Six Challenges and Rewards of Your First Placement

Mother holding smiling child

Sierra Forever Families offers comprehensive pre-service training and ongoing support to its resource families, but no amount of preparation can cover the infinite number of situations that might arise. Here are six you might experience.

Challenge 1:

The feeling when . . . you realize this is real! All the pre-service training in the world may not prepare you for the stark reality of your first placement. Some resource parents are surprised when a child’s behavior is unexpected. And of course, the child has the biggest adjustment to make.

A new family can reactivate a child’s anxiety and traumatic losses. The child you take into care may turn out to be a little different than the one who was so polite at the pre-placement visit or who looked angelic in the computer listing. You may expect a honeymoon but end up on a roller-coaster.

Reward: Open your heart and mind, and hang on to your hat. Training in trauma-informed care and support from your SFF worker will tame the flips and dips and put you on solid ground. Children in care and their resource families are surrounded by a web of support that can include support groups, therapists trained in trauma-informed care, a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) and school foster youth services worker, among others. As a newly minted resource parent, keep in mind this will be your last first placement. Every experience will add to your toolbox of knowledge.

Challenge 2:

Adjusting to the child welfare system. The child in your home will have a county child welfare worker who, legally speaking, is responsible for all aspects of the child’s case. That worker and Sierra Forever Families will act as a team with you to make sure the child’s needs are met.

You’ll be required to make sure the child has a timely appointment for a medical examination, and possibly a dental exam. Visits with birth family members are likely to be part of the weekly schedule–not to mention school, mental health appointments, extracurricular activities, court hearings and visits with the county worker and court-appointed special advocate. Dealing with all these “cooks” can mean communication can be a bit chaotic. Your job is the most important, but often it will feel that you have the least influence on scheduling and decision-making.

Reward: There’s no sugar-coating it: This can be one of the most challenging aspects of being a resource parent. Navigating the system can make you flexible as a yogi and nimble as a juggler. You’ll discover a new aptitude for multi-tasking and a talent for being cheerfully assertive. And if you’re an extrovert, think of all the new friends you’ll make. Most importantly, when the going gets tough, you’ll have a team standing with you to help.

Challenge 3:

If the child is having visits with birth family, you’ll be involved with scheduling and with transportation. Visits can be emotionally fraught, but they are crucial to family reunification. You’ll have an important role in preparing the child and helping them transition from visits.

Reward: Although your contact with birth family can be awkward or intimidating, remember that it preserves the child’s connection with all that is familiar–and their attachments, identity and heritage. A relationship with birth family can be beneficial not just to the child but to you. They’re the experts on the child and can help you learn about the child’s history. Treating birth parents with respect and dignity supports the idea of reunification and of compassion itself.

Challenge 4:

Progress–or the lack of it. You might get an unexpected cuddle one day and a major dose of attitude the next. Two steps forward and three steps back is the norm. It can be heartbreaking to feel your relationship with a child isn’t soaring upward in a linear progression.

Reward: The recent movie “Instant Family” got a lot of comedy mileage out of resource parents expecting an immediate “cosmic connection” with a child. Sorry, but that’s a tired old trope. There’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t feel instantly surrounded by a fluffy pink cloud of love for a child. Foster children have been betrayed by loved ones. Their trust grows at a glacial pace. Keep in mind that a traumatized child can bond too quickly, and a bond like that might be superficial and far from genuine. Real relationships take time. You’ll know real attachment when it arrives, even if waiting on it is a lesson in extreme patience. And it will be amazing.

Challenge 5:

The effect on other children in the home. Abuse and neglect can lead to kids being exposed to early lessons about language, sex, violence and drugs. Children in care are often wise beyond their years. They may pass those lessons on to other children.

Reward: It’s normal to wish to protect your children’s innocence. You may not like some things your kids learn from their foster siblings. But other lessons will be valuable. As part of a resource family, children learn a broad range of emotions. They learn to share. They learn about grief, loss, compassion and the importance of service. They learn about the consequences of choices.

Challenge 6:

It sounds like a lot to handle—and it can be. Resource families are an optimistic bunch, filled with can-do spirit. The daily challenges of caring for a traumatized child can bring on an unexpected level of exhaustion.

Reward: Asking for help is a valuable skill, and sometimes a hard one to learn. This may be your moment for learning to choose your battles and to take time to care for yourself. That’s always the key to caring for others.