A First-Hand Account: Cebien Alty, Foster Parent
by HFC foster parent, Cebien Alty
After nearly 10 years of being opposed to the idea of fostering, I finally decided to take the first step back in 2009 to learn more about the need and exactly what my commitment would be if I were to foster.
This, of course, was not easy as I was opposed to it for so long because of my own misconceptions about how the children in foster care ended up there. I was always hesitant because I assumed—like many others who do not know the full scope of how and why kids enter foster care—that the child(ren) played “a role” in his/her/them entering foster care.
I had no idea that once I heard how much of a need there is for fostering and how my small involvement could actually help change a life, that we would be where we are today (five years of fostering, caring for 50+ young lives, foster parent mentors, support group facilitators, foster parent advisory participants, recruitment events speaker, foster parent shadow home participants, magazine interviewees and much more). Truthfully, I did not know what to expect; I thought I would go to an info session, get some info, and either pass it along or not act on it.
Foster Parent Information Session
The Foster Parent Info Session is simply that: a short session to gain information on the foster care system in Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties. You get enough information to help you decide either, “Yes, I/we want to learn more,” or, “No, this is not for me/us.” In the case of my wife, Joy-Lynn, and I, it was a matter of, “How much commitment will this require?” and, “Could I really do this with EVERYTHING else we have going on?” I said, “Could I really do this?” because my wife would have started fostering years ago if I’d said yes when she first brought it up. Joy-Lynn’s biological Mom was a foster parent to teenage girls, so Joy was able to see the direct effect that her Mom had in their lives; and she also wanted to help some young people navigate through a difficult situation.
...I don’t want you to think that there is a 'type' of foster parent that is right...
Well, the info session gave us enough information to say yes to attending Foster Parent Orientation, which is where you either get fully committed or you decide definitely no, or at least not right now. Back in 2009, following orientation, we went through 12 weeks of MAPP training, what is now called Passport to Parenting, and which is condensed down to 9 weeks. We attended our 12 week foster parent training series along with several other couples and individuals—some with children, some empty nesters, some without children, some single; and included a wide range of ages, backgrounds, beliefs, careers, etc. I outline this because I don’t want you to think that there is a “type” of foster parent that is right; if you have the desire to truly help, then you can take the first step in learning where and how you can provide support, either directly or indirectly.
Foster Parent Training
As we started our foster care training, we began to get a vivid picture of what we might potentially encounter. You see, once you start to learn about why and how the children in foster care end up in “the system,” you start to develop this image of, “I’m going to be the hero and save these kids; I have a nice home, nice car, I’m stable and they will be so grateful for all of this.” Well, remove that train of thought because you might be setting yourself up for some hurt feelings.
It was not until later into our training that we learned how BIG of an impact that TRAUMA had in the lives of children in foster care (before, during and after they exit). We quickly realized that if we were going to make a positive impact, we had to remove any idealistic visions that we had of; for example, “If we just provide, they will change.” If there is a single thing that I could tell individuals, couples and families coming into foster care to equip themselves with heavily; it would be how to effectively deal with trauma-impacted children. Surface level, it might materialize as inappropriate behavior or outburst; and if you are not properly equipped to differentiate between trauma-related reactions vs. regular age appropriate acting out, you might impart the wrong mechanisms to effectively induce positive change.
Training did a good job of helping us better understand why and how children in foster care came into care and how to best prepare ourselves for what we might encounter. I will honestly say that yes, you get trained, but it’s not until you are actually in it, that you fully understand how deep the experience of fostering can go. By the end of training, Joy-Lynn and I felt adequately educated to say, “Yes, we can do this!” We knew there were some things that we would have to experience first-hand in order to fully understand, but we felt comfortable enough to finish training all the way through to licensing.
By the end of our training, all the misconceptions and skewed thinking I had about fostering, like “We’ll be alone in this after training…We can’t say no…We’ll get the perfect child, etc.” were all made clearer. I felt the training did a good job in helping us understand that we would be dealing with children impacted by trauma, at minimum by simply being removed from what is comfortable and familiar to them; not to mention the trauma that led them into foster care.
