We all have preconceived notions about kids in foster care. I had a mix of influences from what I saw in the media and things I had learned during training. It wasn’t until our first placement that I found myself facing the stigma these children encounter.
It’s easy to have a certain image of what we believe kids in foster care look like. In my own life, this image had been heavily influenced by the entertainment I consumed. An episode of a show that featured a child in foster care or a movie that portrayed some involvement with child protective services was the extent of influence I had when thinking of what a child in foster care would be like. I didn’t have any friends in the system, didn’t know anyone that was a foster parent, and wasn’t exposed to the system myself. At least not to my knowledge.
As my husband and I started this journey, we were trained and taught so many things that fed into this internal picture. We heard stories about challenging behaviors we would likely face such as attachment issues and food insecurities. We were given tools to support these children through their trauma and disciple them in a way that was loving and compassionate.
The mix of expectations set by the media and our own training had given us mixed emotions. While we didn’t know what awaited us when that first child walked through the door, we DID know what we had to look forward to: a “foster child”.
When you get a referral for placement to your home, you may have laundry lists of information about the child or you may have nothing. The “behaviors” can be vague and unclear as to where they fall on the scale of severity. Does “food insecurities” mean they hoard food and have an eating disorder or that they are a picky eater due to a lack of exposure to diverse options? This is no reflection of the caseworker or those that have prepared the referral. They are doing the best they are able with the information they were provided. The reality is, you just can’t summarize all that a child is and have experienced on a page of paper.
The referral for our kiddos felt pretty standard. We had some insight to a few behaviors, a little history on what brought them to our home, and some connections established with bio family that we could lean into to support their needs.
It was when those first three kids joined our family that the realization hit me.
They really are just kids.
Facing my Biases
I know this seems so obvious and could even make me seem ignorant to step into this journey and not “know” that. We wanted to help kids and help families when we pursued our license. It has always been our heart. However, The stigma of “foster kids” is often so focused on their behaviors and their traumas I think it’s easy to forget they often just look like regular kids. It made me think, “Maybe I DID know a child in foster care growing up.”
In situations where I have to clarify that I am the child’s foster parent, people are often shocked. I always see them look at the kids again as if doing a double take. I don’t like to do this unless I have to, such as in medical offices where I want my relationship to the kids to be clear for a variety of reasons. However, It occurred to me that those people are just getting a glimpse into what I had also experienced. That kids in foster care are normal kids.
I don’t want to undermine the trauma and history these kids have faced. However, it’s also wrong of me to sum up their identity in this label of “foster kid”. If you ask me what our oldest foster son is like, I’ll tell you he’s shy and silly. I’d say he loves legos and building things. He thinks farts are hilarious and loves the opportunity to help in the kitchen. Does he have “behaviors”? Sure. But so many of the people in his life see him as he is. A sweet young boy.
Why do I share this? Ultimately for two reasons. First, I think we need to challenge ourselves to re-examine what we believe a child in foster care looks like and make sure it’s a child-first picture. Who are they? What do they like? What’s their favorite show and what activities are they interested in? What do they want to be when they grow up? Remembering that these children either have answers for all of these things like every other kid or desire to have answers for them.
Second, remember we don’t know the full story of any child we encounter. Any child we meet may actually be experiencing the heartbreak of being separated from their biological family through foster care. Being considerate of family differences and teaching your children about unique family structures can help that child in foster care not feel so alone.