We finished our training in July 2013 so it's been several months since we finished our 30 hours of PRIDE pre-service training through the state and the 20 hours through WACAP but it was an experience well worth sharing. Each training session was around 4 hours long and held 3-4 days a week about 30 miles away. Obviously this was a huge time commitment for a few weeks. We would both work full days, rush home, quickly pack snacks and then hit the road to training. We would typically get home between 10:30 and 11:00pm each night completely exhausted and emotionally drained. We were fortunate to have that 30 minutes drive home each night. It gave us a chance to discuss what we just learned and try to wrap our brains around it. Some nights the training was an especially heart breaking emotionally draining topic such as how to help toddlers dealing with sexual abuse. On those nights we would come home, take a deep breath and pray together. Then we would watch a short feel good show to remind ourselves that not everything in the world is evil.
While it was a rough experience on many levels, I am so glad we did it. Our instructors were exceptional in our opinion. There was one who has 20 years of experience as a social worker. She was the main instructor and has been teaching these training classes for about 5 years. I'll call her Amy. The other lady is a foster mother. She has fostered countless children and adopted 11! I'll call her Marie. Together these wonderful women expressed so much love and experience. Both Bret and I felt what they were able to teach us was truly invaluable.
Our first day of training we had no idea what to expect. We were happy to find out that our class only had about 20 people. Amy and Marie introduced themselves and shared a few stories about their experience with the foster care system. Then we went around the room and each person/couple introduced themselves and what connection they had to foster parenting. There was only one other person interested in doing foster to adopt. There were 2 couples that wanted to foster children from the state, and one couple willing to foster teenagers. Everyone else was planning to foster either a relative or the children of people they had fostered in the past. We had assumed the training was for new foster parents and were surprised to find out that you actually have to retake the training every couple years. Some of the people there had been foster parents for years and years. It was really insightful to hear their stories and comments throughout the training.
After the introductions, Amy and Marie passed out foster parent training "books" if you can call them that. It was over 2,000 pages of rules, procedures and work sheets. This "book" looked more like a daunting cement brick that would suck out our sanity and kill us slowly and painfully. Amy seemed unfazed by our terrified faces and proceeded to pass out "passports". It was basically a schedule of all the topics we were going to discuss with a line next to each topic where Amy and Marie would sign off that we had passed it. Each topic correlated to a huge wad of our cement brick. It still seemed intimidating but the schedule actually made me feel a lot better. Now we knew what to expect each day.
I could probably fill 100 blog posts with what we learned in those 50 hours but I'll limit it the ones we felt changed us the most on each topic. I've organized them by the Topics they gave us on our passports.
Intro to Foster/Adopt
Allegations and the Panel
They told us the number of foster children in the state of Washington in 2012 was 10,068. That's a lot of children! Then they mostly went over things we already knew like deciding what age ranges you can foster, if you want to get approved for foster to adopt, and all the forms you need and what social workers do. They also explained the difference steps to go through depending on if you have a specific child you want to foster or if you are going to be a foster parent open to accepting children placed by the state. They shared lots of good information but I've covered it decently in previous posts so I'll skip it for now.
Marie told us she would get around 17 emails/calls a day about foster children needing homes! Apparently this is pretty typical for foster parents. Amy and Marie spent a lot of time explaining that you have to become really good at knowing your limits and saying no! They said you can't have a "savior complex" which basically means feeling guilty if you don't save everyone. They explained that while the "savior complex" is admirable, if you have more children than you can realistically care for, it stresses everyone out and often leads to financial ruin and/or broken families. Their advice was if you are capable and willing to accept 4 foster children and you already have 4, don't even read the emails for more children. If they call you just say "no I don't have room right now" and stick to it!
Bret and I will not have that same experience because we are only participating in the foster to adopt program. The number of foster children available for adoption is much smaller. When a child comes up that is close to being "free" (eligible for adoption) the state will contact WACAP who will then make sure the age range and medical needs fit what we are approved to handle. When they (WACAP & the state) agree that we are a good match for being that child's permanent placement, only then will we be contacted.
They also explained how a child becomes free. The first step is CPS decides the child needs to be removed from their parents care. They are now a foster child. There are 3 plans already in place.
Plan A is always to have the child be a temporary foster child with to goal of reunification with their biological parent. They will first look at any family member that are potentially able to temporarily care for the child. If there are none, they may try for "fictive family" which is a really close family friend or someone the child is already familiar with. If even that is not an option then the child is placed with a foster family through the state. There are lots of programs set up help the parents work through addiction, find jobs, or do whatever needs to be done to get their children back.
