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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

What It’s Really Like to Be a Foster Parent

By Pam Moore

While there is plenty of data about foster children, information about foster parents can be elusive. I talked to foster parents, not to obtain statistics, but to hear their stories. This is what they want you to know.

Foster parents aren’t superheroes. Foster parents are, in many ways, like all parents, says John DeGarmo. Having fostered more than 50 children and as the director of the Foster Care Institute, he understands how vulnerable foster parents are to fatigue, setbacks, and disappointments. “There are times when we succeed, and there are times when we experience failures. We are not the perfect parents. We are simply trying our best to provide a home and family for a child who needs one,” he says.

Yes, dealing with loss is hard (but not impossible). Many foster parents mentioned they are frequently fielding questions about what happens when the child is taken away from them. Mary and Ken, whose foster child was ultimately reunited with his family, talked about how frequently people express apprehension over the idea of getting “too close” to the child only to have the child reunite with their biological family. She says she finds that perspective “peculiar,” considering we rarely, if ever, take this stance on other relationships. “We don’t avoid having good friends or a romantic relationship because those engagements might someday come to an end. In fact, many of them do end, and we accept that as part of our life experience.”

DeGarmo also encounters this question, people often asking him, “Doesn’t it hurt it too much to give them back?” Of course it hurts, he says; heartache is to be expected. “When the child leaves our home and our family, our hearts should break. We should experience feelings of grief and loss. After all, we have given all of our hearts and love to a child in need.”

Two years after Heather Grimes’s foster child was returned to her biological family, she says the child’s “photo is still on our fridge, from her first birthday. [She’s] in that adorable denim jumper, sitting on the fake grass outside of Sweet Cow ice cream. Her eyes are the most gorgeous shade of blue.” While the Grimes may have moved on with their lives, that little girl is still in their hearts.

Foster kids are not bad kids. Many parents said they often receive comments about how hard it must be to deal with difficult, out-of-control kids. In reality, says Emily, most are not bad kids. The former or current foster mom of a total of four children, Emily explains: “They just grew up in chaotic, unhealthy environments without proper adult supervision. They are capable of learning the right way to behave, express their emotions, etc., if you take the time to show/teach them.”

Tammy Hoskins says being trauma-informed is crucial in supporting foster children. Hoskins works for a nonprofit that serves the needs of high-risk youth and is the mother of ten children, four of whom are biological children and six of whom she adopted through the foster system. Because their brains are still developing, children are especially vulnerable to the deleterious effects of trauma, including difficulties with learning, social-emotional development, cognition, physical health, and attachment. Says Hoskins, “To understand, to empathize and to work with them in collaborative ways to solve problems is crucial to their healing.” The work of Daniel Siegel, Karen Purvis, and webinars available through the Center for Adoption Support and Education (CASE) are among the many resources she recommends foster parents take advantage of.

The foster system isn’t just a cold bureaucracy. While the foster system can be impersonal and frustrating, it has its upsides, too. DeGarmo points out that foster parents are helping not just the children, but also the whole family. He notes that many biological parents of foster children were in the foster system themselves and, for lack of resources, are still stuck in the system. “Part of being a foster parent is helping the parents of the children living with us, helping our fellow human beings.”

From talking to foster parents, I learned that what they do doesn’t require a superhero cape. It does take commitment, compassion, and a desire to help. As most foster parents were quick to say, the biological parents aren’t necessarily bad people; they love their kids and they have flaws—like all parents. 

This article was originally published on Parent Co.

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