Permanency in the Temporary: Effects of Fostering on Biological Children
By Emily Johnston for Southeastern University
When I was six years old, and my big brother was only eight, my parents made a decision to open our home to infants and toddlers needing a short term foster home. This decision introduced our family to a lifestyle that only God could have imagined for us. Over the past 14 years I have seen nearly 21 children pass through our home, some finding a refuge for only a few shorts days, some weeks or even months, and a few have nestled themselves into our home to be part of our forever family.
My family’s story is not the same as other foster families, it is uniquely our own. Our family has never had any foster children that were older than my brother and I, in fact all of the children have been infants, newborn or at the oldest a few months. Also most every child that came through our home was adopted into a family through our agency at the end of their stay with us, which were usually only a few weeks. My family adopted my little sister out of foster care and we are in the process of fighting for the adoption of the twin sisters we have had for the past four and a half years. My family has always put Christ and His call at the center of the fostering journey. All of these things create the environment in which we foster and have shaped how I view fostering.
I know without a doubt that fostering has affected my values in incredible ways. Through the fostering process my parents emphasized the biblical commandment of caring for the widow and orphan, they made sure I knew it was not a suggestion but was indeed a commandment. Seeing the fostering system played out in the reality of my own home gave me a passion to see the orphan cared for and loved. I value the importance of family and permanency in a home for every child. I have seen and heard numerous stories over the years about children who were passed from one home to another and that has made me intolerant of such a system. Our values are often shaped from our experience and I know that my passion to see the lonely child find a forever family is a value that was placed in me as a direct result of my fostering experiences.
Fostering has also given me a value for diversity. My family has seen and cared for children of all different ethnic backgrounds, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, you name it. I was raised watching kids come into my home that needed help and I never once saw my parents discriminate against any of them or hear them say that it was because of their ethnicity. For this reason I have grown to notice people as people and to see the problem being faced and have tried desperately to never tether a people group to a problem. This makes working cross culturally more natural for me. Even growing up in an area known for racism, my parents as foster parents taught me to never limit help due to a person’s background but rather to embrace the diversity and learn from them.
Germain came up with the ecological system theory, which essentially says that a person is a product of their environment. She says that a person cannot be defined outside of the environment in which he or she resides or was raised. It involves looking from a holistic approach at a person to better understand why they are the way they are. I know that I am a product of the foster care system, not because I was actually a number in the system but because the system defined much of my home life for the majority of my developing childhood. I cannot tell my story without talking about the numerous infants and toddlers that came to share my family with me for a time. The way I think and the way I view tough issues is often a direct result of what I learned from fostering. It wasn’t just about the time spent with the kids; it was also about the life circumstances that I was exposed to from a young age. My parents were always fairly open with me about why the kids had to come stay with us and they allowed us, my brother and I, to be apart of the fostering journey. I was exposed to the bad only through stories or words, but my experiences often reflected the beauty of adoption from fostering. My environment has affected my thought processes when it comes to how I view family, life circumstances, poverty, depravity, social work, and even my faith. To truly understand me, my passions and my faith one must understand the experiences I had from the time I was 6 and the first little boy came into my home and turned my seemingly normal family into one that decided to toss normal out the window for the sake of others.
The impact of fostering on biological children is more than just a change in their day-to-day lives. Research finds that biological children are affected by fostering mostly through role identity, loss of familial normalcy, separation and attachment, and accelerated maturity. Both parents and foster care social workers should acknowledge each of these changes set on by fostering. In order for a family to be a healthy home for fostering, both foster and biological children should be assessed.
Younes (2007) refers to the fostering process as “bittersweet” saying that it “challenges the strengths of foster families and their biological children” (p.37-38). Fostering is known to drastically change the dynamic of a family. The obvious concern is about biological children loosing the attention of their parents. This is a common find in all of the research and Watson (2002) even states that the biological children “always experience some abandonment, when his parents give their attention to the foster child” (p. 49). Twigg (2007) points out that the biological children “felt that a disproportionate amount of their parents’ time and energy was required to meet the needs of the children placed with them” (p.54). But loss of parental time and attention is only the start of the family’s changing dynamics.
While I do remember moments where I was greatly aware of the loss of time and attention from my mom and dad, I had my brother and I never really felt like it affected me on a very deep level. It did change my relationship with my parents but my parents tried to make sure that I was never neglected even when there were other children in our home. Also the length of the stay of the children helped with this issue. Since the children were usually only in our home for a few weeks I always knew that when they left our lives would be back to normal for a little while; that was until my sister came along. She never left but she was an addition that I was willing to happily share my parents with.
