up to be a tremendous power for good.  (You can do it, C!)  She already inspired me to write this post (thanks, C!).  If you’re going through hell, keep going… and then consider how you can take something horrible and make it into something wonderful.

So, what do you think? Should adult survivors of abuse or neglect be able to foster or adopt?