Plan B is when the parent is struggling with the plan set in place by the state. At this point it looks like it's going to take a long time for them to get back on their feet so the state starts looking for a long term foster family.
Plan C means the parent has failed to meet the improvement deadlines set in place by the state. In this case the state removes most visitation rights and declares the child "legally free" meaning eligible for adoption. There are a lot more rules about this plan but I can discuss those at a different time.
Court dates are set which are dead lines for the parents. At each court date the judge will determine which plan the state should act on. Marie explained that a lot of children get stuck between B and C because parents will pull themselves together the day before the court date. Then as soon as it's over they go back to whatever terrible life style they had before.
Since Bret and I are doing the Foster to Adopt program, we will only be contacted about children that are on Plan C or children that have been on Plan B for so long they will likely be on Plan C soon. There is no guarantee that we can for sure adopt them, but the chances are high. Once we get a placement the child must live with us for a minimum of 6 months before we can apply to adopt them.
Importance of Families & Connections
Marie and Amy explained the rules of visitation with parents. It should be in a public place or at the state office NOT in our home. If parents are more than 20 minutes late they missed their chance. It's not fair to the child to make them sit there hoping for a whole hour.
When the topic "how to talk to the biological parents" was introduced both Bret and I were like um okay that's easy. We avoid them at all cost and hope our child's contact with them is minimal or non existent right? We had no idea how wrong we were. The training in this area was truly eye opening.
As foster parents we are not responsible for taking the children for visits, we only have to make sure the children are available to be picked up by their social worker. But both Amy and Marie highly recommend that we do drive them and meet the parents if possible. They said that gives you a chance to see where the child came from and to have that one on one time to talk things out on the way home. Also if the parent has met you and feels comfortable with you, they are more likely to turn over custody to you sooner should it come to that.
Amy and Marie made a big deal about pointing out that these visits mean the world to these children most of the time. They are potentially the few happy moments with their parents that they have to cherish. Amy suggested taking photos of what you did since they last visit and printing them out for the child to give their parents at the visit. Then take a picture of them with their parents during the visit. Those few pictures they have with their parents will likely become their most prized possessions.
Visits aren't always happy occasions. Sometimes the parent is rude, says inappropriate things, scares the child or maybe they don't even show. The visits are always supervised and anything that happens is reported to the state and will effect their eligibility for future visits. Sometimes after visits children will throw tantrums and it can feel like you're back and square one. This is just something you have to deal with. They told us to stick to a schedule and make sure the child knows you love them.That way they will always know what to expect and eventually they'll come to terms with it. If visits are traumatic for the child maybe add a positive interaction afterwards. Like always stop at diary queen on the way home. Marie suggested never planning other social events close to visits with their parents since you don't always know how they'll react afterwards.
It can feel impossible to respect their parents when you know what they did to this child you love so much. Marie told us to remember these parents have not earned the honor of raising their children but they all deserve to be treated like human beings. They both acknowledged that this can be hard to pull off for many foster parents. She did an object lesson to help us understand.
Amy started by having Marie sit in a chair at the front of the class. Then she asked us to think of the best parent we knew. We were told to think about how much they love their children and what specific things they do that makes them qualify to be an exceptional parent in our eyes.
After a few minutes she told us to imagine Marie was the parent we had been thinking of. She then started to create a scenario. She is 21 with one 2 year old son whom she loves more than life itself. She is working as a waitress while she goes to school full time. She grew up with a loving family in a poor area. Her father has passed on and her mother is elderly. Despite all this Marie is a happy exuberant person with lots of ambition.
One day Marie is on her way to work when she hits a patch of black ice that spins her into a pole which breaks her leg and severely damaging the back of her car.
::Amy puts a thin translucent scarf over Marie's head::
She has to miss work and spend all day in the ER but her car is still running and her son is safe so she decides to count her blessings. The next day she goes in to work to see if there's anything she can do for work since waitressing is no longer an option with crutches. They tell her the best they can do is let her host until she is back on her feet. Now without the benefit of tips, this is a HUGE pay cut. Marie does her best but with her injury it's really hard to stand so much and the pay just isn't enough to cut it.
::Another scarf is put on her head::
Now it's close to finals. She knows she needs to study but is so worried about money that she has a hard time focusing. Unfortunately all the stresses of the past weeks are evident in her grades and she is put on academic probation. She decides to rededicate herself and ace the next semester.
