Out-of-home placement is sometimes necessary to meet the developmental needs of infants and young children through safe, stable and nurturing primary caregiving relationships. Foster parents may include caring and committed adults who have been trained to take on the fostering role with or without the possibility of adoption. Some of these parents might also be kinship caregivers (related family members), or fictive kin (individuals who may be close to the family such as friends).
Federal laws recognize that time is of the essence for infants and young children and, as a result, have set forth established timelines for the child protection process, and mandated referral for screening, evaluation and treatment services. An emphasis is placed on strong community collaboration, especially between child welfare and court systems. Many states have taken this a step farther, by implementing an expedited child protection process and forming court teams made up of child welfare workers, service providers, parents, foster parents, lawyers and judges.
To meet these important timelines, the strategy of concurrent planning may be implemented which includes plans for reunification. This means that foster parents must be “at-the-ready,” working with the court team for the child to return home, or if reunification is not possible, become a life-long permanent family. This poses a dilemma for foster parents as they try to balance their physical and emotional responsivity to the child, the child’s family and all other members of the court team.
What do foster parents need as they balance and plan for two goals, one of reunification and one of becoming an alternative lifetime family? Concrete resources, relationships with service providers, emotional support and a full understanding of the child welfare and collaborative court process can help to manage feelings of ambiguity that foster parents may experience throughout this process.
Concrete resources could include donations or discounts on material items such as clothes, furniture and consumables like food, personal care items, school supplies and gas.
Foster parents also need ongoing relationships with service providers may provide discounts and donations for expenses such as car repairs, photo sessions, haircuts, massages, lawn care, child care or respite care.
They need training on various topics including first aid, trauma-informed care, record keeping, adverse childhood experiences, protective factors, disparities, early childhood and brain development, and other standard foster care training. In addition, as a member of the valued court team, foster parents should have a full understanding of laws related to the child welfare process and permanency planning (from the Preliminary Protective Hearing to the Termination of Parental Rights Hearing), and the expedited, concurrent planning process if applicable.
Emotional support helps to buffer the secondary traumatic stress foster parents experience as they help young children to process through their own stress, loss and trauma. As members of the court team, foster parents may participate not only as caregivers for young children but as mentors and models to the child’s parent(s). At the same time, foster parents may manage conflicted emotions that the child’s parent(s) may feel toward them, i.e. feeling “compared” to the foster parents, being grateful for someone to care for their child and/or distrust that the foster parent is not honoring their values and beliefs. As a result, foster parents need to guard their own personal privacy.
For all of the emotional interactions, responsibilities and decisions that foster parents balance, they are in need of concrete supports, ongoing relationships from trusted service providers, training and emotional support from family, friends, service providers and other court team members.
Noelle Hause, Ed.D., LPC, (IMH-IV)-C is an Irving Harris Infant Mental Health Fellow graduate and has provided infant and early mental health services including supervision, training and consultation for more than 30 years.