When we decided to take the plunge into the foster parent licensing process, we did so with one important ground rule: if, at any point in the process, one of us said, “Hell No. I can’t do this,” we would stop. No judgment, no questions asked. Frankly, the “Hell No Rule” works well in many aspects of a relationship – but I digress…
The closest we came to saying “Hell No” was during foster parenting class. As I described in my last post, most of the other families in our foster parenting class were already in the trenches. They were experiencing what we were learning about in real time. They were exhausted – emotionally and physically. Every Saturday morning, their stories made the narratives in our workbooks and the role playing exercises in class seem simple by comparison. We were told that our licensing agency intentionally instructs Community Foster Families and Kinship Foster Families side by side for this reason. There is no better education in foster parenting than having a real conversation with a foster parent.
One family described how, because their foster children had been homeless and starving, they were struggling to adjust to living in a house and having regular meals. The toddlers climbed the kitchen cabinets to look for food any time they had the chance. The children gorged to the point of vomiting if their portions were not strictly controlled. Their foster father sheepishly described them as “practically feral.” We knew what he meant – he wasn’t trying to be offensive. This was just the cold, hard reality of abuse and neglect.
Another family described how their grandson lashed out in violent outbursts at school and frequently had to be restrained by school staff. Another foster mom offered tips to the class one day on what she had found were the best ways to weather emotional breakdowns after parent visits.
We discussed behaviors and conditions that result from certain types of trauma and neglect like sexual acting out; running away; self harm; developmental delays; cognitive impairments; and language delays.
But oddly, the exercise that freaked us out the most was a role playing exercise about a foster child’s first night in your home.
One of our instructors, a young social worker, played the role of the child coming into our home. It was our job to welcome her to our home for her first night in foster care. Our instructor played the role of a sullen and scared six year old girl. We went through the routine. She looked around wide eyed. We introduced ourselves. (“We are the mom and dad in this house – it’s our job to take care of you”). We showed her our house and poured her a glass of water. Finally, it was time to unpack her bag.
Most children who are taken into foster care, get to pack one bag of belongings to take with them. These items are sacred. As foster parents, you are not prohibited to discard these items. This is for good reason – imagine you had to leave your home and family and only had 20 minutes to pack a bag. What would you take? Whatever it is you would pack would be incredibly important to you.
She, our instructor pretending to be a 6 year old, pulls out a package of cigarettes saying it reminds her of her mother. She wants to keep them in her room. No problem.
“Okay,” we say. “We are going to take the cigarettes out and then we’ll put the package right here next to your bed.” We show her that we will keep the actual cigarettes safe – just on top of the refrigerator.
Then, she pulls out a gun. The scenario we are forced to imagine is one in which a six year old is pointing a loaded gun at us and refusing to set it down. We try to coax it away from her and she becomes agitated.
For the first time during foster parenting class, a situation really freaks me out. I don’t like guns. I’m not comfortable around them. And I’m certainly not comfortable with an emotional six year old pointing one at me.
“You call the police.” Our instructor breaks character. “Remain calm, do your best to deescalate, and call 911, then the crisis line.”
She must sense our shock, because she continues, “We’ve only had that happen once -with a gun,” she quickly clarifies, “more often, if anything, its knives.”
One of our classmates speaks up, “No one watches them pack?”
“DCS is supposed to,” our instructor explains, “but sometimes they don’t…or sometimes stuff slips by….”
After class that day, as we walked to the parking lot, I felt rattled. For some reason, I couldn’t get the image of myself looking down the barrel of a gun wielded by an unstable 6 year old out of my head. I can’t tell you exactly why this got to me the way it did…but it did.
I remember saying to my husband, “They probably try to point out the worst case scenarios.” It was an attempt to assure myself more than him.
“I don’t know,” I remember how exhausted he sounded, “I don’t want to coax a loaded handgun from a child.” My husband is always a little more emotionally honest than I am.
But after a couple of large glasses of wine, we decided that, a six year old with a gun might be the extreme, but we knew what to do. It was scary because foster care IS scary. Parenting is scary. But some of the best things we’ve done were a little scary. So…onwards….