That First Night in Foster Care

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Try for a moment to put yourself into your foster child’s shoes.

Close your eyes and imagine you are with your mom and your baby brother. You are staying at a motel and Spongebob Squarepants is on TV. Suddenly, someone knocks at the door and two police officers come in and start talking to your mom. She starts to cry or yell, and then one takes you by the hand and tells you to come with him while the other one picks up your baby brother.

No one tells you to grab your toy, so you don’t. You just get into the back of his police car. Your mom is crying and you’re scared. The policeman gives you a sucker—he even says you can have two!—and then he takes you to an office building, where you sit in a room with some toys, but no one to play with you. They take your brother to another room (he is asleep in his car seat). Adults with folders and papers in their hands come and go, talking quietly with each other and smiling occasionally at you.

Then, after some time (a few hours perhaps?), another adult you’ve never met introduces herself to you. She may say that her job is to help keep you safe (or something like that), and she tells you to come with her to her car. You’re going to have a sleepover with some “nice people” tonight. She grabs a backpack from a closet that (you will find out later) has clothes you’ve never seen and a toothbrush that isn’t yours and a someone else’s stuffed animal.

Your baby brother does not come with you.

You drive for a long time. The person who is driving stops at Burger King and buys you a kid’s meal, then you arrive at a house you’ve never been to before. You walk inside the house and a strange woman smiles at you, introduces herself and shows you the room where you’re going to sleep.

It smells funny in this house.

The bed is so different from where you sleep at home with your mom. In fact, you sleep with her every night and now you’re in a strange room, in a strange bed by yourself. The woman who lives there opens the backpack you brought and there are some pajamas inside. She tells you to put them on. She saids it’s time to “brush your teeth,” but this is not something you usually do, so you look at her without moving. She says it again, and you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. Finally, she finds the toothbrush inside the bag (or she gets one she already had) and puts some toothpaste on it. You take the toothpaste and suck it off of the toothbrush and the woman tells you to brush your teeth, but you don’t know what she means, so you just stare at her. Finally, she takes the toothbrush and tells you to open your mouth, and she starts scrubbing your teeth. It feels weird and you don’t like it and you’re starting to feel really mad. But you don’t know this person, you don’t know what she’ll do, so you just go along with it—for now.

Finally, she tells you to pick out a book and sit on the bed. None of the books you like are there, but you choose one from the shelf. She sits next to you and starts to read. She touches your hand and it feels weird.

She feels weird.

You miss your mom. You wonder about your baby brother. You do not want to be here, but no one asked you what you want. The woman finishes the book, tells you to lie down and tucks the blanket around you. It’s doesn’t feel like your blanket, and it smells weird. She turns a nightlight on, but it’s not very bright and when she leaves the room, you turn the light back on. The woman comes back in, tells you it’s late and time for sleep and turns the light back off.

You hate her. This is not how your mom does it. Your mom stays up late and so do you. You play or watch TV until you fall asleep. It is so strange to be lying in this bed, alone and wide awake. But what can you do? Where can you go?

You lie there feeling afraid, angry and confused. You have no idea why you’re here. You have no idea how long you’ll be here. You have no idea when you’ll see your mom again. You start to cry.

At some point, you fall asleep.

# # #

In the next few posts, I’m going to respond to a question I’ve been asked several times: “How do you handle it when your foster child rages?” In fact, this is the topic we’ll explore on this Thursday’s Flourishing Foster Parent Coaching Call.

But before I dig in to the “HOW,” I want to explore the “WHY,” and that requires taking some time to step into your foster child’s shoes (as much as is possible) when they come into your care. As much as you try to be a kind, good foster parent, the bottom line is you are a stranger, and everything about your house and your toys and your food is strange.

It’s really important that we foster parents internalize this truth: the experience of coming into your home is yet another traumatic event in this child’s life.

In the next post I’ll dig in a bit more to the “WHY” behind your foster child’s “Big Feelings,” which can often be expressed with fits of rage. Then, after we have explored the “WHY,” we’ll also get into some ideas for “HOW” to respond.

37 thoughts on “That First Night in Foster Care

  1. mamabearfostercare says:

    Such solid insight….we often don’t think of the “why” and instead focus on the remedy for fixing a behavior. Remembering to take those few extra seconds to reflect on what might be causing this….trauma, experience, etc….can take us so much farther in being able to help.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Savannah odom says:

    This couldn’t be more the classes we were required to take before being liscenced we read a story similar with the same concept..I never thought of the child feeling this way..I just knew the child would be elated to come into a nice home with all the love and food and security she/he had never before experienced..BUT that’s far from their reality..they want to be back home where they are neglected and abused because that’s all they’ve ever known..even though we can even fathom that thought, its there…we have to be gentle and slow with our approach so that the child can have time to adapt..pat on the back to all foster parents

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christy K. says:

