When A Foster Child Leaves Your Home: how do you cope?

Foster parents talking to a child in living room

A foster family's Perspective when a child leaves your home

The Stonewood family has been fostering for six years, all of which began at Extra Special Parents. They are the parents of five children: one son away at college and an adult daughter in New York. Their present children in the home include their 16 years of age son and 4-year-old twins.

Over their six years of fostering with Extra Special Parents, they have fostered children with various needs. From medically fragile children with diagnoses of failure to thrive to children with significant mental health issues. We have a great need in the foster care system for support for a medically fragile child.

The child welfare system always needs children and youth to be supported by skilled nursing or foster or adoptive parents willing to learn how to look after a child with some medical needs. Children in foster care come with many needs due to neglect, abuse, or mental illness after entering foster care. This may help with a mental health condition, finding a therapist, or a general health problem.

They are one of ESP's most passionate and experienced foster parents. Currently, the Stonewoods are foster parents to a sibling group of three. They have been fostering these three children for 14 months.

What was your family's biggest challenge when a foster child left your home?

Mrs. Stonewood: My husband, he was the one saying he felt terrible, and I was like, "No, sir, I think we did everything we could." We had every intention of keeping her (foster child). She was just above anything we could handle.

I guess for everybody; it's different. There are a lot of emotions; you're going to feel probably inadequate. But I would say that it's case by case.

If it's going to be a good fit and you don't know what child you will get when they come in for an emergency placement. And then, when you have the children transition because they have family members that come forward.

That was a lot. That was hard. That was very hard. We were all distraught and crying. Within 45 days, they were completely moved out of our house.

It was a surprise. We weren't prepared. And then we didn't know if we would be able to see them anymore.

You want them to go with their family, but you still want them to be a part of their life. Thankfully, the family was okay with us still having contact with them.

But I think that is all normal. If you're not "in your feelings" and not in love with these little people, in love with what you brought them through, and miss them, that's not normal. I think that is all standard processing. And then you get to the point where you're ready to do it all over again for your next placement.

What have you LEARNED about yourself during that time?

Mrs. Stonewood: I'm all in. My heart is all in. I realized that I devote a lot more of myself to foster kids than even in a job.

When I worked a job, I worked overtime, did everybody's job, and barely delegated. I would say, "I'll take care of it." Fostering is the same, except it's more personal.

I've learned that I give a lot of my heart, but I can get exhausted. I had to learn that it was okay to say, "I need a minute." I didn't think it was okay to say that too many people because we signed up for foster care.

I signed up for these little people, so how can you say you've given all you've got and now need a minute? I felt that that was not acceptable. But I have learned it's okay to say, "I am challenged."

What have you LEARNED about your family during that time?

Mrs. Stonewood: For my older sons… was very emotional. They were very sad; they were very angry. We thought somebody was going to therapy or all of us after the children left home. Because we were all dealing with so many different emotions at one time, it was overwhelming.

But because we were able to see them, that has helped us over the years were still able to be a part of their lives and call them. It helped the boys to deal with the loss of a little brother or sister.

What advice would you give new foster families feeling guilty after a placement is not an ideal fit?

Mrs. Stonewood: It's okay. There's going to be another one.

It just has to be not on your time, but their time. It's about the right placement. Be patient. Embrace the process.

Sometimes you're so excited. We want a kid, and you get the kid, and then you're like, "I have no idea where to begin." Specific skill sets come along; some people do better with certain kids than others.

It's just finding out that you tried one placement now, and now you don't need to have kids who have aggressive issues or throw food. It's saying, "Maybe that's not for us." You try different things, and you see where you are. Please don't beat yourself up about it.

It's not worth it. Just take a minute and hope they're in a better place. And now, you move on to your next case, and hopefully, it's the best fit.

There are many reasons that a parent will seek additional information from the child placing agency; these could include if the child needs child care that the foster parent does not have easy access to, the child may be seeking therapy, and the parent is unable to make these appointments.

How have you and your family coped when a child transitions from your home because it was not an ideal fit for the child and your family? 

Mrs. Stonewood: We just talked about moving forward and how to keep us from having a child move out. When we say, "Hey, we don't do aggressive behaviors. It makes us very uncomfortable, and we don't want the kids to have to move again."

My husband just had to keep processing what he tried to do to help her, like what he took from his work in training, and try to be as therapeutic as possible.

It's like a checklist. In his mind saying, "Well, you know, babe, I did try that. Remember yesterday?" I would say, "You did an excellent job."

How have you coped when a child transitions from your home to their previous caretaker? 

Mrs. Stonewood: I'll be worried and always had to pick them up. Until I realized the kids were okay, they were okay with going there for the day or the overnight weekend. They weren't coming home unhappy.

They were happy that they had been there. That gave me peace. I don't have to be on pins and needles. They're taking care of the kids, and the kids are well.

What are some "memory-making" suggestions to help the child and your family before the transition? 

Mrs. Stonewood: Do things that you don't think they've experienced. Like the beach, roller skating, ice skating, basketball at the park, or a picnic. Put the pools outside, and water plays all day, and then do a picnic out there.

Do crafts. Let them paint picture frames. They can personalize it. Create a memory book, so they can see that they were happy over the last year and year and a half.

It was a happy time for you. 

How did your biological children cope when children left your home? 

Mrs. Stonewood: I didn't know if we would be able to continue foster care. I had to ask the boys if it was too much. You say the word, and we are done.

My son said, "No, I don't want to be done." I had to put it out there because I can't watch these boys sobbing in bed, and I'm already crying. 

How do you explain to your biological children the reason a child leaves your home?

Mrs. Stonewood: Well, that conversation with like this: They have family that lives in Richmond, VA, and you don't want them to grow up in Richmond, and nobody from their family came to get them. It's good that somebody is coming and their family lives right here. And they said, "yeah, that makes sense." 

How do you explain why the child in foster care will transition to their previous caretaker? 

Mrs. Stonewood: I did it the night before. The child knew something was coming. The night before they left, I braided her hair and told her that she would go live with her grandmother. She said, "my grandma said I might come over there" I just said, we're just going to get your clothes picked up, and you can help me pack, and we did it together.

She gave me peace. I was doing her hair and a little bit crying silently behind her. And she said, "can you play uncle's favorite song? I love that song."

The song went like this, "You thought I was worth saving. And you gave me your last son." I just had peace in my heart.

What is some general advice you would give to new foster parents about the time when children leave their homes?  

Mrs. Stonewood: You're going to cry, and you're going to feel some type of way because you love them. And that's what you're supposed to do.

But you have to look at all the things that you gave them. All the things you taught. All the little moments you were impactful in their life. All the memories you gave them at the beach, at the pool, at the picnic.

You must think about all that and know they'll always have a good memory. Foster care doesn't have to be a bad thing. Superman has foster parents.

So, it doesn't have to be a bad thing. We can talk about it as a good thing, and that's what I would say to new foster parents. Give them enough.

Overload their cup with new expectations that enough overload comes with a new expectation and definition of a foster child.

The child can go forward, saying, "I was with my auntie. We were at the beach. We went on a picnic." It's about giving them something other than what they had to hold on to.

What they've been through. Give them something else to fill. 

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