Babble is partnering with FosterMore to help readers better understand and navigate life as a foster parent. This month brings an inspiring story written by Nancy Nyman and Heather McNama, who share some of the challenges they’ve faced.
We’ve been foster parents for so long that the foster world and all that comes with it — paperwork, biological family visits, social worker meetings, and helping kids through trauma — has become a regular part of our life.
We got certified in 2010 and have had a total of nine kids in our care since then. Currently, we have two: a 7-year-old named Xavier who loves school, has a ton of friends, and dreams of being an opera-singing police detective, and Eli, a precocious 2-year-old who’s obsessed with dump trucks, the zoo, and Good Night, Moon.
When we first entered the foster care system, we had certain expectations — that the kids who came to us would need both love and structure (they do!), that our world would be a little more complicated (it is!), and that we would become part of a growing movement of people trying to break the cycle of abuse and neglect that’s so rampant in our society (the movement is real!).
What we didn’t expect was just how little foster kids are thought of when our public leaders are making policies.
For instance, we didn’t realize that our local parks and recreation agencies don’t necessarily think about foster kids when it comes to summer camps, day camps, and sports programs such as Little League, soccer, and Pee Wee football. We also had no idea that schools, often with the best of intentions, frequently lower their educational and behavioral standards for foster kids, excusing away poor performance because they “feel sorry” for the kids.
But most of all, we didn’t expect what our own reactions to these things would be — that this lack of forethought and accountability would ignite in us a fierce warrior mentality; one that could be easily summoned at the mere suspicion of inequity.
We’re both nice people by nature — too nice, perhaps. Fighting for things we believe in doesn’t come naturally to either of us, because we don’t like to hurt feelings and we don’t like to rock the boat.
Or so we thought.
A turning point came when Xavier started an after-school club that’s considered an enrichment program. Kids are required to stay each day until 5:45 PM — and if they have to be picked up early more than two or three times, they’re given the boot.
When we learned about the strict attendance policy, I called the school’s site manager and explained that Xavier has social worker visits, biological family visits, and weekly therapy appointments that prevent him from meeting their attendance rules. The site manager told us that while she doesn’t make the rules, she has to follow them; so, we took our case to the school district. The administrators were understanding, and said they could make an exception, but that we’d need to bring an excuse letter for each appointment, which we felt was an unfair burden.
And so, we pressed on.
The district ultimately referred us to Sacramento, where the program originated and where the rules are made and enforced. We left a very firm and very detailed voicemail message for the program’s committee leader, explaining that Xavier’s status as a foster child is not his fault and yet it feels as though he’s being punished for it. We also explained the amount of paperwork that we have to manage as foster parents, and that getting a note excusing an early dismissal once, twice, or even three times per week was excessive.
Why, we asked, should foster kids and the families that care for them have to jump through all these hoops? Especially when the things that would cause kids like Xavier to leave early from these enrichment programs were mandated by the foster care system itself? We also mentioned that the cost of the program (around $100) could make it impossible for foster kids to attend who are placed in homes either unable or unwilling to spend that kind of money.
The response was swift and unwavering. It came two days later, on a Sunday afternoon via a phone call. The committee who created the program had (apparently) completely forgotten about foster kids. Xavier’s absences and early dismissals would be fine by them, with no documentation required. They would alert the school district and the school itself. They would also make the program free to all foster kids the following year.
The victory, however small, emboldened us to take on our local parks department, whose weekly summer camp tuition would eat up more than 50 percent of the stipend we get to care for Xavier. After a week-long email exchange, the parks department ultimately created a foster kid scholarship, waiving tuition for all foster kids to attend.
Then came one more win, against the local kid sports league whose inflexible policy sidelined players who didn’t attend every single practice. No exceptions, we were told. So we asked our social worker to call the coach and explain why Xavier might be late or even absent, and at the next practice, we were approached by the coach, the assistant coach, and a rep from the league.
Would we be willing to talk with the league about foster care so they could better recruit, accommodate and support foster kids who want to play? they asked.
Of course, we told them. It would be our pleasure. (And it was!)
Learning how to become unwavering advocates for Xavier also paid off at school. We learned that his teacher — with the best of intentions — was excusing Xavier’s poor performance on tests. When we asked her about this, she told us that foster kids sometimes fall behind and he didn’t want Xavier’s grades to suffer, so she was passing him regardless of his performance.
We expressed tremendous appreciation for her thoughtfulness but requested that she hold him to the same standards as other kids. If he’s behind now, we explained, and teachers hold him to a lower standard, what will that look like in middle school? And high school? We pushed our social worker to find tutoring and arranged with the school for Xavier to receive extra help, and it’s made a world of difference.
As foster parents, we get to do a lot of the same stuff regular parents do. But we also get to be warriors, fighting for our kids to have the same kinds of opportunities that non-fosters have. Maybe the changes we’re making seem small, and perhaps the awareness we’re raising is limited, but these changes will show Xavier and even little Eli that we will fight for them. We will stand up for them. We want the best for them. And hopefully they’re starting to understand that just like every other kid on the planet, they deserve the best.
As for us, the more battles we fight and the more conversations we have, the stronger we become — as parents, as partners, and also as advocates for a segment of our population that is so often overlooked.
Don’t worry — we’re still nice people. But when it comes to our kids, we’re no longer afraid to be fierce.
For more information on foster parenting, visit FosterMore.