      I had not thought of it this way either, until I had been living it for over five years! Like you, I assumed a child would be relieved to finally feel “safe.” Little did I know that children feel “safest” when they can predict their life, even if that includes predictable time left alone while mom is out using, or predictable abuse from mom’s boyfriend (sadly, a common occurrence). I have been really educated by books like “The Body Keeps the Score,” which goes into detail about how abuse and neglect affect children and why many people choose to stay in abusive situations rather than find safety. It’s important to learn as much as we can about this if we are foster parents!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Beth says:

        Not all children that are ripped from their families are neglected or abused. Some a ripped out of loving homes by over zealous CPS workers who are over booked o we worked and do not care. Remeber that. Remeber that sometimes you have children that have great parents but a CPS worker does not like how hard they have to work or that they are single parents and the laundry is not folded . Or they have a special needs child and ar begging for support and carea nd help and their child is ripped from.them. ripped from nursing mothers ,ripped from. Kind good people.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Christy K. says:

        Not all, you’re right. There are exceptions. Of the fifteen children we have had, one probably should not have been removed. But the rest were very clearly victims of neglect and abuse. It’s always tragic, either way. Always.


    • Lee says:

      This is the side we don’t often reflect on… my client experienced having CPS come and take her 2 yr, 1 yr and 1 month old to foster care on this past Friday … although, we feel it is best for the children, it really makes melts my heart to see it from the child’s eyes. I wander how the 1 and 2 yr old feel today. I know they miss their mom! I watched their reaction whenever we would come back to the house after a visit!! They love mom no matter what the surroundings may be. It’s their life and the children may not realize the danger they are in.

      CPS is not an agency that wants to separate families, but sometimes it’s the safest for the children! Thank you for sharing from the eyes of a child.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sherrie Sutton says:

    The WHY is so important for you as the Foster Parent to try and understand. It may take days, weeks or years but something will surface that brings out reactions. Keep in your heart the true reason for taking on this privilege and you, with support, will figure out the How. Blessings and best wishes for all that become Foster Parents.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Patricia Smith says:

    The fact pattern is true as far as it goes but why were the children removed? I didn’t read anything that suggested imminent danger. What had been done to try to keep the family together? Until we deal with that issue far too many children will experience this event.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Theresa Henderson says:

      Hi Patricia, the point of the story is it is from the child’s point of view. It does say the child didn’t even know how to brush her teeth which hints at neglect. Also, in many cases, the possessions of the people in the home may be infested with lice and bed bugs, even the stuffed toys. It is extremely sad.
      I fostered some children whose parents I knew who lived in an unstable environment. Our relationship, because we were close friends, was named by the system as “fictive kin”. So we became like grandparents to the little ones. We made sure the parents had as many visiting days as they wanted which turned out to be every day. I taught the Mom how to cook, showed her how to use a cookbook, and set up a menu for a month so she’d know what groceries to buy. I showed her the discounts we could get at the grocery with our store card, and how to coupon.
      Her first trip grocery shopping with me was a hoot! Seeing the $68 dollar saving by buying store brands and using coupons shocked her. Seeing her children eat vegetables was also a shock. Amazing what a little butter or cheese and seasonings can do to vegetables.
      And after the Dad got a permanent job and they’d been through parenting classes, the children were returned to them. We have been involved in their lives ever since.

      It takes people willing to do this for free, we got no monetary compensation because that compensation would be billed to the client, and they simply did NOT have the means to do so, even after the Dad got a steady job. The compensation we have gotten in love is comparable to that you get from blood relatives. They keep saying “You love us because you want to, not because you have to.”
      I answered you because what you want to happen DOES happen but not often enough.


      • Christy K. says:

        Theresa, you are my absolute favorite kind of human. Thank you for sharing. May your attitude and actions be contagious, infecting many others to step into people’s villages and help make a radical difference. Bless you big time!!


      • Dolores B. says:

        Thank you Theresa Henderson! You set a wonderful example of God’s love for all of us. I love that you have the patience to teach such valuable life skills–so important! I pray that God continues to richly bless you as He uses you to encourage others.


    • Beth says:

      This right here. It angers me how many children are ripped apart from siblings and parents without someone helping to help fix housing or maybe some parenting skills .

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dawn Tawareguci says:

    Reading this article made my heart sad, and made me think that I’m at a time in my life now where I can do more. The part where a backpack was grabbed with PJs and a toothbrush really touched me. Is this the norm, do they have enough backpacks, how can I and my friends help, are there certain things that have to go inside the backpack, can more things go in?


    • Christy K. says:

      Hi Dawn! Contact your local agency that handles foster care (in Washington, it’s DCYF—Dept. of Children, Youth, and Families) and find out who handles this for them. In Seattle the DCYF office has a room filled with duffle bags and backpacks organized by age so social workers can grab what they need quickly. Another organization to look into is Together We Rise— We have had several children come with bags from them! Thanks for caring about foster care!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jennifer says:

        Hello! I felt the same and started a ministry in my county. When a social worker gets a placement, they give me a call. I make a bag of whatever size clothes they need and drop at the office. I never see the children, but I know I’m helping in some small way. I just collect these clothes from friends and families in my church. There’s also being a CASA which can make a huge difference for a child.