One month in to the semester her mother calls saying she can no longer watch Marie's son during the day. Now Marie has to pay for daycare for son. She decides to take a few extra shifts to help pay for it. She is so tired all the time that she starts taking some pills to help her stay up long enough to study.
A few days later her damaged car finally calls it quits. She starts taking the bus but it's unreliable and she shows up late to work most days. But good news she is back on her feet! She asks for her waitressing position back but they tell her that her that evaluation was not good because she looked disheveled and showed up late all the time. They tell her she's lucky to keep the hosting job. She feels like a failure and starts drinking. School is to expensive on a hostess salary so she drops out. She is also now addicted to those pills she took to keep her up.
She tries looking for a better job but it's near impossible since she doesn't have any time or a car. A few weeks later Marie's job fires her.
::A final scarf is placed on her head::
Obviously now she is so covered in scarves that it impossible to see her face. It's a lot harder to think of her as a person now. Amy told us not all, but many biological parents have been through situations like this. They truly are wonderful people that just haven't learned the correct way to deal with stresses. Often times they are to proud to ask for help or simply just don't know where to go to ask for it. She intentionally didn't end the scenario because we all know what typically happens when people become that desperate.
Amy explained that we should remember that the biological parents are people too we don't know their story so never assume anything. If we treat them like a human being and not a worthless pieces of trash, it is amazing how much of a difference it can make on both ends. She was careful to explain that treating them like a person is not the same as saying what they did to their child is okay. She said it is perfectly okay to be boiling inside but we should NEVER trash talk a child's parents to anyone especially the child. It is our job to care and love a child not tear apart the personal lives of the people they love.
We did an exercise for this topic. Amy had us fill out a questionnaire with questions like what are you doing tomorrow? Who will you be with? What are you having for dinner? What is your next vacation? After we were done we gave them back to Amy. She then shuffled them and passed them out randomly. Then she went around the room asking us questions. We could only use what was on our sheet to answer them. My sheet said that tomorrow I was going to "work" and I would be with "Jordan and Mark". Amy said okay where do you work? How are you getting there? What time do you need to be at work? Who are James and Mark? Friends? Coworkers? Family? It was really disconcerting because obviously I have no idea!
Amy said she wanted us to remember that feeling of anxiety and confusion because that is what it feels like to be a foster child. One minute everything is all planned and you're comfortable with it. Then suddenly they get a new family with a new schedule and new goals. It takes a while to wrap your head around it. She said imagine your first sheet said your next vacation was Disney World and you were really excited about it. Then your new sheet said the next trip was to driving to Nevada to visit "family" that was really just a bunch of strangers to you. Wouldn't you feel sad and angry and act out a little?
Loss & Grief
For this segment Marie asked us to imagine we go home, get ready for bed and go to sleep. Then in the morning a stranger wakes you up and tells us we have 10 minutes to pack up our stuff and say goodbye. She tells us we are leaving everything and everyone we know because they're dangerous. We can't see or talk to any of them unless this stranger gives you permission. The stranger takes you to a house with some nice looking people and tells you this is your home now. Would you immediately feel at home and open to what this new family has to offer. Maybe you have no idea what was wrong with the only home you know.
Marie explained that even if these children were living in the worst conditions imaginable, it was their normal. They were familiar with the day to day life and knew what to expect. When you rip them out of that and place them in a new home, even a loving stable home, often times they just long to go back to what is familiar to them. She taught us that this situation is very similar to if their parents had died since the grief process is essentially the same in this case.
We had never thought of it this way but I guess it really is true. I would have a really hard time adjusting to life without someone I'm used to seeing every day. Especially if I knew they were alive, I just wasn't allowed to see them.
Marie said many (not all) foster children will latch on to one parent and reject the other. The chosen parent will likely get followed around like a puppy and won't get much if any space. She said one of her foster children literally held on to her leg and wouldn't let go for hours. Other examples are the child might throw a fit every time that parent leaves. This is rough on both parents. The parent that's "chosen" will feel overwhelmed by having to do everything. The other parent will feel well rejected. She said in the beginning maybe just let them have things their way. Just for 3-4 days then start to mold the situation. She had lots of good suggestions but the one that stood out the most to us was the desert plan. What child doesn't want desert? Marie suggested that the "rejected" parent is the desert keeper. The chosen parent will never mention desert, only the rejected parent will. The child might not go for it at first but over time they'll start to have small positive interactions with the rejected parent over desert. She had other variations of this same idea with things like iPad time or going to the Lego store.
