One of the most invaluable experiences my parents provided for me as a child was to open our home to children who were going through the foster care system. Growing up with foster kids who came from very different home environments helped me appreciate that not everyone was as fortunate as me and my siblings were. Here are four lessons I learned through my experience with the foster care system:
1. The Most Important Thing You Can Do is Model Healthy Normality
My parents have often told me the most important thing we can provide for the foster kids is a sense of stability. An understanding of how a normal family operates can go a long way. We tried to be one example of how a normal family operates. For example, a foster kid, who was late elementary school-aged, once came to live with us for a year. This child was overweight and out of shape, had a lot of dental issues, wet the bed every night, hadn’t been regularly attending school, and was behind in school work. She was a nice kid who needed people to provide structure to get her health and educational issues straightened out. Our family worked with her to eat better, exercise more, and take personal responsibility for herself. Within months she had lost thirty pounds, learned not to wet the bed, had her dental issues fixed, and started getting good grades in school. As my family worked with her, you could see her develop self-confidence and become more capable of making good choices for herself. In the year that she lived with my family, she developed a lot and by the time she returned to her family, we were confident that she had the tools and skills to take care of herself.
2. They Will Teach You About Your Privilege
I can recall a day when a foster child was shocked when I lazily discarded some pocket change on the floor of my bedroom. Her eyes became very wide and she asked whether she could have the change; to which I shrugged “sure.” She bent down and carefully picked each of the coins off the floor in utter delight. To me, that pocket change was of little value because I had never been in want of anything that my parents could not provide for me. For her, however, every penny mattered. That moment taught me that I was lucky to not worry about money. In my young world that was something for grown-ups to worry about.
This and other humbling moments taught me that I cannot expect that everyone I meet has the same opportunities as me. I cannot judge other people for traits that are so different from my own; instead, I should focus on their character.
3. You Might Have the Opportunity to Adopt a Child in Foster Care
One of my sisters first came to our home as a foster child. After she had been with us for several years, the Department of Social Services decided that she could not return to her parents or other family members. My parents were then asked if they would be willing to adopt her. They agreed and my sister became a permanent member of our family. Over the years she became one of my best friends and my confidant. I often forget that she was not always a part of our family. I could not imagine what my life would have been like without her.
There was also a time, many years later, when a foster child living with us was able to return home to her family. My family would have loved for her to stay with us. In those moments it is important to remember the goal of the foster care system. That is to make reasonable efforts to reunify the child with their parents in a safe and stable environment. As much as foster families might grow attached and fond of the foster child, our Constitution takes seriously the rights of parents to raise their children. As long as parents can provide a suitable home free from abuse and neglect, they have a fundamental right to raise their children without interference from the government. Foster families are the safe harbor while parents and families work on creating safe and stable home environments. Having grown up as part of a foster family, I knew that the foster children were with us for a short time. Our goal was to help them feel safe and have as normal a childhood experiences as we could provide before they returned to their families.
4. You May Never Know the Impact you Had on That Child’s Life
I often wish that I kept in contact with the kids that came to stay with us, but part of the foster care process is for the children to reintegrate with their families and not remain dependent on their former foster families. They are all adults now and maybe even have children of their own. Now that I am an adult, the names and faces of the foster children who lived with us when I was growing up are relegated to photo albums and pictures in my parents’ home. I hope they learned some level of stability and personal responsibility from their stay with my family. I hope they won’t repeat the cycle that led to their displacement in foster care. Unfortunately, I will never know if their time with us taught them lessons and shaped their character, or if it is just a distant memory of a strange family that they lived with for a time.
What I do know is that my life changed because of the many children that came and joined our home. My father expressed this sentiment several years ago when he spoke at an Adoption Day ceremony, he said:
I remember vividly when my wife and I attended our first foster parent class together. The Social Worker leading the session asked prospective foster parents, “Who here signed up for this course because you wanted to change the life of another?” Everyone thrust their arms into the air. The next question took me by surprise. She asked, “Who here signed up for this course because you wanted to change your own life?” No arms went up. The leader then confidently informed us that the changes that we were about to experience almost certainly would eclipse the changes we would ever bring about in the lives of those we came to serve. And she was right.
I have heard several people say that they worry about how fostering children will affect their children. I always respond by saying that it affected me in many ways, both positive and negative, but that I would not change anything about how I was raised. Things weren’t always perfect. A new kid in the house often meant moving into new rooms, changing roommates, changing the seats at the dinner table or in the car. Sometimes it meant that one of my parents had to miss my soccer game or Scout event to take a foster kid to visitation or a therapy appointment. But, for the most part, it was a pretty normal childhood. There are many important life lessons I learned from foster children.
Those lessons have shaped my personality and how I treat those around me. I know the importance of providing children with a safe and stable home environment, whether that is through foster care or adoption. In my new position as an attorney, I hope that I can use my experiences with the foster care system and adoption process to assist those traversing through it.