Congratulations! You made it through your home study and are now ready for your first foster placement. You are excited yet nervous every time the phone rings. Deep down you hate feeling excited because you ultimately know you are waiting for a trauma to occur that leads to a child being removed from their home. However, given the opiate crisis and the ever growing number of kids in foster care, you know the call will come. Don’t feel guilty….this is normal. It is okay to be excited that you are ready to step in when a child needs a safe place while the parents get things together. Just remember, when the time comes your exciting day is someones worst day.
The Phone is Ringing…Now What?
When that first phone call does happen, or your 25th, you are likely to forget what questions to ask…especially when you are awakened at 3:00 am (Child trauma knows no bedtime people). Asking certain questions, may seem awkward, but it is important to make an informed decision. Although your instinct may be to say yes to every call, this was me 20 kids ago, I have learned that some placements are just more than my family can handle. Know your limits and stick to them. Sometimes, saying no is the best thing you can do for a child. You don’t want to accept a placement out of guilt or lack of information that leads to the child needing a new placement again. Trust me, the guilt of disrupting a placement far outweighs saying no in the beginning.
Keep in mind, even with all of this information, sometimes placements just don’t work out but that is a blog post for another day.
To help you navigate a five minute phone call that can change your whole world, I have put together questions and a nifty little printable that you can download at the end of this post. After nine, years fostering, this information is what we try to know before saying yes to a new placement. I suggest printing out a few copies to have handy when you get the call. You may need multiple medical information sheets so you can write down specific information for each child. You can then use this sheet as the start of your foster care binder or life book.
Basic Questions: Where to Start?
Before we get into some of the more challenging questions, a few basic questions can help you make a decision about a new placement. This is true for your first or your 21st. Although you may be licensed for a particular number of children and age range, it is likely that you may get a call for a placement that is outside of those parameters.
In fact…it is VERY likely this will happen. When we started fostering, despite being licensed for birth to age 5, we received a call for an 18 year old because she attended school near us and didn’t want to change schools. We also said no to a sibling group because of lack of proper bed space, but the agency was in such a pinch, they went so far as to offer to buy bunk beds for us in order to place the siblings together. We also learned that our agency provides cribs and takes the cost out of the next board check, if necessary.
While providing foster parents with beds may not be the the norm, it is not uncommon for things like this to happen, especially once the agency values you as an experienced foster parent and are desperately seeking a bed in an overcrowded system. When considering a placement out of your original parameters just think it through…well as much as you can at 3 am. Remember, know your limits.
This should be easy…right?! Unfortunately even the most basic questions can become a challenge in foster care.
Name. No problem. Wait…how do you spell that? You pronounce it how? I may be making it sound funny but there have been many times that the name provided was spelled wrong or I was told the incorrect pronunciation. While this does not affect your decision to accept a placement, it’s good to know this happens so you aren’t suprised when you take your new foster kiddo to the doctor for the first time and they look at you like…why don’t you know how to spell this kids name?
Don’t be surprised when you first meet birth mom and she gets angry that you pronounced her child’s name wrong or when ALL of the paperwork has a different spelling.
Our daughter’s last name was spelled differently on the handwritten agency paperwork, the typed agency paperwork, her doctors office, and the court notices we received in the mail. As you would expect, the name on the court notice was the only spelling that matched her birth certificate, but it took over a month to get it figured out since mom disappeared.
Age and Gender?
How hard could this be? Well…sometimes this is quite complicated. It’s like a really challenging jigsaw puzzle you are working on at when…3 am.
Is the age of the child a good fit for your family? Are you going out of birth order? When our son was younger, having older kids was not an issue. Now, he is 8 and teenagers are not a good idea because I worry about what he learns from them and his behavior changes dramatically if he is not the oldest.
Keep in mind their age and size will be important for car seats. Can you fit another car seat in the back of your van? The 3 three year olds, all in the back seat was an adventure every time we got in the car!
