Respite Care: Why a Foster Parent Would "Leave" a Foster Child & Why You Should Take a Child Who's Been "Left"
Sanctimommy. I’m sure you know the term, but even if you don’t, you know the person. The sanctimommy is that sanctimonious mommy (in case you didn’t catch that play on words) who listens to your parenting questions and quickly jumps in with the answer. The answer is typically peppered with judgy comments about how she would only or never do something and often surrounded by words like organic or attachment or kale. She’s bad news. She makes you think there’s one kind of child, one of kind of mom, one way of doing things.
In the foster care world, nothing brings out the sancti-foster-mommy like the issue of respite or vacation placements. Foster moms in “support” groups and online “support” pages (the breeding ground and domain of sanctimommies) will tear you to shreds in ten seconds flat if you hint that you may need a respite placement. I won’t repeat the nasty and judgmental comments I’ve heard and read, but trust me, it can get ugly.
Let me be clear. I believe that foster children should be a part of their foster families in every way. They should be included in every activity and event and celebration and should never, ever be made to feel like an outsider. I believe this completely. But there may be times that a foster family is in need of respite care for one reason or another. And before I jump into my argument for why foster parents should open their homes to respite placements, I want to shed some light on why families may need them in the first place. (As always, keep in mind that I’m in NJ and information may be specific to my state)
Family vacations without parent’s approval. There are certain decisions that biological parents can make for their children in foster care that are harder for me to accept than others. This is one of the hard ones. When we had been fostering our (now adopted) daughter for about six months, her biological mother wouldn’t give permission for her to join our family on vacation. The reason: “She’s my daughter, not theirs.” I seriously contemplated not going on this (annual, highlight of my year, extended family-wide) trip, but in the end, we continued with our plans and our little girl went into respite care.
Family vacations that were already planned before the child joined your family. I don’t think it’s a great practice to take a child in if you know you’re going to be going somewhere soon after, but I once did just that. There was a little girl who the division just could not find a home for. She had significant medical concerns that were frightening to many families, and no one was willing to take her. She came to my home for a week and then spent a week in respite care as my family went on our already planned and paid for trip.
Adult vacations. Sanctimommies, take a breath and get ready, because I’m going to shock you. Before I became a foster parent, when my bio kids were two and five, my husband and I left our children with their grandparents and went on an almost two week trip to Italy. I’ve never told another mother that without her staring at me with a look of equal parts shock and judgement. But you know what, we did it. And it was the best two weeks of our lives. Now that we’re foster parents (well, now that we’re parents of six children), we can barely get two hours for a dinner date, let alone (gasp) a night away. We could/would never go traipsing around Europe anymore, but if you’re planning your own “adult only” trip where all of the children are staying home, then respite care may be necessary for your foster children.
Family emergency. I’ve done respite placements for a number of different families who had an unexpected emergency come up. I once took a little girl while her foster mother went out of state for the weekend to help her father through the legal proceedings of a messy divorce. She wasn’t allowed to bring the little girl out of the state and even if she could’ve, it wasn’t really an appropriate setting for a toddler. Another time I had a child while the foster mom had surgery. She wasn't able to care for a high energy preschooler while she was recovering. I was able to step in for both the mother and the child for a short time.
Respite. The answer is in the name. While I don’t believe that foster parents should “take a break” from their foster children, I’ve had very limited experience as a foster parent. I’ve never felt like caring for a child is pushing me to my breaking point. I’ve never had to consider if having a child in my home is harming my other children (including other foster children). And I’ve never considered giving up as a foster parent. But there are many, many foster parents who are in this position (50% of foster parents give up within the first year). I don’t know what it’s like to be in these parents’ shoes. Maybe a short period of respite would’ve been just what they needed. You know what they say about glass houses and stones...I can’t remember either, but I think the point is you shouldn’t judge.
Those are some reasons why a foster family may need respite care for their foster children. But why should you, as a foster parent, deal with the “hassle” of taking a respite placement? Here’s my best argument for why:
- Help a fellow foster family. I’ve only left my children in respite care the two times I already explained. The first time, the foster mom called me almost immediately after my little girl was picked up by the worker. I picked up the phone and said, “Hello?” She answered, “You didn’t write how to make the baby cereal.” As I heard my baby screaming bloody murder in the background and wondered how this mom didn’t know how to make baby cereal (or at least how to read directions on a box), a pit entered my stomach. And it didn’t leave for the whole trip. The other time, the foster mom called me beforehand to introduce herself and let me know how pleased she was to care for my daughter. We talked for an hour about my girl and her needs and each of our experiences in foster care. I cried tears of gratitude that this was the woman who would be taking care of my daughter. The first time nearly ruined my “vacation.” The second time, though I missed her, I felt total peace knowing my daughter was being well cared for. You can give that gift to another foster parent.
Help you get a grasp on what you and your family can handle. Warning: respite placements have played a big part in our family growing so large. It started when we had our very first foster daughter. There was a strict understanding that there would only ever be one foster child in our home. But when a call came for a baby girl for the weekend, I thought, “Well, we can do anything for a weekend.” And, of course, the fact that we could do it for the weekend made me realize we could it all the time. And so it began. Since then, it’s been a helpful way for us to figure out what our family can handle. When I took in an 18 month old, and my other 18 month old cried whenever I held him, and he cried whenever he wasn’t held? Yeah, I couldn’t handle that.
Get your foot in the "foster care door." Not everyone is able to upend their life into becoming a permanent revolving door of foster children. Foster care is one of the greatest gifts in my life, but it's a crazy and unique calling that doesn't suit everyone. But respite care is different. If I'm married to foster care, then respite care is more like casual dating. Becoming a respite family doesn't mean you're committing your life and family to foster care forever and can be viewed more as a short term "service opportunity." Do you want to get involved in foster care but aren't able to care for children full-time? Consider getting licensed to do respite care.
Build relationships with other foster parents. One foster mom I did a respite placement for knew I had an opening for an infant and called me a month later with a call she had received for a four week old little girl. This little girl ended up becoming my adopted daughter this past December. I'd say doing the respite placement for this mom was "worth it." Another time, I built a relationship with my respite placement’s foster mother. Not only did she become a friend and source of encouragement, but when it looked like the little girl was going to need an adoptive placement, I was able to advocate for her and find a family that was willing to adopt her. Also, while I’ve never experienced this myself, I know plenty of foster parents who have become each other’s source of reciprocal respite and even babysitting.
Love on a child who needs love. No matter why a foster parent has placed their child in respite care (some of them aren't great reasons), the bottom line is that there’s a child in need of a home and love. And isn’t that what we all signed up for? A friend of mine describes respite placements as a “mini missions trip in your home.” It’s an opportunity to care for and love on a child, and one who’s maybe not known proper care and true love before. We’ve always whole-heartedly welcomed respite placements into our family, even if only for a few days. We’ve greeted them with special gifts and gathered around the table for special treats and played family board games and cuddled up for movie nights. We’ve brought them to the beach and restaurants and candy stores and church. Maybe it’s the first time these children have experienced life like this. Or maybe these are things these children experience with their foster families on a regular basis and we get to be just another stop along the way, showing them what family can be, letting them know that they are loved.
If you are interested in doing respite/vacation placements, call your worker. The unit that places children often has a special list of parents that are willing to take respite placements. You can give the gift of a willing, loving respite care to your division, another foster parent, and (most importantly!) a child!