    • Betty Marcoux says:

      Hi Dawn: As a Guardian ad Litem I often see the very issue you are writing about. We have started a community campaign that asks sewing and quilting groups to make simple “Buddy Bags” for these children, and we are working to place them in social workers’ cars and load them with things a child may want/need. Age appropriate, but these bags are for the kids, and they get to add to the bag – it may be a favorite blanket, book, stuffed toy, shoes, etc. PJs are wonderful, but many of the children I have worked with don’t have a clue as to what these are. There are never enough backpacks to go around, thank you for thinking this way.


  6. Mary says:

    We adopted 3 children. My 14 year old daughter throws up to me when she gets angry I don’t understand what is like to be in foster care and to lose your parents when you are adopted. I have not been in her shoes but I try to understand. And as foster parents we have loss sometimes also. We had 2 children before that we grew to love and we were told we were going to get to adopt them. Then one day out of the blue we received a call to bring them to the dcbs office the judge gave them back to their parent. The little girl wrapped her arms around me so tight and her mom had to pull her off me. She cried for me. They promised us we would be called if they came back into care and after 7 months they were put back in to foster care. We did not receive that call. So I tell my daughter that I adopted no I don’t know what its like to be taken from my parents but I do know what it’s like to have a loss.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. TheycalledmeJoanne says:

    For me it was chili cheese dogs at weinersnitchel.
    Not going to bed in the outfit I had on was frightening. Having a quiet home was terrifying. That first touch from your foster mom is excruciatingly torturing to your soul. Smiles from everyone haunt your dreams like a bad B rated movie, think a scene from a “fun house” . Shutting off your brain seems impossible and sleep is something you forgot how to do and kindness is outrageously scary. It takes forever to feel normal, and even then you will NEVER feel normal again. You learn to adapt and respond appropriately, or at least you think you do and you hold your breath for months, even years, trying to figure out what you did wrong to get taken from your life and put on another planet called safety. You have so many conflicting feelings and the ONLY ones you can express are anger and sadness because you are deathly afraid to laugh. Laughing is painful because it comes out unexpectedly and then when you stop, you feel guilty because you don’t know where your siblings are and don’t even know if you will ever see them again. You learn to answer questions, and tell your story, but tell it the way they want you to, and you hear the words come out of your mouth but you don’t recognize your own voice because everything is so alien to you. Then, eventually you forget who you were, and become this new person and no matter how hard you try, you still feel lost, and no one looks in your eyes to see the fear is still there, they just glaze over you with more smiles and tell you that you are doing well and will be back again next month to check on you…….. ……

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Meghann says:

    My Brother and I were put in foster care when I was 9 and he was 14. This is accurate to the T for me. I went to 3 different homes in 11 months I was in the system and each one was strange at first.
    My brother has asperger syndrome and foster families couldn’t care for him or wouldn’t. They sent me away for the weekend during the summer and when I got back he was gone in a group home 70 miles away. I never got to say goodbye. I didn’t see him for 6 months and then it was every two weeks for an hour.
    I was able to go home to my mother after 11 months. My brother stayed in the states custody until he turned 18. We spent the rest of our child hoods apart from each other. We are still very close, but it feels like there is a big chunk of our history missing.
    I remember the feeling of going to a new house. Terrified and confused… New smells and strangers suddenly changing routine, new schools, new random life just thrown at you and you have no say at all in what happens.
    Please foster parents be patient and understanding. I know the shift in life is difficult for you, but remember the children you are taking responsibility for. Their lives have been flipped! Give them time to adjust. Just because you read their files doesn’t mean you know the whole story. Please be patient. My brother and I would have stayed together if people had been more patient with our adjustments to our new world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christy K. says:

      I am so sorry. Your post hits so close to home for me. We have had siblings who were similar to you and your brother. I can’t say anymore except to say that they were able to stay together and they are together to this day and are doing great. The thought of them being separated like you and your brother were absolutely guts me. I’m so sorry that was your experience. Thank you so much for sharing!


  9. Robin Entrekin says:

    I was placed in foster care for some many years of my young life. The foster families I had were pieces of shit. All they cared about was getting that check they were being paid to have me in their home. I didn’t have a childhood. I had to grow up really quick. A lot of people think I’m a heartless person and I am but that is what the system did to me. That’s my story and it sucks but I’m strong and I’ll be okay because everyone has to answer for their own wrong doings when it’s their time then they will get what they deserve.


    • Christy K. says:

      Robin, there is absolutely no excuse for what happened to you. I’m so sorry this was your experience. You deserved better.


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