In the same way that adding on a new member of the family, whether through birth, adoption, or marriage, with the new member come new roles. This is the same with fostering. Twigg (2007) discusses the impact of fostering by acknowledging that the “hierarchical order has to be established and the individual members may find themselves pushed into less prominent roles”(p.53). When fostering, families are in a constant state of reorganization and as a result the roles are always changing. An example of the distortion that comes with continually watching their family change and watching foster children come in and out, is that biological children have a distorted view of how foster care works. One biological child that was interviewed stated that “her sense of belonging in her family had been threatened significantly by watching social workers remove children because of their misbehaviors and she was convinced that she too would be taken away” (R. Twigg & Swan, 2007, p.53). According to Kaplan (1988) this is called ‘Intentional Abandonment” and it is the “child’s belief that the foster child had been rejected or abandoned…intentionally because the child was ‘bad’” (p.285). This misunderstanding can lead to a fear of being abandoned if they are bad, which can lead to how they feel in their own family.
I don’t remember ever feeling like I had a skewed understanding of foster care. My parents were always open with me and made sure that I understood why these children needed to be with us. I do remember joking as a child when I was angry with my parents by saying something like “I’m gonna call DHR (the Alabama equivalent of DCF) on you guys”. My parents would just laugh and say something like “they will just take you and put with another foster mom and dad just like us”. Looking back I obviously knew enough about fostering that I thought all mean parents got their children taken away and sent to be with us for awhile. Beyond that knowledge, though my parents made sure that I knew why the children were in foster care and it was not because the child was bad or unwanted but that God had a plan for the child whether that included their birth family or not.
Another common effect of fostering on biological children is the pain they feel that is associated with loss and separation. Watson (2002) stated “children who foster were likely to be affected to some extent by problems with attachment and loss, especially with the repeated comings and goings of short-term foster care” (p.50). Twigg (2007) makes it clear that “research clearly and consistently indicates that the loss that foster parents experience is also felt quite profoundly by their own children” (p.52). This fear of separation and the attachment to the foster children can become a great stress on the family. Many biological children in foster families try avoiding the pain that comes with the loss. Poland (1993) pointed out that “shielding themselves from the grief of a separation can create strain for families over how much of themselves they can risk in their attachment to a foster child” (p.154). It is not just that the child will leave but also “uncertainty about the duration of the placement may limit the ability of family members to invest emotionally in the foster child.” (R. C. Twigg, 1994, p.303) Research also emphasizes the fact that the age of the child can affect how they deal with the loss. The older the child gets the more they experience true separation and their emotions are more associated with the foster child themselves not just the fearful emotions that come with a change in their environment.(Kaplan, 1988, p.291) Younes (2007) states the sadly true reality that “in the midst of sadness, the loss presented an opportunity for the family to recuperate and return to some normalcy, even if short-lived until the entry of the next foster child.” One family even said that the time between children is “like a vacation” (p.35).
I still remember the first time we had a foster child leave. He was our first and he fit so well with us. We saw great transformation in him from the first day he was with us to the last. I remember the tears and the strange emptiness in our family the first night after he was gone. I was only six but I remember that day very well. Not every child had the same impact on me but every time there was a moment or day or even weeks of sadness. Something that made many of these ‘goodbyes’ easier was that many times I was actually able to be in the room when the adoptive family met their son or daughter for the first time. Seeing the joy and love that occurred in those moments made it a lot easier. Even in light of that joy it still hurt and there was still a time of readjusting back into normal life. I can remember several times coming home after saying goodbye to our foster brother or sister and our parents getting us our favorite meal and us sitting around as a family and allowing a time of grieving. My parents never told us not to cry but rather they created a safe place where we could grieve the loss and then there would always be a moment, sometimes spoken sometimes not, where it was decided, “let’s do it again”.
The separation that the children learn how to deal with is one of the factors that lead to the child’s greater maturity amongst other factors. Research time and time again confirms that biological children of fostering carry more maturity and responsibility or they simply are expected to maintain a greater maturity than other children. Watson (2002) states that biological children “were expected to be understanding, and not retaliate, to put someone else’s needs before their own” (p.50). Twigg (2007) addresses the fact that younger biological children must mature prematurely to keep up with older foster children or older biological children must mature faster so that they can step into a caregiving role for the younger foster children. (p.56) Spears (2003) expands on this by saying that “generally those who were older thought fostering was easier because they led fairly separate lives from the foster children and their presence did not impinge on them” (p.41). Biological children also face discrepancies in discipline by their parents this can be confusing for both the foster and biological children (Poland & Groze, 1993, p.154). On top of that their parents just seem to put an extremely high expectation of maturity on the children. Watson (2002) reports on Kaplan’s research that stated “the psychological impact of fostering on foster carers’ own children suggested that foster carers’ can minimize their children’s concerns, and assume a greater maturity than actually exists’” (p.50) Research also finds that children also will often only express the positives of foster care because they are wishing to please their parents, this is a simple show of their maturity. Twigg (2007) speculates that “the positives may be overstated and reflect the participants’ perception that they should not only present a more positive or socially acceptable response, but also should not be critical of their parents’ choices”(p. 50).
