Last weekend, I had an amazing opportunity to provide respite for a foster family. This can be a tricky proposition in the position I hold with CASA. The foster parents in this case were my daughter and son-in-law, and the children experiencing foster care in their home live with our kids in a county more than an hour away. To keep myself in my own lane as extra love for these kids and not Advocate, the role I typically play, I put in another layer of protection against a conflict of interest – I know only their first names. Instead of using child welfare terms like ‘respite,’ my husband and I simply had an opportunity to host a weekend adventure for three incredible kids.
With nearly a dozen years working in child welfare, specifically with CASA, I have grown such an admiration for foster families, and the sacrifice foster families make so a child has a safe, consistent, loving home to stay while their parents work on the issues that caused the child to come into care. Foster parents who pace the floor with a crying toddler who doesn’t understand. Or attempt to answer the questions of the six-year-old who wonders, whose house is this? And why am I here? Or helps the 12-year-old understand that they do not have to care for their siblings anymore, that they can play and have fun, and let the adults make sure the younger siblings have food and their nap. Of course the greatest gift is the gift of love given freely to a child who may not have experienced love before, especially when this love is met with resistance.
The experience of being a support for a foster family has only deepened my admiration for foster families and for elevating the need for more foster parents in our community. What we know is trauma happens in a child’s life when they are removed from their parents and placed in a foster home with strangers who may not look like them or eat the same foods. That disruption is tough, but even more pronounced when the disruption extends to the child’s school, friends, sports teams when a local foster family is not an option.
In 2018, the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) published a report that showed the graduation rate for youth in foster care lags far behind the graduation rate of children who have not experienced foster care. Essentially the report stated if you are a youth in foster care in Georgia, you have a 11% chance of graduating high school.[i] This is an alarming statistic, and one that has drawn attention and resources to begin to tackle this travesty. One of the kids we hosted this weekend is celebrating this week an important school milestone. It is not a graduation, or a perfect attendance award, or even a high achievement in a subject – it is the celebration of finishing the school year at the same school he began in August. This is a first for him, and made possible by a foster parent who saw the value of consistency in education, a foster parent who made the commitment to drive this child 45 minutes each way to a school to ensure that consistency, when the child was placed in a home a county away in the middle of the school year.
During the month of May, National Foster Care Month, I urge you to find ways to support the foster families in our community. If you know someone well enough to offer, do laundry (oh, how that seems to pile up), or give the gift of a car wash and vacuum. Help with homework. Give the gift of experiences – a trip to the zoo or the aquarium – so the whole family can enjoy, without breaking the bank. Drop off a restaurant gift card, or a meal for the freezer for those days when making dinner just isn’t happening.
And perhaps the most important thing, give the gift of grace to a family when a child’s behavior does not always match the expectation of the situation in public. Kids experiencing foster care often have big feelings and often do not come equipped with the tools to navigate those big feelings. And courageous foster parents who brave public events, not knowing when those big feeling might manifest in ways that are not so pleasant, are my heroes. Celebrate with me these incredible folks who are helping to hold a part of each child’s story.