The comment made to me the most by those who are not foster parents is: “I could not do what you do. It would hurt too much to give the children from foster care back.” As someone who has cared for more than 50 children in my home the last 13 years, as well as traveling the country speaking about the foster care system, I hear this several times a week.
My response used to be “I understand.” Of late, though, I have a new and ready response: “That’s a good thing. It is supposed to hurt. Your heart is supposed to break!”
I have found that children in foster care need three basic things while living with a foster family. To be sure, they need stability, and they need support. From these two come many possibilities and opportunities. Yet, what children in foster care often need the most is unconditional love, the unconditional love of a foster parent.
Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of being a foster parent is the moment when your foster child leaves your home. So many times for me, the removal of the child from my home has come with little warning and with great emotion. As a foster parent, your home becomes a place where foster children come for a period of time, with the goal of being reunited with their family in the near future.
But reunification is not always possible for some foster children, as the birth parents’ rights are terminated. As a result, these children become available for adoption, and some foster parents do indeed end up making their foster child a permanent addition to their family through adoption.
For my wife and I, we have had the wonderful opportunity to expand our family by three, with the adoption of three children who were our former foster children. On the other hand, if reunification should not become possible with the birth parents, many foster children instead are placed into a birth family member’s home. This might be a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, or even an older brother or sister.
Whatever the reason might be, reunification can be a difficult time for foster parents, as the child they have come to love leaves their home. At the same time, it can also be a time of great celebration, as the biological family members are able to now properly care for and raise their child, and a family is whole again.
The past several years, my wife has often said the same thing when a child from foster care leaves our home: “I’m never doing that again. I’m done being a foster parent.” She doesn’t say that because it is the hardest thing both of us do. She says this because of the grief and loss she feels when a child is removed from our home.
Whether the child from foster care is being reunited with birth parents or family members, another foster home or adoption; my wife experiences the grief and loss of losing a child. Quite simply, when a foster child leaves our home, it IS as if we are losing a child; our child.
Children in foster care often are looking for one thing, and that is to be loved. My wife and I may be the first parents, the first adults who have ever loved the child in a healthy and unconditional fashion. Sadly, for some children, we may be the only adults who will ever love the child in this fashion.
So 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. The unconditional love of a parent, what better gift is there than this for the child?
After the passage of time, the grief from the loss of the foster child decreases, allowing the foster parent to accept the removal of the child and move on. The emotional wellbeing of the foster parent improves, and a sense of understanding of the child’s removal becomes clearer.
To be sure, it is hard being a foster parent. The grief when a child leaves can, at times, be overwhelming and consuming. It is like losing a child, a member of your family. Yet I don’t want you to give up when a child leaves because your heart is heavy. There are other children out there, right now, who need a home and need a family. There is a child out there right now who needs you to love him.
John DeGarmo is a speaker and trainer on many topics about the foster care system. He is the author of several books, including “Keeping Foster Children Safe Online,” “The Foster Parenting Manual: A Practical Guide to Creating a Loving, Safe and Stable Home” and the foster care children’s book “A Different Home: A New Foster Child’s Story.” He is also the host of a weekly radio program. He can be contacted at drjohndegarmo@gmail, through Twitter @drjohndegarmo or at drjohndegarmofostercare.weebly.com.
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