My brother and I have always been told that we carry maturity beyond our years. I never correlated that to fostering but it seems that the two go hand in hand. So much of my personality is defined by my fostering experiences. I know that my motherly instinct is in part due to the fact that often at a young age I was a third parent in the house taking care of the babies when mom or dad was busy. I always understood circumstances in a different light then my peers because often I had taken care of a child that was a product of the same difficult life circumstances. I would attest to the impact on a child’s maturity from fostering. I would also attest that many times it is expected and not chosen. There were several times growing up that I felt that I was put on an unrealistic pedestal and still to this day feel that way. There were times as a child where I wanted a normal life. There were times when I didn’t want to help these kids, I wanted a normal home and I wanted to be able to have friends over but couldn’t because the babies were there. There were times when I would get frustrated and want to yell at my parents “I didn’t sign up for this, you did! I don’t want these kids in our home all the time”. More often then not I kept these feelings inside. As a result of the maturity that was put on me from a young age I learned that saying these feelings out loud would be insensitive and it was my job to put my feelings aside for the feelings of others. Also, just as the research pointed out, I never wanted my parents to feel bad or guilty about following their call on account of me. The majority of the time I loved every minute of fostering but I was also expected to love every minute of fostering. I believe that the way I carry myself is directly affected by the way I was expected to carry myself by my parents and other adults around me growing up, whether that is directly attached to the fostering experience or just my parents I don’t know, but realizing that other biological children of fostering felt that same way was, in a sense, liberating.
Research acknowledges many implications that social workers should be aware of. Many researchers found that nearly every child or parent that was interviewed wished they had been better prepared for fostering. Twigg (2007) says that is starts by noting that “children and young people are important members of successful caring teams and their contribution and experiences should be more formally acknowledged” (p.58). Social workers should be aware of several ways to acknowledge the biological children. Poland points out that pre-training sessions, opportunities to discuss fostering with other biological children, and sessions with the entire family would be beneficial. Social workers should also spend more time with biological children during home visits (Poland & Groze, 1993, p.159&162). Twigg (2007) points out the social workers role in “helping all family members not only to deal with the challenges presented by the children placed with them, but also to help with feelings of loss and grief when children move on” (p.59). Watson (2002) passionately says that she “sometimes feels that professionals lost sight of the fact that the Children Act 1989 is not for just ‘Looked After’ children, but all children.” (p.51) Over all social workers must be more attune with the role biological children play in fostering and their needs and must address them with more intentionality.
The social workers with the agency that we fostered through were always a big part of my life, however I have no memory of any of them sitting down with me and asking me how I felt about the fostering process. I was always under the understanding that they were there for the foster kids and they were not there for me. I could see the profound impact it could have made had the social workers taken the time to really communicate with my brother and I. Knowing that research shows such a lack of involvement of social workers with biological children and knowing the potential impact it could have made on my life will definitely affect the way I work with foster families in the future.
Much of the research found stated the positive impact of fostering on biological children. One even said that many children who foster grow up to want to be involved in some form of social work. Well that’s me. Through my experience in fostering I have seen the brokenness of a system that was created to help children. I have seen the beauty of a child that survives and is placed in a healthy home and I have experienced the great pain of watching a child go back to a home that is not a healthy option for them. Not only did these experiences compel me to be a social worker and make a difference but they also motivate me in my studies and my drive to become a social worker. These experiences will obviously be an ever-present reality to me when I am working as a social worker and will undoubtedly affect my practice.
Having first hand experience can both help and hinder a social worker. I will be able to relate to and understand better many of the clients I will work with, which can be my greatest asset or sometimes become my greatest fault. If I am not careful I have the ability to project my own feelings about cases that I have been in with foster children on to clients and what they are dealing with. For example I have the potential of getting too emotionally invested when a child is being sent back into an unhealthy home when there is a foster family who loves and wants them. That is my story exactly, so I may have a tendency to side with the loving foster family and forget that my job is stay objective and advocate for the child not the foster family. However, on the other hand, my experiences give me drive to see change on a macro level for the foster care system. I know how to better advocate for the foster children because I have had to advocate for my foster siblings many times and have seen others advocate for them. They are the ones who really matter and living with them for so many years will help me to remember them when I am working in practice. They are the reason I am becoming a social worker and they are reason I know that I will be a good social worker.
Going from a “normal” American family, to a foster family shaped me in more ways then I will ever know. I was forced to maintain a level of emotional maturity that was not required of many of my peers. I learned to share the attention of my family with a child who needed a family. I was exposed to the beauty of adoption and to the disparity of a broken system. I watched my family embrace and love children of all different ethnicities and backgrounds, and I learned to embrace diversity. While most children that entered our home left with a happy ending out of the foster care system, I experienced great hurt, pain, and frustration. I learned to love unconditionally even with the knowledge that letting go was inevitable. I am still discovering how being a foster sister has affected me and how different my life would have been had my parents never made this decision to obey the call of caring for the orphan and oppressed.