From Foster Parent to Family Preservation Advocate (Podcast Episode 11)

Over the years, my heart for helping foster parents feel more equipped to support reunification efforts has grown. Recalling my own fumbling efforts to show support for the women whose children have been in my care over the years, I know how much I could have used someone to show me the way. While it is not ultimately up to a foster parent to make sure a parent and child are reunified—the onus really is on the parent to do the hard work involved with reunification—I have learned over the years that there is a lot foster parents can do to encourage and support their foster child’s parent(s) as they move through the brutal stages of reunification.

In this episode of A Fostered Life Podcast, I speak with Tonya Foulkrod, a woman whose experiences as a foster parent led her and her husband to start an organization aimed at providing wraparound-type support for parents in crisis. Three Strands is a nine week, faith-based parenting program offered by local churches and volunteers to families in crisis. It is for parents who have lost custody of their children, or who are at risk of losing custody, and are working toward family reunification and preservation. In addition to parenting classes, participants experience home-cooked community meals and mentorship from dedicated volunteers who are trained in trauma-informed care. They have moral support in court and life-long friendships with people committed to helping their family stay together and thrive.

My conversation with Tonya was pretty long, so I’ve divided it into two parts. In this episode, which is Part One, she shares about how she went from being a foster parent who was intimidated by her foster child’s mom to becoming that mom’s biggest cheerleader and advocate. In the next episode, we’ll hear more about the work of Three Strands.

I hope you enjoy this episode, and if you are a foster parent, I hope it gives you some ideas and inspiration in how you might be able to support your foster child’s family.

Stock Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash. Note: the people depicted are models and not involved with Three Strands.

From “The Isolated Foster Parent” to “The Flourishing Foster Parent”

When I first began my journey of foster parenting, I had a great mom and lots of “mom friends” and people who were in the throes of parenting I could turn to for advice. But I didn’t have many friends who understood the unique and specific challenges of being a foster parent. I had friends I could turn to with questions about what my baby should wear at night (this was when the phrase “sleep sack” was added to my vocabulary), but I didn’t know who to ask about how to interact with my kids’ mom, or how to discern whether the therapist we were assigned to was a good fit. Supportive and empathetic members of our community could tell me when my son’s bike helmet was on backwards (thanks, Jill!) and could enlighten me about the benefits of “Sophie la Girafe” for the baby, but they were at a loss when it came to how to respond to the violent tantrums we faced when our boy was triggered.

For over a year, I felt pretty alone in my world of foster parenting. That’s how long it took me to find a support group I liked, where I connected with others who “got it” and heard from people who really understood what I was going through. I learned about the Refresh Conference and began to connect in a truly meaningful way with other foster (and foster-adoptive) parents.

Those connections proved to be the lifeline I needed.

As I connected with other, more experienced, foster parents, therapists, and specialists who understand the world of childhood trauma, neglect, and in-utero drug exposure, I began to feel empowered for the first time. I began to learn about trauma-informed parenting. I gained tools and knowledge and insight that actually made a difference in our home. I learned about attachment, and I learned practical ways to construct our day-to-day life, deal with significant behavioral challenges, handle school stress, and manage our household in a way that was not just survivable, but truly sustainable. I also learned about what foster care felt like for a mother whose kids were in the system. I began to see how cyclical and systemic “the system” can be, and I began to care not just for the kids who came into my home, but for their parents and families as well.

Our family went from surviving to truly flourishing.

Foster parenting can be extremely isolating.

I remember showing up one the playground at our neighborhood elementary school, trying to mingle with the other moms. I had only met my children two weeks earlier, yet there I was, trying to fit in with these women who had actually known their kids their whole life (imagine that!)

I didn’t. I did not fit in. And as my child’s challenging behaviors grew more and more evident, my sense of isolation on the playground and at church and everywhere else we went grew too.

But when I connected with others and began to see how “normal” my experience was within the world of foster parenting, and how there were actually strategies that might work, and how there was a whole community of people who could offer meaningful feedback and insight and advice, I discovered that I was not alone.

I found out that there was a place where I did fit in.

I started The Flourishing Foster Parent earlier this year in order to offer others on the foster parenting journey something of the community and connection I so desperately needed when I first started out. The FFP offers opportunities for real-time connection with other foster parents (or those preparing to become foster parents) by way of weekly “Coaching Calls.” The FFP also offers opportunities to learn and gain tools through hearing from special guests periodically, including trauma-informed therapists, experienced foster parents, former foster youth, and more.

The FFP community is small, but it’s been very meaningful for those who are involved. Here’s what a few people have written to me recently:

“I love this group because I love the opportunity to be myself and share the really real things without judgement or shame. Being a foster parent isn’t easy and there are not a lot of people who truly understand our struggles, so having this diverse group of people that are invested in learning and growing and sharing the journey is so important. “

and

“I love this group and all of the Fostered Life YouTube videos. It helps so much to know we’re not alone.”

and

” I appreciate this group because we are all walking in similar shoes.”

and

“I’m glad I’ve been able to listen to your podcasts. I know no one can ever be 100% prepared but we are much more so since joining the group.”

I’m not sharing these quotes to toot my own horn. I’m sharing them to show that I am not alone in my need for connection with others who “get it.”

If you are a foster parent (or in the process of becoming a foster parent), and you would like to be part of a community like this, I’d love to invite you to join The Flourishing Foster Parent. The cost is $20/month, you get access to online resources (mostly audio recordings) and an invitation to a weekly live call. There is no commitment once you’ve joined. You may bow out any time if you find it is not what you’re looking for.

Foster parenting is the best—and hardest—thing I have ever done. But knowing I’m not doing it alone has made all the difference in the world to me. If you could use some friends who get it, join us!

There are currently fourteen spots left in the group. If you join by November 30, you’ll be entered in a drawing to win one of four copies of one of my favorite books for foster and adoptive parents: “Wounded Children, Healing Homes: How Traumatized Children Impact Adoptive and Foster Families (Jayne Schooler et al).”

Some Thoughts for National Adoption Awareness Month

November is National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM), “a month set aside to raise awareness about the urgent need for adoptive families for children and youth in foster care.” You can read about the history of NAAM here.

The focus on NAAM is not adoption, per se, but adoption from foster care. There are thousands and thousands of children across our country who, for all sorts of reasons, will never be able to go home to their families of origin. While many of them will age out by choice, and some don’t want to be adoptive, many others desperately want to be part of a family that will be there forever. They want parents who will become grandparents for their kids. They want a home to go to for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They want to be part of a family—they want to be adopted.

Every November, various foster care agencies across the country promote the adoption of children and youth from foster care into permanent, loving families. I’m so grateful for their work. I’m grateful that families are formed in all sorts of ways, and as a foster and adoptive mother, I’m grateful for my kids and the family we are forming together.

That said, it’s important for those of us who are adopting children to keep in mind that, even when adoption is a happy ending, it’s not the end of the story. Adoption—the need for adoption—is rooted in profound sorrow, loss, and pain.

In this video, I share a bit of my heart for the children in my care and the thousands of others who are affected by adoption, including the women and families of origin who were unable to raise their own children. Even when adoption was the “best” option, it’s still an option that carries a lot of loss and pain, and that loss and pain doesn’t go away.

I’m a fan of adoption. As I shared in this video, there is a lot of grace and beauty in adoption. But we must never forget, especially as we promote adoption during NAAM, that there is also a lot of sorrow and pain in adoption, and our kids need us to hold that with them, even as we love and celebrate their place in our families.