Every foster child comes into the system with a set of baggage. There’s a reason they’re in care—whether that be neglect, death, homelessness, abuse, or drug use by the parents—and that baggage effects nearly every aspect of their lives. It changes their mental health, their academic progress, their behavior, their physical health, their coping skills… everything.
And then they come into care, and their entire world is flipped upside down. The rules change, the boundaries, the expectations, the encouragement… all of it.
Everything is different, but, ideally, it’s for the good.
We, foster parents, are not these kids’ saviors. We are not better than their biological parents. The only thing we ARE is better equipped, which allows us to help their children heal while they get their own lives together. Sometimes, biological parents don’t care and don’t want their kids back, but most often, they love them and want to be better for them.
Sometimes, foster parents are not much better than the biological parents, but the vast majority of the time, they really are in it for the right reasons.
While caseworkers help bio parents become better suited for parenthood, foster parents help kids become better suited for childhood. We teach them how to feel safe and express their emotions without screaming. We teach them how to ride their bikes and how to snuggle without being inappropriate. We teach them that it’s not normal for a seven-year-old to wander the neighborhood alone. We teach how to call 9-1-1, and explain why that’s important. We show them that they can ask for what they want without manipulating those around them. We help them understand that siblings are important but not their personal responsibility.
We teach, and we teach, and we teach.
And then one day, we wake up, and we realize we’ve made more progress than we ever thought possible. That THEY’VE made more progress than we ever thought possible.
That child who used to punch the walls after being told no is now saying okay without arguing. The child who used to hide under their bed in fear is now standing confidently in the center of the room. The kid who was two grades behind in math is now on grade level. The girl who used to use her body to get affirmation just told her boyfriend no for the first time. The boy who punched the walls without knowing why he was so angry is now expressing his emotions out loud to people he loves.
The number of ways we see progress are limitless.
In my own foster daughter, I see her speaking without yelling. I see her staying calm without even trying. I see her saying, “No, thank you.” I see her bumping her arm on something and not milking the pain for two weeks to get attention. I hear her say I love you. I see her ask for help. I hear her ask for help studying for tests that she used to hide in her backpack. I see her reading, writing, creating, dancing, flipping, running, ENJOYING childhood.
She doesn’t act like the weight of the world is on her shoulders anymore, and every time I think about that, I want to weep at her feet.
But then the moments come when I’m terrified of what will happen when she reunifies with her biological family. I WANT her to reunify with them. I want them to all reach healthiness and wholeness together. That’s our prayer for them.
But, man, do I fear for what her fate will be if reunification happens before healthiness is reached by the parents. Is healthiness even attainable? Are the habits too ingrained? Is the damage already done? Will she flip back into survival mode as soon as she’s gone? Will they all go back to yelling as their main form of communication?
I look into my girl’s sweet face, and I wonder what her life will be like when she’s sixteen years old. I’m afraid she’ll be angry and hardened. I’m afraid she’ll seek validation in boyfriends instead of family and truth. I’m terrified she’ll try drugs because the family who went before her used them.
I’m so, so scared that she will lose every ounce of progress she’s made since she’s been here.
My home is NOT perfect. It is not an oasis of perfection that takes in dirty kids and sends them out after cleaning them up. We do not take broken children and make them whole. We are not saviors or creators of the universe.
We are only two people who love her and want to offer her something better.
We provide a calm atmosphere that she’s never felt before. We give her appropriate boundaries that weren’t always there. We do our best to give her opportunities that will challenge her, but not overwhelm her. We give her lessons about how to cope with emotions in healthy ways.
I know that her biological family could offer all of these things to her, as well, if they worked hard at it, but the fear that they won’t is overwhelming sometimes. It digs its way into my heart and settles there for long periods of time. And then we go through tense meetings with her family, and the fear grows.
I pray so hard for them to reach wholeness so that our girl can go home to a space that will continue her progress. She’s working her butt off to overcome bad choices that she didn’t make, and she deserves to have parents who won’t add more bad choices to her list. I want her to get to see the fruits of her labor for the rest of her life without adding more chaos and pain to her workload.
I wish that for her family, but I have no idea if they’ll choose it. It’s completely up to them.
Thankfully, I’m not the savior of this world so I don’t have to put that responsibility on myself. I can pray and hope and wish and TRY until I give her the best life I possibly could until it’s time to go home. And then, when the day comes, I’ll send her out the door knowing she’s better than the day she walked in, and I’ll pray a little harder.
And then the next day will come, and I’ll start back over with the next kid.