Amy also said not to take it personally at all if you are the rejected parent. That sounds next to impossible to do! She explained a lot of times the reasons are as simple as my dad hurt me so I only like women. So dad is a guy which means he is rejected. All it means is the rejected parent will have to work harder to grow that loving bond but it will happen.
Most foster children are behind in school because of the emotional toll of various types of abuse not to mention being bounced around to different schools and homes time after time. We learned to be extremely patient and understanding. They taught us to make a big deal about seemingly small accomplishments even if they are things for example celebrating that they got a C- on their spelling test instead of a D like last week. Amy told us many of these children have been told by their parents, teachers and peers that they are stupid and worthless and will never amount to anything and sadly these children believe it. It could take years to help them see that they are of great worth. So in the mean time any improvement is impressive and celebratory. They also said to be open minded about home schooling, private tutors, or holding them back a grade. Marie said to ignore the social stigma and do whatever is best for the child.
Also many foster children don't "act their age". Amy taught us about several reasons for this. The tough one is caused by abuse. They may be 8 years old but act like their 5 because at age 5 they were sexually abused and they are emotionally stuck at that age. The best thing you can do is be patient and aware. Also consider a child physiologist. The other big reason for developmental delay is social rejection. They may not have stayed in the same place long enough to make friends. Or maybe they have but the unfair stigma of being a foster child put a target on their back. Many foster children are bullied. All of these things combined make it difficult to have positive social interactions where they can grow in to their age.
We were cautioned not to compare their education or social accomplishments to those of children that have grown up with a stable loving family. I'm a piano teacher and thought it could be similar to that. Say child A started taking piano lessons at age 5 from a highly skilled pianist. He has a nice piano at home and a mom that helps him practice each day. Child B also stared lessons at age 5 from a lady in the neighborhood but he doesn't have a piano at home to practice. 3 months later the teacher moved so they got a different teacher, 5 months later the child's family moved so they got a different new teacher. Then a year later they couldn't afford lessons so he tries to continue learning from a friend at school. So on and so forth. Now child A and child B are 10. Both have had 5 years of lessons. Does it seem fair to hold child B to the same standard as child A?
They told us to have high yet realistic expectations. They should always be learning and growing, but start from where they are now not where society thinks they should be based on other children their same age.
They taught us various different ways to discipline children. Most are pretty standard like taking away privileges and time out kind of stuff. They spent most of the time explaining what is NOT okay to do. It was really sad how specific they had to be. I won't go in to detail because I see no reason to create those sad images for anybody.
One of the points they made that stuck out the most to use was spanking. They said it is never okay to spank a foster child. It is not because they are against spanking in general, just for foster children. Children who are spanked but know their parents love them typically turn out just fine. However foster children may have been beaten for doing the smallest thing wrong. An example they gave was getting beaten for taking to long to answer the phone while their parents were hung over. The association of spanking and beating is to similar for an abused child so they said to just avoid it all together.
I won't go in to great detail on this subject either. The main thing they taught us here was to listen to what the child tell you. If they say don't touch me then don't touch them. Even if all you want to do is hug them or put them on your lap to read a book. Amy taught us that they need to feel like they are in control of their personal space. If they're personal bubble is 3 feet than stay 3 feet away. You can still read to them just maybe sit on a different chair. Rather than hugging them she said you could do the sign for love or the sign for hug or blow a kiss. She said over time they will trust you and be okay with more physically contact. We should make sure they know without a doubt that we love them. Then let them to be the ones to initiate any physical contact when they feel comfortable.
The last day of training was a panel of 4 people. One was Amy then there was a foster mother (not Marie), a girl that had grown up as a foster child and a lady for cps that investigates allegations against foster parents. They answered any questions anybody had and explained what happens when you are investigated. They asked if anyone in the room had ever been investigated and every person that had been a foster parent raised their hand. Apparently it's fairly common which is suppose is a good thing. Basically all we need to do is stay calm, answer their questions, and try not to take it personally. HA likes that's possible! But it's good to have a heads up that it may happen. They gave us support groups and help lines we can call should we ever be investigated. I hope we never have to use any of them!!
I know that was probably an overload of information for all of you and I only scratched the surface of everything we covered!! There are so many more examples and ideas that changed how we thought about foster parenting but those will need to wait for another time.
We feel so blessed to have had such wonderful instructors. I know social workers get a bad rep. Just remember that are many many amazing people that have dedicated their lives to helping these children. It is a huge emotionally draining job for which they get little respect, a lot of blame and almost no pay. They could really use your support. I feel so privileged to have met Amy and Marie. I can't even imagine how we would have figured out how to deal with all these issues without the training.