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April 1999 - Volume 2 - Issue 4

Foster Home: Cheap Hotel or Treatment Center?
By Betty and Gordon Evans

After 17 years of fostering, we can state without reservation that foster parenting is enormously frustrating and short on external rewards, but a deeply satisfying experience. The opportunity to help shape a young life through genuine love and nurturing, to instill or restore a sense of worth at a critical time in a little life, is very special. We are considered "different" or "cold-blooded," to be able to let go after a relationship has deepened and a child must leave. We don't pretend that parting is easy, but we accept it as a natural event in doing our job. Society weeps at the tragedy of abused and /or neglected or unwanted children but leaves it to "someone else" to help them. We are the "someone else."

has been suggested that a foster home is not unlike a cheap hotel. They both provide low-cost room and board for transients. And in most areas of the country, foster care is indeed, "low cost." But that is an unfortunate and unwarranted analogy, for we see foster homes more as "treatment centers," providing residential care, yes, but attempting to meet the total needs of a child as well, trying to make available meaningful growth experiences for each individual child.

The fact is, individualized care and treatment is possible in a foster family home. Given the love, desire and skills which are usually present, and augmenting them with training -- lots of training - can make it happen. Most foster parents desperately want to sharpen and broaden their skills through specialized educational opportunities of the kind of children for whom they provide care.

Since the goal of foster care is NOT to allow placed children to be in a "holding pattern" until some later date when their future is determined, but to better the life of a foster child, the foster parent must -- early on -- prioritize the needs for the child. Paramount may be the youngster's self-image, often pitifully poor from what they see as rejection by the only family they have ever known. In other cases, there are pressing medical or emotional needs to be met. It is for this reason that it is so important for the foster family to be made aware of all aspects of the child's previous family and individual life experiences -- and the circumstances which prompted removal -- that the treatment process may begin.

For a foster family to function in this manner, it is important that their role be clearly understood by all. Psychologists speak of the importance of human beings finding their identity . . . "who or what am I?". Foster parents share this requirement. Year after year, they seek a clarification of their place in the social services scheme asking, "What is required of me, and who will help me achieve it? Where do I fit in?" Unfortunately, foster parents are sometimes seeking answers not only for themselves, but for the social workers who license and service them, too.

It is abundantly clear that foster care is not fully understood by friends, neighbors, or even county officials and lawmakers who must provide funding for such programs. The pity is that it is not always fully understood by some of the professionals with whom foster parents serve. Workers are often very young, with few life experiences and meager initial training. Turnover is high, for they, too, suffer under the strain of what they do.

The very nature of fostering is demanding and difficult. Twenty-four hours a day they are asked to give, give of themselves with little or no respite. The shortage of foster homes usually precludes "matching" a child with a particular family and unless the agency is very supportive, human relationships may be strained too greatly, and the foster home may crater from an inappropriate placement. Not only is it difficult or impossible for foster parents to explain to others their resignation to the inevitable separation from a loved foster child, even some workers cannot be expected to comprehend the depth of love that foster parents can give to someone else's child.

Our rationale is that all children leave home, foster children just leave sooner: and although we cherish the opportunity to provide a temporary haven for kids whose family ties have been temporarily severed, most of all, we want for them the permanence which can come from returning home or through adoption. It is terrifying to see children doomed too "indefinite" foster care because of legal impediments, or from "getting lost" in the system. During the time a child is with us, one of our goals is to provide preparation for what will come later, valuing the child for himself alone, hoping for improvement in school work, modeling accepted behaviors and manners, and the reality of being a loved member of a family.

If and when parental rights have been terminated, many foster parents are now fortunate to work with enlightened agencies which provide a transition period between the foster care and adoption experiences. Having become the child's psychological family, a gradual, sensitive, loving, weaning away from one family to the other provides a measure of comfort to the child at a very traumatic time. And, ideally, the foster family has taught the child to view them as only a temporary family. While there is grief for both child and foster family, (as we call it) the "happy tragedy" day has arrived. During that stay with us, whether three or twenty-three months, we were anything by a "cheap hotel." The child who has left our home is usually a far different child than the one who came to us. With help -- sometimes a great deal of help -- we have diagnosed her/his needs and set out to satisfy as many as feasible. We have added to the young life those ingredients which, hopefully, have better prepared him/her to resume a biological relationship, or to assume a "forever" relationship with a new family.

And now -- the treatment center must focus on the needs of yet another child . . .

Mr. and Mrs. Evans have vast experience in foster care and can be contacted at 226 Kilts, Houston, Texas 77024. Thank you to Mr. Gordon Evans for granting permission to reprint this article.

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