Do you have enough bedrooms or proper beds? The 12 year old girl who was 5’7” and severely overweight was not all that comfortable on a regular twin bed. Will you need to rearrange beds? See my post here about our constant rearranging of beds. You also need to keep in mind the specific rules of your agency. Our agency allows children under age 5 to have co-ed sleeping arrangements, older than that they must be separated, even if they are siblings.
Are there any gender identity or sexuality factors to consider?
We have worked with many teens struggling with gender identity and sexuality. Sometimes theses kiddos really need their own space. We had two girls on paper, but one was transgender and would not have been comfortable in a girls room with other girls. A more in-depth post on gender, sexuality, and how trauma and sexual abuse can complicate ones identity is in the works.
Why are they in foster care?
Again, keep in mind, the worker may have limited information for you and you may or may not receive the full truth. Unfortunately, we always find out much more information after a few days, sometimes a few weeks. As much information as you can get regarding the circumstance of removal can really help you make a decision, but is also helps prepare you for what to expect.
Is this their first time in foster care? What are the circumstances that led to removal? Sexual or physical abuse or parental drug use can give you a good idea of some behaviors you may be dealing with even if the worker says the kiddo is developmentally on target and their are no behavior concerns. How do they truly know that if this is the first placement? Think about it. How would you be acting if you were just taken from your family and are now with a bunch of strangers?
Have they been in foster care before? Are they coming from another foster home?
If this is not the first placement, ask for more information? Did they go home and are once again in foster care or are they moving from another foster home? Not all foster kids disrupt from a foster home due to the behavior of the child although it is very possible and most likely. It is possible that the foster parents closed their home for various reasons, but it could also be because of some serious behavior concerns.
Is it possible to do pre-placement visits? Can you speak with the current or even previous foster parents? PAY ATTENTION – First hand information from a current foster parent can be sooooo helpful. ASK THEM ALL THE QUESTIONS! Most will be honest and you can get more unfiltered info.
We had an 11 year old that was aggressive with our toddlers and twisted my arm and send me to the emergency room within 2 days of being placed with us. We immediately said we could not handle this child’s behavior. He was placed in a residential treatment facility within a few days. Six months later he went to a therapeutic foster home.
We still had his sibling, so we met the new foster mom at visit. She started asking us some questions about aggression with little kids and to our surprise and hers, she was never told about his aggression in our home. He ended up going to yet another home because the agency failed to provide valuable information to help the foster mom make an informed decision.
Again, all of this information may not affect you saying yes, but it can help you prepare for what may come and develop a plan to help your new foster kiddo and your family transition.
So, if I haven’t overwhelmed you or scared you away keep reading.
What school do they attend? Are they in daycare?
Is daycare going to be needed and can you cover the cost? Do you have a plan for child care until daycare is setup? For a newborn, can you stay home for 6 weeks until daycare is an option or do you have an alternative caregiver?
What school does the child attend? Grade Level? Does the child have an IEP or 504 Plan? Does the child have special needs or attend a special school?
If the child needs to be enrolled in a new school, can you provide transportation to the current school temporarily? Will transportation be provided?
Keep in mind, as with all things in foster care, the worker that calls you may not have the answer to some of these questions. We said yes to a sibling group and was told school transportation would be provided, however, the worker was wrong and the school would no longer provide transportation once placed with us. We made it work and did not move the kids to another school because they needed to be in their particular school. But again, know your limitations and stick to them. We got to a point where we had 6 kids at 4 different schools. That was only possible because my wife and I are both self-employed.
Sometimes saying no means you are doing what’s best for the child because it forces the agency to hopefully find the right foster placement and it doesn’t put extra stress on your family. Remember, know your limits and stick to them.
Did I already say that!? I know that I sound like a broken record but one day you will find yourself considering a placement way outside of your already agreed upon parameters because you just don’t want to say no.
What is the child’s legal status and permanency plan?
I didn’t even know this was something I could ask when we first started…but you can and it can be very helpful. What is the anticipated length of the placement? Sometimes you can handle a placement for a short time, but you know it would not be ideal for a long-term placement. On the other hand, you may do better with long-term placements because it can be hard to take time off of work to settle in a new placement every few weeks. We have experience with both. After nine years and 34 kiddos, we have a lot of first hand experience.
