"What to Expect" The First Week of a New Foster Placement
When I was expecting my first daughter, I read, quite possibly, every book written about pregnancy, childbirth, and baby care. I’m a reader by nature, and I resolved to be as prepared as possible for this all-important job of momhood. I bought or borrowed every book on every list, discriminating against none (not even “Orgasmic Birth”) and devouring the classics (like “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”).
But what about expecting foster parents? You may be expecting a newborn baby or you may be expecting four school aged kids. But you could still use a guide of what to expect. As I’ve been posting about the first week with our newest placement, I’ve had many new or soon-to-be foster parents reach out with thanks and questions. It's reminded me of just how clueless I was at the beginning. Maybe you, new foster mama, are feeling clueless yourself.
Foster parents are thrown onto this roller coaster of foster care without much preparation and without ever actually being “ready.” But I can at least help you get ready for the first uphill climb and drop of the ride. Here is a list of “What to Expect” the first week of a new foster placement.
Expect the expected child to, quite possibly, not show at all. For all you new foster parents, holding your phone in your hands, waiting for the call for your first foster child, here is my number one piece of advice: When you get a call, slow down, take a deep breath, and go on with life as usual. There is a 50/50 chance that something will change and that this child won’t end up at your door.
When I got my first call, I said yes, immediately posted my good news on facebook, then walked around in circles with my heart racing for five hours. At hour six, I called the worker, who seemed to have forgotten that I existed and informed me (five hours too late) that dad showed up. “Oh, that’s such good news!” I said as I crawled into the fetal position. One week this summer, I had five placements fall through. I no longer change plans or rearrange schedules. I don’t take out bins of clothes or run to the store. I clean my house and get started on dinner and do other things I won’t regret doing whether the child shows up or not. Then I wait for the call from the worker saying, “We’re on our way.” And then I believe it.
Expect them to show up hours after you expected them. In fact, expect them to show up at dinner. It is the law of the foster care universe that every child shows up at dinner time. If you get a call about a child at 11:00am, there’s no need to rush, they’ll show up at dinner. File this one under the “slow down and take a deep breath” section as well.
Expect them to show up with paperwork. Scratch that. Expect them to not show up with paperwork, but know that they should have. In NJ, every child is supposed to show up with a “Placement Kit” that includes a foster parent ID letter (proof that you are, in fact, supposed to have this child), a Medicaid coverage letter, an emergency clothing check (for first time placements), and names and numbers of who’s responsible for the child’s case. If your child doesn’t show up with this (very important, very needed) information, just make sure to ask when exactly you’ll receive it and what you should do in case of emergency (you know, just to further solidify just how important it is). Whatever you do, make sure to not let the worker leave without giving you their name and phone number (I always ask for their work cell number, too) and their supervisor’s name. If you have this information, everything will be okay.
Expect very little information. There are a few factors at play here. One is the responsibility of the division to protect the parents’ privacy. They’re only supposed to tell you so much. As hard as this may be to accept, try to not shoot the messenger.
Another factor is the division of labor. Chances are that one worker will remove the child, another worker will call you about the child, another worker will drop off the child, and yet another worker will end up being the child’s caseworker. Often the people with the very least information are the ones calling you about and dropping off the child. Don’t expect to learn very much from them.
The final factor is the nature of the process. The division only knows what they know. They know why the child was removed. They may not know other incidents of abuse or neglect that preceded the reason for removal. They may not know every medical condition or behavioral issue the child has. And they certainly don’t know how the case will go. They don’t know when or if mom and dad will do what they need to do for reunification. They don’t know what decisions the judge will make. And they don’t know how long the child will be with you.
Expect to do laundry. Chances are your child won’t show up with much. Other chances are that what they do show up with will need to go straight into the wash. Between clothes that reek so badly of smoke they need to be washed multiples times and suitcases infested with roaches, I’ve learned my lesson: Everything goes straight to the basement and into the wash.
Expect to run to the store. I make an (exhausted) emergency run to Target the first night of every new placement for:
Clothes - In NJ, new placements arrive with an emergency clothing check, which means I have to go shopping for adorable kids clothes. I know, I know, it’s a hard life. But even if a child comes with clothing, there will always be some key item missing. I’ve had kids arrive with 20 outfits and not one pair of socks or 10 pairs of shoes and not one outfit that wasn’t stained or ripped. Target run.
Food - I tried to be uber prepared for my most recent placement and bought three different kinds of formula the night before. She, of course, needed a different kind. Target run. Also keep in mind that the kids who are coming into foster care have most likely not had gourmet, well-balanced meals three times a day. There may be some compromise for a little while in the food department (read: chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and pb&j ONLY). Find out what your kiddo likes and...Target run.
Emergency items - Your child may need school supplies or diapers or a host of other things. I had a baby come once with the directions that he would only use one. type. of. pacifier. Ok, where is this magic pacifier? Oh you didn’t send it? Target run.
Expect a court date within the first week. In NJ, every case goes before a judge three days after removal. The judge will choose to uphold the division’s removal or send the child back home, discuss other family members or options, and determine the next steps in the case. You don’t need to be there (in fact, you won’t be allowed in the courtroom for any discussion of the case), but you should receive a call from your worker afterwards to let you know any decisions that were made. I’ve had a number of children moved from my home to family members at this three day mark. Typically the next court date will be three months later, and you end up planning and parenting from court date to court date.
Expect phone calls...lots of phone calls. Because I homeschool and have to keep “school hours” sacred, I don’t make or take calls between 9-12. But during the first week of having a new placement, this rule (along with most of the others) goes out the window. This week I spent an hour setting up the baby’s HMO, did a half hour evaluation with Early Intervention, scheduled seven appointments, and vetted calls from about ten different people related to the case.
Expect meetings...lots of meetings. Another snapshot into my first week: visit from caseworker, visit from hospital nurse, visit from two other caseworkers, visit from law guardian, visit from division nurse, visit from hospital nurse again, and doctor’s appointment. In other words, my kids had a lot of mac and cheese dinners and mid-day movies this week.
Expect parental visits. In most cases, bio parents will have court-ordered visits. They often take a couple of days or weeks to set up, and you will typically have little to no say in when these visits are. Ask your worker about them a couple of days after placement, or you may get a day-of phone call that there’s a visit in a couple of hours. (In NJ, foster parents aren’t responsible for supervision or transportation, but other states are different.)
Expect to ask for help. Hopefully you have a support system already in place. You can send them this as a hint, or you can tell them to expect S.O.S. calls for meals or shopping runs or a sitter. Hopefully you also have a foster “mentor” figure in place. If not, try to find someone or, at the very least, join an online support group to have somewhere to bring your specific questions.
Expect to feel overwhelmed, confused, and pulled. Expect to have an achy back and headache (my constant companions for the first week). Expect to question if you’re going to be able to love this child, or if you’ll love them “too” much. Expect to cry for their parents and be angry at their parents. Expect your other children to struggle with the adjustment. Expect friends and family to not fully understand. Expect to have to remind yourself of why you upended your life in the first place. Expect to feel weak and needy.
Expect to receive amazing mercy. Expect to find strength from your loving Father. Expect to receive comfort and direction from His Word and His Holy Spirit. Expect to receive forgiveness and power at the foot of the Cross.
Expect to experience the grace of God that is sufficient in every situation. Even foster care.