Much of the foster parent training process is focused on procedures and protocols for safety, visitations, working with birth parents, and trauma-informed parenting. Those are all great and necessary parts of your education. However, no series of classes alone can adequately prepare you for the things you will learn by diving in and doing foster care. You will discover many surprising things in your first year as a foster parent!

No class by itself will teach you all you need to learn about being a foster parent. Surprising things you learn in your first year as a foster parent.

No matter how well prepared you think you are for a role as significant as a foster parent, you will still encounter surprises. This is one reason a secure “village” supporting you is so crucial: you can learn from others’ experiences.

Sometimes learning from others can lessen the impact of the unexpected. It kind of softens the blow to be surrounded by others who can say, “Oh, yeah! That happened to us too.” It just helps to know that there might be something similar coming down the road to consider. To that end, we asked our online community of experienced foster parents about the surprising things they learned in their first year of fostering.

Surprise Lesson #1 – A good team makes all the difference.

We heard from several foster parents about the value of a good relationship with the foster child’s care team. That team can include the foster parent(s), the birth parent(s), caseworker(s), therapists, guardian ad litem (GAL), and other professional service providers that are involved in the child’s case. When everyone on that team communicates well and works together positively, the common goal and shared purpose unite you to put the child’s needs first.

As K.F. told us, a good team can

make such a difference in how smoothly (a) case progresses towards reunion or not. We had 1 awesome team and, though the case didn’t end in reunion, the needs of the children were kept foremost in everyone’s minds. We’ve also worked with a not so awesome team and that was rocky and painful for everyone right up to the day of the reunion.

On the other side of things, when foster parents are left out of the loop or when caseworkers drop contact – even inadvertently – they feel unsupported. R.H. experienced serious discrepancies in both communication and information that led to “different answers of what was “right” by (those) in the system due to lack of consistency from workers” and the confusion was hard to sort out and manage.

When everyone on that team communicates well and works together positively, the common goal and shared purpose unite you to put the child’s needs first.

Because you cannot make many decisions on your own for this child’s well-being, delayed or conflicting communication causes frustration and even significant delays in accessing what the child needs and has a right to receive. Indeed, some of those issues are not solely communication-oriented, but the surprising lack of contact that some foster parents experience with their child’s team contributed to their struggles.

Surprise Lesson #2 – Folks really do ask the nosiest questions!

Many foster families are conspicuous when they move about their daily lives – because their numbers or faces keep changing. This week, you show up to a baseball game with 3 kids, and next week you’ve got 5 in tow. It is bound to spark some questions! Our foster parents were surprised by the questions they heard and the frustration they felt when trying NOT to answer the inquiries.

Foster families aren’t just conspicuous because of their changing demographics, as K.F. lightheartedly pointed out. They also tend to do things a little differently, and that might raise some eyebrows: “Parenting like you have no idea what you are doing looks reeeallly weird to people on the outside looking in, when “your” kid isn’t an infant.”

How Should Foster Parents Handle Nosey Questions?

Unfortunately, some folks take their questions or raised eyebrows too far and offer unsolicited advice. We all hear that it happens, and maybe we shouldn’t still be surprised by it. But when it happens, it’s still sort of shocking, isn’t it?

S.J. told us she was

..surprised by how many friends/family wanted to know specifics about the case. Trying to navigate (their) questions without giving too much information. Getting lots of opinions on “what’s best” for the child when people are not aware of every detail in the case, so therefore the opinion may seem “helpful,” but it’s not.

Surprise Lesson #3 – Your story might inspire others to foster, too.

As surprising as the unwanted advice and nosy questions are, L.H. was hopeful that her family’s foster journey was inspiring to others.

…few of my friends and neighbors have ever met a foster parent. It’s like I’m some kind of a mirage or aberration. Something you read about in the newspaper but never really thought actually existed. Just the looks I get are so funny. I always hope I will normalize it and perhaps one of them will do it too. We’ll see…

It surprised S.S. that so many of her friends were not familiar with the foster system’s role, but her family certainly has helped raise awareness of the needs.

So many people literally had no idea. If I had a quarter for every time I heard “do you get to keep her?” But since then, we have had several friends call us for information because they are considering fostering themselves.

That might just balance out the scales that feel so heavily weighted by those nosy neighbors, right?

“I always hope I will normalize it and perhaps one of them will do it too. We’ll see…”

Surprise Lesson #4 – You have to be willing to fight for this child.

You will hear it in your classes – the child who is placed with you needs a safe, nurturing place to land, and he needs an advocate. But many foster folks are still surprised by just how hard they are forced to fight for that child’s best interests – or for his family unit to be reunified.

It was really difficult for A.H. to get attention from her caseworker, she felt as if she had to “act like everything is an emergency to get help for (her) kiddo from the social worker in some cases.” Other moms said they had to “fight like hell” and “no one but me” kept track of and advocated for timely court scheduling, therapeutic services, and visitation supports.

A.B. told us that she “had to just keep emailing and calling and emailing and calling, it felt like thousands of times and many times the conversations were so upsetting.”

However, it turned out that her perseverance opened up a point of healing for her son. What mom wouldn’t dig in and fight the machine for that?

Surprise Lesson #5 – The fight makes you a better person.

Fighting some of the services and systems in their first year as foster parents yielded some unexpected benefits for our group members. S.Y. says she was humbled by the challenges she faced navigating WIC. “(It) helped me see past the stigma & statistics, & to be blunt…. helped me to “get over myself” – pride wise.”

When K.F. was forced to face the “politics of poverty,” she said, “It was eye-opening and an overall good thing for my life, though I never want to repeat it.”

It can feel disheartening to feel like you are always fighting medical professionals and the foster system’s “machine.” Still, stories like A.C.H.’s remind us we can do hard things. It also gives renewed hope that the fight will make a difference in the child’s life and even in his family’s future.

Mom and I are still friends three years after reunification. I was also surprised I could want a child to stay and reunify with equal fervor. Advocating for a faster return to mom is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Surprise Lesson #6 – It’s all worth it.

Many of the surprises were complicated and frustrating. Especially for new foster parents who were just trying to be a safe place for a child to land. It’s common to hear how broken the system is and how many kids are just not getting what they need. Why would anyone keep doing it?

…once through the first year, there were fewer surprises and you somehow adjust to crazy. Not much phases you after that. But fostering is the most worthwhile thing I have ever done! ~ S.S.

Why, indeed!

Image Credits: humboldthead; Nenad Stojkovic; U.S.Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District
Some images were re-sized and cropped to fit our formatting requirements.