We received a call at 10 pm to consider a placement of a 15 year old male. We had some concerns since we had a 14 year old female at the time. Not that boys and girls can’t live together, but our girl has some history of sexual abuse and well teens… We were told it would just be for the weekend because the Grandparents were flying back from vacation. Well…to our surprise, Monday morning we were told the Grandparents changed their minds and were not willing to take placement. Three years later, we were talking about adoption plans for our weekend only placement.
The opposite also happens. We have had placements that we expected to be long-term and they didn’t stay a week. We had one summer where we had 4 placements in two weeks. That was a bit overwhelming. Our friends had 12 placements in their first year! I also have friends that were licensed for 2 years with 1 placement. Twins right from the NICU and are now on their way to adoption.
The important thing to take away is that the agency may or may not have answers. Situations change constantly and no two foster parents have the same experience. These questions will just help guide you…if only a little.
What medical information can you share?
Phew! It’s 3 in the morning and your head is spinning with so much information already. This is where I start thinking yes or no and forget the rest of the important questions. That is why I created a cheat sheet to help me stay focused.
Does the child or children have medical conditions? Do they have any regular medical appointments? Are they taking any medication? Do they have any allergies or need a special diet? I will always remember this question as I almost had a very bad experience because of lack of information.
We took a JR6 (police removal) at 3 in the morning. The next day, I made a simple lunch…peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and…you can guess. The 10 year old informs me she is allergic to peanut butter. Within a week, we learned the father had not shared her allergies with the worker. This poor girl was allergic to peanut butter, tree nuts, shellfish and soy! We learned this in the ER and spent a few days in the hospital her first week with us!
What mental health services are already in place or needed?
This may be last on our list of questions but are often the most important. I sometimes ask these before anything else depending on what I’m told from the beginning.
Is the child taking any psychiatric medication? Will that medication be coming with the child? Is the child already in counseling? Where and how often?
Is there a history of sexual abuse? Is the child sexually active? Forget what you know about age appropriate behavior. We once said no to a 10 year old that was acting out sexually. It broke our hearts but we had to do what was best for our children. If you don’t know by now…KNOW YOUR LIMITS…especially when it comes to certain behaviors. You can’t save one child by sacrificing the safety of another.
Is the child on birth control or possibly pregnant? We were once considering a placement of a 12 year old that was pregnant! Are you ready to take on a newborn and a teen mom?
Are there any behavioral concerns I should know about?
This is the most important factor for my family now that we have three kids. However, it was less of a concern when we first started fostering and didn’t have any other kids to consider. I have provided a list of behaviors to ask about on the medical section of the printable questions.
Sometimes a worker may overlook information, but if you know what to ask, then maybe you can learn a little more. Again, we have learned this through experience. We accepted placement of a teen that was stepping down from a therapeutic foster home. We were given a great deal of information and even had pre-placement visits. After a few months, we learned that the girl was cutting. When we told the worker about this new behavior, her response shocked me. “Oh, she started that again?” The agency was well aware of this behavior but forgot to tell us.
What was I thinking?
At this point, you may be questioning your decision to foster. This sounds horrible. But that’s what parenting is all about. It’s horrible. It’s horrible. Then something wonderful happens. Like when your foster child hugs on his own for the first time after living with you for 6 months.
I have given you some of the worst case scenarios to help prepare you…not to scare you away…hopefully. The mantra is the more you know the more you can make an informed decision. Know your limits and stick to them.
Making a Decision
The last thing to consider is how to end the phone call. Do you need to discuss the possible new placement with your spouse or your kids? It is okay to ask for some time and to call them back. Sometimes they need an answer asap because they have the kids waiting at the agency. Other times, they can give you a little more time.
No matter how you decide remember these three things:
- Know your limits and stick to them.
- Get as much information as possible and thoughtfully consider if you can meet the needs of the child.
- Be sure that everyone is on-board with this decision. A new placement affects the entire family including other foster kiddos.
I know this was a lot of information, but I hope it helps you on your journey as a foster parent. As promised…here is your handy dandy foster care pre-placement questions.