It’s okay to ask questions. Most foster parents really want to be understood and like to educate others about the nature of foster care. That being said, please first consider your motivation for asking. Are you interested in the drama, or are you seeking understanding? If you let empathy and kindness be your yardstick for these conversations, then please ask! Here are three questions to definitely avoid (and some more appropriate alternatives):
1. What happened to her? Social media, crime shows, 24 hour news and popular TV that glamorizes drug use and abuse have created a sense that it’s acceptable to consume the stories of other people’s personal tragedies. There are a lot of people who ask foster parents about the abuse/neglect/domestic violence/drug exposure/whatever that led to their foster child being placed in state care. Most of the time these asks are couched in a conversation to make it seem like the question is coming from a place of empathy: “Oh that poor baby! I can’t imagine what she’s feeling. What exactly happened to her?” I think if we’re being honest with ourselves, though, it is perfectly possible to have empathy for a child who has been torn from everything familiar and left with strangers without hearing the gruesome details of their trauma.
Try this instead:
What happened to her? How is she doing? This gives foster parents a place to start from that doesn’t violate the child’s right to privacy. We can tell you how the child is doing in the here and now because the present is when this child’s story merges with our own. This question gives us enough space to be as vague or detailed as we think is appropriate, and it still makes the point that you care about our new placement.
2. Where are his real parents? Ouch. I urge you to stay away from words like real and pretend when talking about kids in foster care–real does not equate to biological. Bio parents are very real parents to foster children, but so too are foster parents. Beyond that, many children in foster care imagine a fantasy version of their home of origin that could never become reality, and in so doing, reject the very real and nurturing (if possibly temporary) home they’re living in right now.
Try this instead:
Where are his real parents? Will he be able to reconnect with his family of origin?** Children come into foster care for many reasons. The most common story is of the child who is removed by child welfare for abuse or neglect, and the parents are out there somewhere trying (or possibly not trying) to make things right and get their kid back. However, children can also come into custody when their parents are deported, when their parents are incarcerated, or in some rare instances, when they are orphaned by the passing of their parents and there are no appropriate kinship homes from them. Beyond all that, children can be placed into a new foster home at any point in their journey. A foster family might get a child who is right on the brink of reunification and is spending every weekend at their home of origin. On the other hand, a family might get a foster child after parental rights have been terminated, and that child might be legally free for adoption. Regardless, whether it’s the biological parents, the foster parents, or the future adoptive parents, all of these parents are “real.” Also, phrasing the question so that it is centered on child’s outcome takes out some of that judgmental sting (there is very much an accusation implied in asking where a child’s real parents are). **Depending on the nature of the case, foster parents might still not be able to answer this question without violating privacy, but this is gentler and more respectful way to ask it.
3. Are you keeping her? *Facepalm* Please stop. This question can illicit feelings in foster parents that run the gamut from agony to confusion. There is typically a long process that takes place before a child would even become available for a foster family to adopt, and that process includes exhausting every available resource to return the child to their biological family, seeking a kinship or fictive kinship placement in the state, seeking a kinship or fictive kinship placement out of the state, and only then asking foster parents if they are interested in adopting. Even at that point, it is completely possible (and NOT wrong) for a foster family to not want to adopt a child in their care, but it’s a big decision and can be embarrassing and painful to explain. Lastly, there are foster parents who desperately hope to adopt but time and time again do not have the opportunity to, and the flippant wording of this question belies the pain of loving a child with an uncertain future.
Try this instead:
Are you keeping her? What’s her permanency plan? This is a much less emotionally loaded question. The goal of every single child welfare cases is permanency, and the permanency plan is the current expected outcome. A child’s permanency plan will generally either be reunification with their family of origin or adoption, though in some states there are alternatives, such as legal custody, legal guardianship or alternative permanency placements (such as group homes or institutions). Asking this question gives the foster parent the room to answer simply (she’s moving toward reunification or she’s moving toward adoption), but it is also possible to give a more detailed explanation (she’s moving toward adoption, and if we are eligible to adopt her, that’s what we hope to do). Permanency planning is complicated and emotionally charged. It’s made even more complicated by a myriad of other factors, like ICPC, ICWA or the placement of siblings and half siblings in other homes. Permanency planning is the subject of much worried speculation and sleepless nights for foster parents, so please be gentle and respectful on the topic, or better, wait for the foster parent to bring it up first.
4. The perfect question to ask a foster parent any time is simply this: What do you need right now? Being a foster kid is brutal, and being a foster parent is challenging in a thousand ways. Support the kids by supporting the family. I have a friend who occasionally picks up my oldest foster love from school and who regularly lets us pick a grocery sack full of amazing vegetables from her backyard garden. I have another who routinely listens to my pissed off, paranoid, confused rants about everything that’s wrong with the system without ever discouraging me or minimizing my feelings. If you truly want to know the details of foster life, start by being a friend such as these–the best way to know our story is to be a part of it.