To be clear, the title of this article is not one of equity or opportunity regarding foster homes in the child welfare system. Rather, it is one of competency and confidence. It may come as a surprise to many, but there is not a significant deficiency in the number of foster homes looking for a placement in America. When I was the Assistant Director for a fairly large foster care and adoption program in Memphis, TN, I could fill a sports stadium with the number of foster parents who were ready to take an infant with parental rights already terminated and ready for adoption. Those of you in the industry get that joke, because you know how much of a rarity that actually is. What I didn’t have in any large capacity were foster homes ready to take an angry teenager with significant behaviors. Whereas cute babies were on short supply, angry teenagers were in ample supply. That’s why not all foster homes are created equal and I’d like to invite you to talk through this very pressing problem facing our nation’s most vulnerable youth.
Aren’t All Teenagers Angry?
Yes, angry and hormonal teenagers are not unique to the foster care system. This was a fact that I often had to remind foster parents when they first received a teenage placement. Not every behavior is driven by the fact that the placement is a foster kid. In fact, I’d go ahead and make the unscientific claim that foster parents best suited to take teenage placement are those who have their own teenage kids with their own myriad of behaviors. That’s because they can recognize teenage behavior for what it is and they are not calling the office to complain the first time their foster kid drops a curse word in the house.
Foster teens are not the first teens to sneak out of a window to meet up with a teen boy or a teen girl and they are certainly not the first teens to be caught with alcohol or marijuana. However, foster teens can often come with a history of trauma and lack of attachment that has been forged over years of involvement with the child welfare system. In fact, I found it rare that a teenager’s placement in foster care was their first brush with the system.
As such, the teenage foster kid has more experience than the newly minted foster parent. The teens knew the rules and culture of foster care better than anyone and as such, they were not easy placements. For them to succeed, a special kind of foster parent was required and when those foster parents come around, they are worth 20 baby- seeking foster homes if I am being completely honest. As I said, not all foster homes are created equal.
Training Does Not Make a Good Foster Parent
Training is most certainly helpful when it comes to preparing new foster parents for what to expect. However, it is not the training that makes the average Joe foster ready to foster a teenage placement. Nor does compliance with every agency rule become the difference between a successful placement or a disruption. As long as they are not violating any of the safety protocols, I’ve found that foster parents who take ownership over their own home and scoff at some of the rules often compose some of the most loving and nurturing homes. Now, this is something I never would have told them at the time as a department administrator, but now that I’m out of the game I can speak the truth more freely.
As such, a great deal of a foster parent trainer or recruiter’s role is to recognize a foster parent's inherent strengths and help them see what they can bring to a teenager’s life. The time to do this assessment and encouragement is often hindered by the break neck speed at which we try to rush foster parents through the process. Much of this is understandable as you need foster homes who can take teenagers yesterday rather than tomorrow. However, agencies who support their workers with the right tools and the right processes will often find themselves with the right foster homes rather than a numerical goal of foster homes.
The Right Foster Home Might Be You
I’ll end with a quick call to action on the off chance that the right foster home to take a teenager is reading this article right now. That’s right, it could be you. There is not a single demographic that represents the type of homes who do well with teenagers. You might assume it’s the single strong male who could take in a teenage boy and many do with great success. However, I’ve seen the sweet grandmother who knows how to fry up some good food win the hearts and minds of young men.
Those who have raised their own rebellious teenagers do well, but I’ve seen parentless singles and couples adopt a teenager and gave them a forever family just months before aging out of the system. All foster homes are not created equal and if you want to foster a teenager, the child welfare system needs you desperately. Those of you seeking cute babies ready to adopt can still come along too, but if you want to transform the child welfare system in America you need homes ready to take teenagers. That’s just the cold hard truth. Meanwhile, agencies need to equip their workers with the very best tools in the industry so that they can equip foster parents to rise to this challenge. Anything less simply will not do.