By Rochelle Rollins, PhD, MPH
Whether abandoned by parents, removed by law enforcement temporarily, or left as wards of the state, nearly 400,000 children depend on the Administration for Children and Families’ Children Bureau, which funds a critical network of states, Tribes and communities that provide food and shelter for these children.
Over the past 12 years my husband and I have cared for 11 foster children (five boys and six girls, ages 6 to 18). Since we are African American, our tendency has been to foster African American children but we have also been foster parents to Asian, African, Jamaican and Latino children. We encourage our married and single friends to seriously consider being foster parents because the rewards are so numerous for the child and the family. We know that our two biological sons have benefited from the experience and understand the importance of community service.
Getting Training and Saying Yes to Placements
We took the training to become foster parents when our oldest son was 7 years old. After the home inspection and other requirements were completed we started to receive calls from social workers looking to place children. The children who have arrived to our home with their social workers were usually tired, scared and confused. Regardless of their age, their most pressing need was to feel safe. Our first two foster children were brothers age 6 and 8 who cried themselves to sleep the first night. I slept nearby and was ready to comfort them but I was still a stranger who they did not know or trust. Fortunately, we have a flurry icebreaker, our little dog named Snoball, who all of the children quickly bond with and love. They enjoy walking and playing with the dog and he loves the extra attention.
Preparing the Home
In addition to preparing the guest bedroom, with each child we prepare ourselves. Growing up, my sons knew that on any day of the week there could be a new child in our home and they would need to share their toys, electronics and sometimes bathroom. I think sharing is an important life lesson. If we have children during the summer then they join us on family vacations. For example, this summer our 13-year-old foster child went with us to our family reunion in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. She spent a week with my extended family. I introduced her to everyone as my daughter and we went on from there.
Other adjustments that have been made include weekly or monthly visits that our foster children have with their social workers, therapists, and/or court advocates. The providers make the visits as convenient as possible which I appreciate.
The most frequent question that I am asked is how do I say goodbye once it is time for a child to leave? My response is that dealing with the separation is part of the process. I think that all foster parents have strong faith that the time and experiences they give a child will be remembered and will make a difference. My job is to give my foster children positive memories and treat them as I do my biological children. I do not shield them from family disagreements because seeing and learning how to disagree without being disagreeable will help build their emotional intelligence, and in turn, prepare them for adulthood.
Saying goodbye is never easy. I never cry in front of them instead I keep the conversation as light as possible. Our routine is that I take a family photo in the driveway before the children leave. That night we begin to adjust to a smaller family unit until there is another call.
Do I ever wonder about what happened to the children who have lived with us? Of course I do. I think of it like this – in a subway there are bumpy tiles at the end of the platform. These are designed to warn people to step back. Most children are taught by an adult to stand away from the edge until the train arrives. As a foster parent I have had the privilege of helping to steer 11 children off of the bumpy tiles. I have held their hands for a period of time and then guided them onto their train. You have probably heard foster parents say that they feel like the lucky ones. This is absolutely true.
How to Become a Foster Care Parent
The Children’s Bureau, together with its services, Child Welfare Information Gateway and AdoptUSKids, provides resources about the foster care system. See the following for more information and resources about becoming a foster parent and foster parenting: