For more than 40 years, I have been a child/family advocate in many different capacities. I have directly represented youth, foster parents, adoptive parents and birth parents in court. I have been an active advocate for all of those same groups, and now I head Iowa’s child welfare system. I have witnessed the evolution of the foster care system, and, more importantly, I have seen successes and failures in foster care placements. So, I have tried to consider what makes a foster care placement successful. What qualities are essential for a good foster parent?
It would be easy to say that the traits necessary for someone to be a good foster parent are the same as those traits necessary to be a good parent: unconditional love, honesty, patience and consistency. Of course, all of those traits are essential for a foster parent to be able to provide a successful home for any youth. Some of those traits may be more challenging or require special application in a foster care setting when compared to a birth family setting. There are also some additional traits that must be added to a foster family setting.
First, and foremost, a foster family must make the youth feel that they are part of the family. Foster family care was selected because it was determined that the youth needed a setting that is most similar to the family setting. That means more than providing a physical home. It means being welcoming to the youth and making the youth feel like an equal member of the family — with the same rights and responsibilities as anyone else in the family. Many foster youth have told me that they don’t want to be different, and they don’t want to be treated as if they are different.
Second, in cases where the permanency goal is to return home, the foster parent must go the extra mile to support the bio-family. Foster parents should not see themselves as replacing the biological family. They are not the youth’s “new family.” Instead, the foster parents must provide a bridge for the youth to return home when the parents have made the changes necessary for safe return. This requires that the foster parent encourage and support family visits, provide regular contact and updates to the bio-parent, and include the bio-parent in as much of the decision-making process for the child as is possible. It may also include facilitating sibling visitation when permitted by the courts and child welfare agency.
Sometimes, the youth may be upset with the delays experienced by the bio-parents in making the changes that would lead to reunification. It is important for the foster parent to turn the youth’s conversation in a positive direction for the bio-parents by explaining the struggles experienced by the parents and that the parents will continue to try to be successful.
Third, the foster parent must demonstrate empathy for the youth. Foster youth don’t want the foster parent to feel sorry for them. They just want their foster parent to understand what they are going through and what it feels like to the youth. The foster youth must recognize that the foster parent is willing to see what it is like to “walk in their shoes.” All kids think that adults just don’t understand them. Showing empathy rather than just understanding is essential. It is rarely helpful to tell the youth that it could be worse, or that things are really not that bad. Sometimes, it is best to acknowledge that you understand the youth’s frustration. It is often helpful to say, “I know this stinks and it isn’t fair. I wish it wasn’t that way.”
Fourth, it is essential that the foster parent have and practice good communication skills. Communication is a two-way street. It is not just about talking. Even more important than talking is demonstrating good listening skills. Foster youth often tell me that they feel that the whole system (including the courts, social workers and lawyers) talk at them and never listen to them. They feel they are always being told what to do, what to think, and how to feel. Few people seem to listen to them.
The best foster parents not only take the time to listen to what the youth has to say, but also work to ensure that the youth knows that they were heard and understood. Sometimes, it is best for the foster parent to summarize what the foster youth has just told them. That part of the conversation may go something like this: “So, what I hear you saying is that when I don’t ask for your input into what we are having for dinner you think I don’t care what you like or don’t like.”
Communication does not mean that the youth always gets what they want. It only means that the youth feels heard. It is usually best for the conversation to include a plan for going forward. It is also helpful to end the conversation with a positive statement, such as, “I am so glad that we were able to talk about this. It always helps us move forward if we both understand each other better.”
Fifth, the very best foster parents are resilient. They understand that, like any other youth, foster youth will experience their ups and downs. Just because today was a good day, doesn’t mean that tomorrow will be a good one as well. The opposite is also true. Resilience requires the foster parent to “bounce back” from the tough times and start every day with a clean slate. We have to remember that this youth has probably gone through many changes in their short lifetime and they are struggling to find their way. They have often not experienced the kind of consistency practiced in many successful families, and so they struggle to be consistent in their various roles in school, church, the foster home and elsewhere. The foster parent must be able to “roll with the punches.”
Finally, great foster parents persevere. They not only hang in there with the youth through the good times and the bad, but they also let the foster youth know that they will continue to be there for the youth. That doesn’t mean that good foster parents never give notice that the placement is not a good one. Sometimes, it was just not a “match made in heaven.” But most foster placements can be successful if perseverance is seen as a necessity and if the foster parent reminds the youth that the relationship is not going to end the first time any difficulties or conflicts are encountered.
I am sure there are many more traits of a good foster parent, but I believe that these are the ones that are essential for the most successful relationship between the foster parent and the foster youth. Foster parents need to remember that no child (foster, biological or adoptive) expect or experience perfection from their caregiver. However, foster parents who make their best efforts and incorporate the traits I have identified have the best chance of developing and sustaining positive relationships with the youth placed in their care.
Jerry Foxhoven, Esq., is the director of the Iowa Department of Human Services.