Discerning When to Say When

No one becomes a foster parent thinking they will end up having to disrupt the placement of a child.

When we bring a child into our homes, we feel committed and hopeful. We are determined to love that child to the very end. I have written about the value of waiting it out with a challenging child—a piece I wrote is actually now part of the Caregiver Core Training curriculum in Washington. I have talked with so many former foster youth who ring the same bell: the ones who showed up day after day, who didn’t give up on them (or give them up), are the ones who truly changed their lives. I was a brat, but they didn’t abandon me. I ran away, but they took me back. I was in juvy, and when I got out, they brought me back home. Staying is huge for foster youth. Having someone who is there through thick and thin makes all the difference in the world.

I advocate for staying with a child for as long as possible.

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But there are times when the only option is to move a child from their current placement.

It hurts them, to be sure, but sometimes there simply is not a viable alternative. Sometimes, circumstances beyond anyone’s control necessitate moving a child from one foster home to another, or from a foster home to an inpatient or residential treatment center.

Some common reasons a child might move include:

  • A medically fragile child whose physical needs are beyond a foster parent’s capacity to meet;
  • A foster family relocating out of state;
  • A foster parent being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness;
  • Volatility and/or violence between existing children in a home and a youth in care;
  • Circumstances in which a child is a danger to themselves or others and a foster home is not set up for the significant mental health needs of the child;
  • Mental unwellness—either in a foster youth or in a foster parent;
  • Foster parents who are simply not equipped or able to handle the trauma-related behaviors presented by a child in their care;
  • A youth persistently requesting a change.

These are just some of the common reasons kids moved from their foster homes. When this happens, there is no one to “blame” for the decision—it has to happen. Could someone have done more research ahead of time and prevented this unsuitable placement? Maybe.

But maybe not. Placement coordinators are desperate to get kids out of shelters and safe houses and temporary sanctuaries and into real homes. Sometimes—most times—that means a child is moved into a home long before a foster parent or social worker has time to consider whether the placement is a good fit. When a child first comes into care, there are a lot of moving parts. Getting a child into a home for the night is the goal. A “suitable” placement is not necessarily an “ideal” placement.

And when a placement turns out to be less suitable than was hoped and a move has to happen, there is plenty of fallout. The child is often re-traumatized by yet another move and message of rejection. The foster parent is often grief- and guilt-stricken.

It’s a real mess.

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Sadly, reaching the point of having to move a child can mark the end of a person’s journey as a foster parent. I have known too many foster parents who were so burned out by the time the decision to disrupt their placement was reached, they were done. Or, maybe they weren’t burned out, but their confidence in their fitness to serve as a foster parent was tattered. Feeling like an utter and complete failure, they call it. We tried, they say. We’re just not cut out to be foster parents.

This is a real tragedy, mainly because, for every child in foster care with extreme and severe needs (mental, physical, emotional, etc.), there are plenty of other children who are typical, high-functioning youth who really would thrive in the simplicity of a stable, loving home. Might they have some emotional or behavioral challenges? Of course. Trauma wreaks havoc on a child. But in my experience, most children in foster care are not setting fires or harming others. While that kind of thing can and does happen, it is not the norm. But when a foster parent, especially a new/first-time foster parent, reaches the point of ending a placement, especially if it’s due to a child trying to set a fire or harming others, they are wary of giving it another go.

If you’re one of those foster parents—if you have been burned by a really challenging placement that left you feeling like an incompetent failure, and you’re pretty sure you’re done—I hope you will reconsider. A failed placement does not make you a failure as a foster parent. Think of how much you learned through this experience! You know better now what questions to ask, what your core competencies are, how to engage with the state support services, and how to involve the team before you get to the point of no return.

You also never know when your “failure” is actually a means of getting a child to a better place for them to thrive. We have had to move children on a few occasions, and each time, I felt awful. One was a preemie who needed more attention than I could give with three other children in the house. I felt so guilty when I asked to have him moved—I felt like a failure. It was not his fault. He was perfect. He just had a lot of NAS-related needs that I could not meet. He went to a single foster parent who was able to devote all of her attention to him. He thrived in her care, and now that he reunified with his parents, she remains in his life as an “auntie.” He would have missed out on so much goodness if we had insisted on “making it work.”

Another child we had was really aggressive toward our youngest child. We could not place our toddler in harms way for the sake of making a placement work, so we had to decline being his long-term placement after a week or so in our care. He “bounced” to another home, then back to his mother, then back into foster care, where he ended up being placed with a family that is now in the process of adopting him. He is thriving in their care, where he is the youngest child in the home. He would have missed out on so much if we had insisted on “making it work.”

It stinks when a placement falls through. Placement disruption (or placement breakdown) is not anyone’s goal for a foster youth or foster parent. But when it happens, it’s important to realize that it’s not the end of the story—for the foster parent or the child in care. In many cases, it’s a necessary part of getting a child the help they need and into a home where they can truly have a chance at flourishing.

Our latest Flourishing Foster Parent Coaching Call focused on how to discern “when to say when” as a foster parent. If you are a foster parent who would benefit from being part of an online community with others who understand the journey you’re on, consider joining us!

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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