A little less than a year ago, I received a phone call from a friend who eagerly said that a foster child was on the way to their home. I was beyond excited for my friends & their family but also so excited for this child to be welcomed into a stable and healthy home. Before the phone call ended, I remember asking my friend, “How can I help?”. I was ready to help them by buying toys, clothes, and food - but that was not what they needed. Instead, they needed someone to talk to, a hug, a reminder that they were doing a great job, a date night, and even someone to play the Easter Bunny.
Foster families are prevalent in our society & essential to the child welfare system. According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (2020), there were 407,493 children in foster care as of September 30, 2020. These children may be in foster care for various reasons, including neglect, parental drug abuse, physical abuse, and parental inability to cope. There are also many different types of foster families, including relative and non-relative. Almost half of the foster children are placed with non-relative foster families that act as their foster parents for less than a month to over five years (Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, 2020). In 2019, there were 6,034 foster non-relative foster families in Illinois (The Imprint, 2021).
Foster parents play a critical role in the lives of youth in foster care and experience countless stressors, yet there is little information on how to support foster parents as friends and families (Miller, Green, & Lambros, 2019). Foster parents open their homes to these children despite their background or the traumatic experiences they have faced (Schoemaker, Wentholt, Goemans, Vermeer, Juffer, & Alink, 2020). They provide a supervision, food, a comfy bed, and even comfort to these children. Yet, foster parents still struggle with burnout, judgment, child behavior and emotional issues, foster care agency relationships and policies, and issues with biological parents (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2018; Miller et al., 2019). Research has found that successful foster families are associated with social support like friends and family members (Brown, 2008).
As friends and family of foster families, it is vital to support these families while also respecting boundaries. Here are five ways you can support the foster families in your life:
- Don’t judge
There are many different reasons individuals and couples choose to foster children. Whether it is an individual’s way to be a parent, a couple’s way to give back to the community, or even to help a family member in a time of need, foster parents do not need criticism regarding their choices. Foster parents may also face backlash over their parenting methods and discipline methods (Schoemaker, Wentholt, Goemans, Vermeer, Juffer, & Alink, 2020). Rather than commenting on things foster parents should be doing, take a step back and support your family member or friend by offering supportive words or a cup of coffee.
- Offer emotional support
Sometimes, the best thing one can do is just be there for their loved ones, including foster parents. Fostering is a stressful journey with court dates, parental visits, and parenting in general (Miller et al., 2019). Foster parenthood and the complex hustle and bustle that comes with it can often leave foster parents feeling lonely and confused. Regularly check in with your friends or family to see how they’re doing. Be with them to listen, laugh and even cry with them. A vent session can be healing for foster parents. They may also just need a hug.
- Invite them to practice self-care strategies
Even though foster parents will probably be focused on their foster children, they can’t forget about taking care of themselves. It will be an adjustment period for foster parents as they add to their home and their stress level. However, one won’t be able to provide the best care for their foster child if they cannot manage their stress. Remind the foster parents to take a break when needed, and that self-care is not selfish, it is essential (Miller et al., 2019)! Invite them to go on a walk or to the gym. Join them in starting a new hobby or anything that can help them decompress.
- Offer concrete support
When foster parents are running around trying to get children to appointments, in-home visits, assessments, family visits, school, and after-school activities, it is hard to find time to cook a nice meal, spend time with their spouse, clean the house, or run small errands. Prepare dinner for the family. Whether it is a frozen meal, crockpot dinner, or a gift certificate to a restaurant, it takes the stress off the foster parents to prepare dinner for at least one night. This is incredibly supportive during a new placement or transition as schedules change. Watch for special dietary needs due to allergies or food sensitivities, or even ask the family if they have a favorite meal you can prepare! Family and friends can help foster parents by providing respite care (short-term relief) like watching the children so they can run errands, babysit for a night, or possibly take the children for a week of vacation. The family will need to check on these options, as some states or foster care licensing agencies require a certification or background check. Another way you can provide support is by helping foster parents with day-to-day tasks like cleaning around the house, running errands, or mowing the lawn. You can support a foster family by simply letting them know you’re available to help with day-to-day chores and errands like grocery shopping or doing the dishes.
- Encourage them
Sometimes all a parent needs to hear is that they are doing a great job and that it’s normal to struggle with foster parenthood. Foster parents need to hear that there is no graceful way of foster parenting and that it’s okay. The important thing is that they are trying, and they are working hard to provide a healthy and stable home for their foster children. Offer encouraging words to the foster parents in your life as the simple “You are doing an amazing job” can go a long way during a rough patch (Miller et al., 2019).
Illinois Department of Child & Family Services: Foster Care https://www2.illinois.gov/dcfs/lovinghomes/fostercare/Pages/index.aspx
Illinois Department of Child & Family Services: Resources for Foster Parents: https://www2.illinois.gov/dcfs/lovinghomes/fostercare/Pages/Resources-for-Current-Foster-Parents.aspx
Child Welfare Information Gateway: https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/outofhome/resources-foster-families/
Sesame Street: https://sesamestreetincommunities.org/topics/foster-care/
Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System. (2020). AFCARS report #28. The Administration for Children and Families. Retrieved February 25, 2022, from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/report/afcars-report-28
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (2018, October). Foster Care. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Retrieved on February 22, 2022, from https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Foster-Care-064.aspx
Brown, J. (2008). Foster Parents’ Perceptions of Factors Needed for Successful Foster Placements. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 17(4), 538–554. https://doi-org.proxy1.library.eiu.edu/10.1007/s10826-007-9172-z
Miller, A. E., Green, T. D., & Lambros, K. M. (2019). Foster parent self-care: A conceptual model. Children & Youth Services Review, 99, 107–114. https://doi-org.proxy1.library.eiu.edu/10.1016/j.childyouth.2019.01.014
Schoemaker, N. K., Wentholt, W. G. M., Goemans, A., Vermeer, H. J., Juffer, F., & Alink, L. R. A. (2020). A meta-analytic review of parenting interventions in foster care and adoption. Development & Psychopathology, 32(3), 1149–1172. https://doi-org.proxy1.library.eiu.edu/10.1017/S0954579419000798
The Imprint. (2021). Illinois. Who Cares: A national count of foster homes and families. Retrieved February 25, 2022, from https://www.fostercarecapacity.com/states/illinois
Author: Kayli Worthey, Human Services Programming Administration Graduate Student, Child and Family Life Center Graduate Assistant, Eastern Illinois University