When I talk to people about foster care I get a lot of responses. People are always telling me why they could never invest themselves in these kids. There is the standard “I’d get too attached” response that while it frustrates me (Of course you would! That’s the point. These kids need people to attach to them.), I think I get most baffled by people who shrug and say they’d love to do something but “the system is just too broken.” Maybe they follow this up with an anecdotal story about a friend’s cousin who had a foster child that went back to an unsafe biological family member or they speak disparagingly of caseworkers and judges who are overburdened and just don’t care. So why get involved if the system is so broken kids aren’t getting the help they need?
Here’s my easy answer: BECAUSE THE SYSTEM IS SO BROKEN THAT KIDS AREN’T GETTING THE HELP THEY NEED.
I have seen unmotivated caseworkers who don’t seem to understand that a year in the life of an infant is their actual whole life. We can’t just ask these little ones to wait to attach and love and have stability until we decide on their permanency path. I’ve seen cases that defy all logic and reason– children who haven’t seen their biological parents in years, but the court still holds out hope that they will reappear so they are stuck in legal limbo. I’ve known about visits where domestic violence is actually happening during the supervised visitation the parents have with the child. Parents who test positive for meth are allowed to continue that day’s visit with their child. Being in jail is considered an adequate excuse for missing visits and may not be held against the parent. A child’s attorney never actually attempts to meet with the child. Laws are enacted that keep kids stuck in a system that doesn’t value their need for permanency in a timely fashion. Foster parents see their kids as a good deed to perform or as an annoyance or a paycheck.
Yes. The system can be broken. But why is that an excuse to not do something about it?
If you’re disgusted that some foster parents seem to be “in it for the money”, then it’s time for you to become the kind of foster parent who is motivated by love for a child and their family. If you’re frustrated that caseworkers don’t seem to care about the kids on their caseload, then become a foster parent who can be an encouragement to a discouraged and frustrated caseworker. If you’re upset that judges don’t take into account the best interests of a child, then become a foster parent that brings the child to court so the judge sees their face and knows she’s making decisions about real people.
We need foster parents that see a broken system and start thinking of solutions. Foster parenting is ultimately an act of diplomacy as you do your best to get a team of people working towards the same goal– whatever is best for this child. Foster parents have no rights, but we have influence when we use our voices to advocate in peaceful and positive ways. It would be easy to just get angry at how much we invest and how little input we may have, but this isn’t a situation where you can take your ball and go home. These kids are worth more than that.
They are held hostage by a system that moves slowly. We can get frustrated about that, shrug our shoulders and feel better about our decision to not get involved, or we can be the safe place these kids call home while they wait. Every day with a child in foster care is a gift. We have no idea how long we’ll have to tell them they are loved, teach them how to brush their teeth, or do their homework, or learn how to drive. While that broken system drags its feet, we get to love these precious kids and build trust back into their lives as much as we can. And all the while, we are working to change that broken system from the inside, by earning our voice.
Being a foster parent is about recognizing your role in the process. You can’t necessarily fix the system, but your job is to hold the hand of the one who is wounded by its brokenness. This is not an easy job. It is one of the hardest things I have ever done, but it was also the right thing to do for the good of a child who needed a family. If that doesn’t sound like something you could bring yourself to do, you’re still not off the hook. A broken system when it comes to the welfare of our most vulnerable children means we must ALL participate in finding a solution.
We can’t all be foster parents, but we can all do something. Can you fix the system by becoming a caseworker? A lawyer that represents foster kids? A DHHS policy maker? Can you go through the training and be a CASA so the child’s voice will be adequately heard in court? Can you join a third party advocacy group (in Nebraska that would be the Foster Care Review Office) in providing oversight and accountability? Can you talk to the lawmakers in your state about the struggles of foster kids? Can you show up at public hearings for laws that impact foster families and offer support? Can you run for office?
I have seen beautiful things happen in this broken system. I have seen caseworkers that love these children like their own and grieve when the case doesn’t go as it should. I have had agency workers take time away from their own weekend plans to answer my frustrated questions. I ran into one of our judges out in the community and she remembered all of my kids, even the ones who weren’t on her caseload. I have seen advocacy organizations do the hard work of arguing against the stated case plan. I have seen biological families fight the odds and become successful, safe, loving parents. And over and over and over again I have seen foster parents make incredible sacrifices to provide the best of what a family can be to a child in need. When you only notice the brokenness of the system, you haven’t seen the individuals involved who are fighting for change and motivated by love.
Foster kids need advocates, not excuses. They need educated, passionate, go-getters to change this broken system. You can be part of that change!
For more information about foster care in Nebraska, contact Christian Heritage.