By Jeff Wiemann
[Editor’s note: May is National Foster Care Awareness Month. This article previously ran in the San Diego Union-Tribune.]
In my work supporting San Diego families who foster, there’s a lot to feel good about. Every day I see children thriving in stable, safe and loving environments while their biological parents are given needed time to get their lives back on track.
Families who open their homes to children in need find the rewards are immense. When my family fostered a baby boy, we absolutely fell in love with him – and went through an experience as a family that has forever strengthened our bond.
Sadly, there is a very real problem in the San Diego foster care system today. We have a crisis-level shortage of families volunteering to care for children in need.
The unfortunate reality is when the San Diego County Department of Child Welfare calls us at Angels Foster Family Network, we are only able to meet the needs of one in three young children. This is heartbreaking on many levels. First and foremost, these infants and toddlers need help. Second, when they do not receive the care they need, our whole community pays the price.
Placing infants and toddlers in stable, safe and loving environments supports healthy brain development and teaches them how to form healthy attachments to other humans. Later in life these healthy attachments allow them to succeed academically, socially and become productive adults. The opposite holds true as well and seriously impacts our communities.
I understand why most are hesitant to foster children. Many believe their heartache will run too deep when it is time to say goodbye. It is one of the toughest things to do, but every foster parent I’ve met will tell you the same thing: It’s worth it.
A foster mother I spoke with recently dabbed tears from her eyes as she talked about the toddler she cared for who had been reunified with his biological family. She said she would do it all over again just for the chance to connect with her foster son. The only thing greater than the pain of loss is the joy of making a positive life-long difference for a child in need.
Many fail to realize parents who foster often stay connected with the children they have cared for. The ability to create and sustain positive relationships with the biological families occurs because of the extensive training and support we provide. Our expert staff and diverse group of foster parents have seen it all, and share their wealth of knowledge generously so that no one ever has unanswered questions or faces challenges alone.
Assuming a child is somehow responsible for their placement in the system or a threat to others are two of the biggest misperceptions I encounter. Let’s be clear, the actions of the parents are the sole reason a child is placed in foster care. Second, some foster children have challenging behaviors as all have been traumatized. You would be too if by the age of 6 weeks, you had figured out that none of your basic needs would be met no matter what you did.
I vividly remember first meeting my foster son and touching his hand and finding it cold — a sure sign of the depth of trauma he had already endured. The first few weeks in our home, he was expressionless. He didn’t cry. He didn’t coo. He didn’t smile. He was conserving his energy because previously any expression on his part resulted in no action by the adults in his life.
All of our families are educated in the trauma-informed model of care, providing them the ability to look beyond the immediate behaviors to discover the root cause. In our case, getting him on a regular schedule of eat, play, sleep did wonders. In a few weeks he was back on track. It is amazing how resilient young children are and how quickly they recover once they are in a stable, safe and loving environment.
Atrocities about fostering make the news headlines and are great stories for television. Far more common are the success stories I see every day. As a parent who has fostered I know it is not easy and not for everyone.
However, as a community we must address the shortage of families who will foster and not doing so only pushes the challenges and costs to the next generation. By sharing more information about the need and realities of fostering, I hope others will consider volunteering to follow the path of my family. If not, there are many other ways to support the needs of children in foster care and all are appreciated.
—Jeff Wiemann is the executive director of Angels Foster Family Network. Visit AngelsFoster.org for more information.