Between the home study visits conducted by the foster class trainers, the conversations and questions during class, guest speakers, paperwork and the opportunities for side conversations; I would say that in my opinion, we were given every opportunity to opt-out if at any time we felt we would not be able handle the experience of becoming foster parents. I would say that the reason we felt comfortable going all the way through to licensing was because we understood there would be support in various facets as we journeyed through fostering. I would tell you or anyone you know who is going through foster care training that there is HELP if you want it and need it. Being left to fend for yourself is a BIG NOT-GOING-TO-HAPPEN, unless you let it. Whether it’s through case management, direct-agency support at Heartland for Children, therapists, psychologists, dentists, podiatrists, neurologists, mentors, support groups, you name it; there is a resource or resources to help you through your situation or help you decide when you’ve done all that you can do from your side.
Words of Wisdom
You need to know your reach, so that the lives you do touch are positively impacted.
Knowing when to say no or, “I’ve done all I can do,” is another recommendation I would give to incoming foster parent(s). It’s okay to say no. Understanding that there are over 400+ children in foster care between Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties; and while yes we want to “save” them all and positively impact each and every life, our reach is but so far. You need to know your reach, so that the lives you do touch are positively impacted. Through our years of fostering, we have encountered a myriad of children—some great and some who were not at a stage that we were equipped to make an impactful change based on where we were with knowledge, bandwidth and/or skill set. We had to search within ourselves and become comfortable with saying, “Heartland, we are not the right fit,” or plain, “No, not right now.”
Too often, we’ve heard the stories of foster parents coming in and wanting to make positive changes; they take on more than they can bear, both in terms of tolerance and capacity. This leads to foster parents giving up, getting overwhelmed too early into fostering and ultimately burnt out to the point where they have no more to give or simply get frustrated. Avoid this pitfall by knowing your comfort level. Start off with what is familiar to you in terms of capacity and when you get that call from HFC Placements for that first child(ren) needing a foster home, we want you to
ASK QUESTIONS, like:
- Are there any severe behavioral issues outside of age appropriate behavior I/we should be aware of?
- Are there any medications that are prescribed?
- Are there visitations that we need to know of?
- Is this their first placement into foster care?
- Was there sexual abuse or substance abuse?
- Why were they removed from their previous placement, etc.?
Do not be afraid of asking questions to ensure that you are adequately prepared to fully commit to the duration; be it one week, one month or one year of caring for the child(ren) placed in your home. During the 30 day visits by case management, use that time to honestly converse about what the child(ren) and your needs are to sustain stability of the placement. If you feel you are not getting the support or answers you need, escalate to agency supervisors, directors or Heartland. Do not wait until you are at the point of feeling neglected.
The last thing you want to do is contribute to added trauma by not preparing yourself and getting overwhelmed too quickly into the placement, ultimately having it disrupted by the child(ren) being removed. With that said, I would add that there will be times where you are given as much info as possible and you still have to work through some unknowns. Understand that it did not take a day, a week or even a month to cause severe trauma to the child(ren); so it might take more than a day, a week or even a month to see positive change. Pacing yourself, not over-expecting immediate change (and honestly sometimes, more than often, immediate change does happen); but going the way of, “I’m in this for the long haul,” will, in my opinion, help you endure what is needed to help change lives.
If I were recruiting new foster parents, I would definitely speak about the good things, but I would also set realistic expectations. For example, if I am looking to foster newborns or infants, understand that I have to do my research with daycare providers, figure out who my nearby support system will include; understand that there are going to be late nights, early mornings and the oh so dreaded diaper changes. Yes, you actually have to change diapers if you are going to care for infants. Seriously, equip yourself with the realistic daily routines that might be needed for the age groups you are seeking to foster. If you are going to foster teenagers, know that they want independence and how are you going to bridge the gap between what is acceptable and what is in their best interest of keeping them safe; while maintaining a state of normalcy that would occur with the average teenager not in foster care.
