People become foster parents for a variety of different reasons, but the primary one is compassion. Foster parents are some of the most amazing, resilient, frustrated, exhausted, and compassionate people I have met. The bright-eyed and bushy-tailed newbies who were waiting to become licensed. The tired and beleaguered ones who have been in the trenches and still show up day in and day out. Family members who have stood up to take care of a relative child in their time of need. Most of them are here to try to make a difference for the children. The foster parents all completed their hours of training, home studies, character references, and criminal background checks. Most of them have dealt with opening their homes and lives to CHET screeners, social workers, visit supervisors, CPS workers, therapists, and traumatized children.
However, through all this preparation and training, one thing is missed. We have all been told to take a break if you need to, as the department sends us daily lists of children in need of homes. Email lists of children who are out of options, and will reside in hotels or night to night care in different homes. We’ve been reminded to use respite care, yet we receive the daily email list of kids still in need of respite placement. One child leaves your home, and everyone says take your time to grieve, except tomorrow you get a phone call saying, “We have a baby for you.” What we do not receive is a clear explanation of what happens if you don’t take time off or practice self-care.
Once before my first placement, I went to a fostering support group. There was a mother there with a beautiful baby foster daughter. The mother adeptly watched the baby girl, made sure she stayed out of trouble, fed her, provided the necessary comfort and toys, but her eyes lacked any signs of emotion toward the baby. They were flat. She spoke with the group while simultaneously caring for the baby, but I did not hear a word. The look in her eyes unnerved me. It was only later that I realized what I was looking at had a name, the cost of care.
Cost of caring is not limited to foster parenting. It affects many who work in social services, nurses, doctors, psychologists, first responders, etc. but it tends to thrive in foster parenting. The main reason being that you do not get a break from foster parenting. It is a 24/7 job, and placements span years. You do not get a chance to recharge unless you are between placements or have a fantastic support system. It does not mean that you are unable to end a placement anytime you want. You can, and you should if you do not feel you can do the very best for that child. It means it is not always that easy.
The cost of caring is a collection of disorders. The main ones include Compassion fatigue, also known as Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD), Vicarious Traumatization, and Burnout (Conrad, n.d.). Compassion fatigue is also known as secondary traumatic stress disorder (STSD) because its effects are identical to the better known PTSD (Conrad, n.d.). You read that right. If you do not take the time to let yourself rest and heal, you can end up with the equivalent of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In STSD, you lose your ability to feel empathy. Vicarious traumatization is the loss of hope and meaning. Burnout is exhaustion caused by stress. Burn out is the only condition on the list that is relatively easy to fix. I have had to have foster children moved because I hit the burnout wall. Feeling broken after losing our foster son, we agreed to take kids on a short-term basis allowing the social workers more time to find suitable placements, but that was all we could do. We all struggle with the decision to accept a child into our home. Knowing if we don’t accept the placement, they will have to stay overnight in hotels. However, not taking a break is how you end up with compassion fatigue. It is the compounding physical and emotional drain that comes from being unable to rest & recover. The remaining conditions may go away over time, or they may not. A significant factor in whether or not you overcome them is if you have established healthy ways of dealing with trauma, stress, and loss.
How do we combat the cost of caring? The key is to take care of yourself. Use respite, even if it would be easier to stay home. Make time for yourself. Practice meditation. Do something you love that gives you hope. Spend time on your marriage. I know that it is all easier said than done, but the costs are too high not to. Self-care in foster care is not just the talking point of the day. It is protecting yourself and your family. Build a support network for yourself and use it. Attend support groups. Most importantly if you see any of the signs of these disorders in yourself, reach out for help quickly.
Conrad, D. (n.d.). Retrieved from muskie.usm.maine.edu › helpkids › rcpdfs › Sec.Trauma-foster.pdf