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Tips from the Foster Care Front

Veteran parenting coach, child advocate and foster mom Ann Lokey and her family began welcoming foster children into their home six years ago.

"Mark and I enjoy parenting, and we knew the schools were great and the community support was significant, so we thought it would be a good fit for us all," says Lokey, whose own sons were ages 12 and 10 at the time. "We decided as a family to foster – if you have a family and you are considering it, it is important to have everyone's buy-in before you start."

We asked Lokey to share some of her hard-earned insights about foster parenting.

What do foster parents expect to get out of this work?
Foster parents can make a huge difference in the lives of our most at-risk kids. What all foster kids need is stability – many them can have their lives turned around if they have stability. The work can be really hard, but it can bring great joy. There are many unexpected opportunities for personal growth in being part of a foster family, both for the parents and for the kids.

What should they not expect to get out of it?
Certainly not money. There has been plenty of data gathered which shows that the stipend foster parents are given is significantly less than the actual cost of raising a child, particularly if you live in a community in which the lifestyle is above average. To have a normal life, like other kids, foster kids need to belong. They need to do sports. They need to go to the prom. They need to wear clothes that look like their peers'.

The bottom line is it will always cost more than the state pays. But if there is anything that you can say at the end of your life that made a difference to anyone, this is it.

What qualities do you feel are critical for foster parents?
The ability to know how to solve problems without escalating has been critical for me. I am not perfect, and sometimes I get really mad. Sometimes the behaviors are just so severe. But if one builds a tool kit of strategies for managing extreme behaviors, one can parent the more difficult children. Many of them have experienced profound loss. Think about it: They have lost their home, their parents, their friends, their school, their pets, their toys, their clothes, everything! They have a lot of anger and hurt. They will behave in ways that can be very challenging. They can lie, steal, destroy property, hurt animals, run away. But they can often be reached and helped. If they were neglected at a very early age, they can suffer from attachment disorder. In extreme cases, they may have lost the ability to have any empathy for another person's pain.

It is important to be knowledgeable about the current research in these areas and work with specialists who can help. Having the wrong therapist can lose valuable time, as there is a limited window to be able to reach kids before they become teenagers and start to individuate.

What would you say to older people considering fostering? Singles? Young families?
Anyone can foster. If they already know they enjoy parenting, all the better. But one does not have to be an experienced parent to do the work. It is important to have a passion for working with kids. And, it is important to be willing to learn new things about parenting strategies.

What advice would you give those just beginning to consider fostering?
Consider using a private agency. You are likely to get more support, have phone calls returned more quickly and have a sounding board if needed. Read about things like attachment disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many of these kids have symptoms and difficult behaviors. If understood and handled with proper skills, the behaviors can be managed and the kids can heal. Most importantly, the kids can remain more stable. Many times children are moved from a placement because the parents do not have the skills to handle the behaviors. Changing placements can be very damaging to a child. I call it systemic abuse.

Get to know a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). He or she is someone who is a volunteer who works for the judge when he or she is deciding whom the child will become a dependent of – the state or a relative, for example. The CASA's job is to represent the best interests of the child. They are trained to report to the judge with this perspective; they can be a supportive advocate for the foster family.

It's wise to connect with others who have done the work who can be resources.Develop a foster-family network.

Expect that it will take a long time to be approved as a foster parent. I think the fastest anyone has ever been approved has been perhaps a month. The PRIDE training is valuable, but be prepared for what it does not prepare you for: the reality that you will attach to these children. It is what normal people do.

How much time and attention will foster kids need?
It really depends on the child. Each one has a unique history. Some of the children have greater needs than others. Consider taking an older child. These are kids who are known entities, and there are some jewels out there who deserve an opportunity.

What are the biggest challenges foster parents face?
I thought the state would provide my child with services to help her heal. That was an unrealistic expectation. The state is appropriately interested in finding a permanent home for the child. If I was not going to adopt, there was not much they could do other than move the child to another family and hope that they would adopt. They provided very limited support for mental health issues.

Most of the problems are in the area of mental health. Most of the mental health services available involve the use of interns. These are individuals who work for six months training as professionals, but will most often be leaving the community health agency to start practice in a higher paying position. For a child with attachment issues, this is not healthy. Ask for a therapist who is not an intern.
The child is afraid. She does not know what is happening, and the uncertainty contributes to the anxiety and the challenging behaviors. The child is often not likely to do well in school and often has difficult relationships with peers. Imagine how hard it is to be a fun, nice friend, when you are angry inside and have lost everything you know and love.

Our daughter has healed very slowly. But the evidence of change in her behavior is so gratifying to see.

What are some tips for meeting these challenges?
Try doing receiving care first – that is taking a child in at the time he or she is removed from the birth family. Receiving involves working with Child Protective Services, at least at first. Or, try providing respite care as an entrée into fostering. In respite care, you take in children for a weekend or while a family takes a vacation on which it would not be appropriate to take the foster child (as in leaving the state or country). Try to find a way to do regular respite for the same child so that you develop a relationship.

Where do you turn when you need support
I am blessed to be very resourced in terms of my relationships with knowledgeable individuals in the "industry."

I have found support from our school, from our teachers, from our private agency, from Treehouse, from the Foster Care Clinic at Harborview, and from some very knowledgeable and experienced friends who have worked at residential treatment centers or other agencies. I have also read extensively on the Internet and many nonfiction books on the subjects of parenting, attachment, ADHD, etc.
And, I have listened over and over again to Jim Fay's Love and Logic parenting tapes. I have attended many, many seminars in the community, including many at the School of Social Work at University of Washington.

What was the most surprising thing about becoming a foster parent?
We never set out to adopt anyone, but like most foster parents, we did. We are normal people who make attachments. Once a kid came to our home and needed a place to stay, they were in.

Ann Lokey is a Mercer Island resident, Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children in the state child protection system, an activist in the fight against child abuse and neglect and the mother of four children – some biological, some adopted, some fostered.

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