You have to find that fine balance of providing as much as possible a “normal” family environment, while knowing that foster care is a temporary solution that will hopefully lead to successful reunification. You must ask yourself how you as a foster parent are going to equip these young people with the life skills necessary to effectively function when they reunify with their biological family member(s).
How would you react if someone made you uncomfortable?
Again, the good thing is that you are not alone in this journey if you don’t want to be. You are not forced or “strong-armed” into anything you do not want to do or are not comfortable doing. However, I will say that you must get a new definition of what “comfort” means to you. There is nothing comfortable about being removed from what is familiar (even it is not safe or healthy), being put in the home of a stranger(s), sleeping in a strange bed/house, having different neighbors, schoolmates, bus route, eating different foods, going to church, getting positive affirmations, when all you know or were familiar with was being put down and belittled; or in simplest terms, having someone tell you “No.” So often, there are no boundaries, so some of the toughest challenges you will face is setting boundaries and sticking with them, even though there is rebellion in the way of tantrums, running away, constant crying, throwing, kicking, spitting, biting, and everything else you would do if someone took you out of your comfort zone or your place of “normalcy.” How would you react if someone made you uncomfortable?
Foster Parenting in 2014
Joy-Lynn and I really wanted to parent and make life as normal as possible regardless of whether the placement was going to be short-term or long-term; so unless there was something we did not know how to do or a resource we did not know how to find, we honestly did as much as we could for the child(ren) we had in our care within the limits of what’s allowed and what is authorized. The great thing is that has happened within foster care is the passing of the Let Kids Be Kids Bill, or “Normalcy Bill,” which was sponsored by Representative Ben Albritton and signed by Governor Rick Scott in April of 2013. This bill basically cuts out a lot of the “red tape” that a foster parent; even just as recent as early 2013 would have had to go through to let their foster child join a baseball team, go to prom, drive a vehicle, go to the movies, go on family vacations, spend the night at a friend’s house or even having a babysitter who was not finger printed, background checked and authorized by the local Community Based Care organization. This bill has now increased the opportunities for foster parents to really parent, using their best judgment, all with the child’s best interest in the forefront.
You really have to experience it for yourself.
We would say with the forward-thinking happening within foster care–Florida in our opinion being the front-runner–you can either come in and take as much ownership of your role as a foster parent as you feel comfortable with, or if you want to help and wish to use all the resources at your disposal; they’re available.
There is so much more I could share, but you really have to experience it for yourself. You are prepared through training for what I say are the “worst case scenarios,” and then you actually get started. Most of the experiences we have been able to participate in were not so worst-case; just a child(ren) who experienced trauma (little or severe), who needed someone on their side who did not want anything from them. They needed someone who actually wanted to give them something—something in the way of time, communication, fellowship, friendship, proper parenting, teaching, mentoring, appropriate love, positive attention or simply a listening ear. Someone who was not going to give up because things got a little or a lot rough or the vision of who or what the child(ren) would be like once they came into our home is not what I envisioned. Someone who did not have preset expectations, who understood that although fostering is a temporary means to a longer-term end; that they are going to do all that is possible to make a positive, impactful change.
...fully commit to what it means to be a foster parent, with focus on the parent.
I will end by saying this: fully commit to what it means to be a foster parent, with focus on the parent. Reflect on your own upbringing and what is it that you lacked that you wish someone had given to you or equipped you with. Think about what was great from your childhood that you wish everyone could experience as a child. It’s okay to have rose-colored glasses on in life if you choose, but for this journey of becoming a foster parent, wipe them off so they are crystal clear when you start your true journey; so you can purely and wholly give the best of you to the lives that you are going to impact, who need you to positively impact change for their new normal.
I am more than open to sharing more of our journey as it continues and can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to your GOOD SUCCESS and will look for you in the community we call FOSTER PARENTING.
Happy parenting – we need YOU!
For more information on emotional regulatory healing and trauma informed care, visit www.coaching-forlife.com.
To sign up for our next Foster Parent Information Night or Orientation, call (863) 519-8900 x 289 or email email@example.com for information.