I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that, by far, the most important moment in determining the success of a placement is the first phone call from the social worker. That is the moment where the social worker and foster parent have the opportunity to communicate most freely and clearly. Foster parents shouldn’t feel guilty asking questions so they can be armed with the information they need to make an informed decision for their family. Communicating the right information as clearly as possible at this moment is in the best interest of the child, because it prepares foster parents for the job they are being asked to take on.
While it never feels good to say “no” to a placement request, it does have to happen sometimes. Most foster parents get into foster parenting for altruistic reasons. We want to help children in care, and it goes against everything within us to have to say “no” to providing a loving home for a child.
Yet it’s important to understand that a “no” is much better than a “yes” that turns into a “no” due to mismatched expectations. There are legitimate reasons a home may not be the best fit for a particular child. The child may have behaviors that subject younger, more vulnerable members of the family to too much risk (I just had to say no to a placement request today for that reason), or the child may simply have behaviors and discipline problems that a foster parent is not experienced enough to handle yet. There’s nothing wrong with that. As foster parents, we have to know our limits.
The real issue is that disrupted placements cause problems for everyone, not the least of which is the child, who now has to be moved to a new home to form new relationships. * Previous attachments become further jeopardized, and the child starts getting calloused to forming and losing relationships. Before long, these children decide that forming new relationships is not worth the effort, because in their minds, they’re just going to be short-term anyway.
The way to avoid these disruptions is to ask a lot of questions at the beginning. As foster parents, we need to be assertive in finding out the information that is important for us to make a decision. Take some time to honestly think about the skills and talents you have (and don’t have), and use that to inform your own judgment about the types of placements you are willing and able to take.
Think about these things ahead of time as much as possible, but you will never be able to anticipate every contingency in advance. You will never have all the facts, nor will the social worker—so the goal is to glean as much information as you can to feel as confident as you can that you are up to the task of caring for this particular child.
For any social workers reading this, this isn’t to say that more information will increase the chances of getting a “no.” For foster parents who ask a lot of questions, it just means the “yes” you eventually receive will be a more confident and informed one. That’s worth a lot.
The fact is, we’re open to learning how to handle new behaviors, but we also want to go into potentially challenging situations with our eyes open so we can best prepare for them. Social workers shouldn’t fear that sharing more information will lead to more foster parents saying “no.” In fact, I think most realize that providing less information increases the chance of getting a soft “yes” that can easily lead to a hard “no” later.
To avoid this, here are some tips for questions to ask when social workers call you for new placements. You will definitely want to create your own list of questions so you can tailor your list to the information that’s important to your family.
- Why is this child coming into care? If this is a disrupted placement, what were the circumstances of the failed placement?
- What is this child’s history of abuse or neglect?
- Does this child have any behaviors that would be important to know about for effective parenting? (For my family, this is one of the most important questions, because it is open-ended.)
- Are there any behaviors that might affect the safety of other kids in the home?
- Will I need to get the child to and from school, and if so, which school?
- Is there a transport service available in case I need help providing transportation?
- Are there counseling appointments or other appointments I’ll need to take the child to? Are there other members of the team who can be an additional resource for transportation?
- What are the arrangements for birth parent visits? Where are they located, and are there issues we need to be aware of, for instance regarding birth parent attitudes toward the foster parents?
- Are there physical health issues I need to be aware of?
- What is the child’s legal status and permanency plan?
Here are some other tips you might find helpful:
- Have a plan for how to communicate and get feedback from your spouse before committing to a new placement. In simple situations like short-term respite placements, one of us will sometimes make a decision on the fly, but not for long-term placements.
- In our family, the person who takes the call will get as much info as possible, take notes, and immediately try to get feedback from the other one as soon as possible. Sometimes this leads to more follow-up questions.
- It’s OK to tell the social worker you’ll discuss the placement with your spouse and get back to them ASAP.
- Keep in mind that the social worker is calling a list of foster parents; so the sooner you can return their call, the better. If some time passes before you return the call, the child may already be placed.
In short, take the time you need to gather the information necessary to feel confident in the placement. It always helps to have a willingness to be flexible as you face unforeseen issues that are bound to come up, but the more you can learn about these children at the outset, the better care you can provide for them as foster parents.
Are there times when a disruption is in the best interest of the child? Yes. Absolutely. We don’t always have enough information when kids come into care to make an accurate decision about whether our home will be the best choice for them. But by asking a lot of questions up front, we can make the best informed decision possible, and reduce the need for a placement change.
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Kevin Harper is the author of the upcoming book Foster Parenting Teens, and a foster care speaker, trainer, and mentor with Family Resource & Training Center. His daughter Saty Cornelius just released a book about the experiences of foster teens called More to Me, available on Amazon. Connect with Kevin on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @fosterbetter.