The Kindest Thing You Can Do for a Potential Foster Parent

A friend of mine recently told me about his daughter’s 5th birthday. Leading up to the birthday party, the one thing she kept asking for was a pinata.  Being good parents who wanted to give good gifts to their daughter, they went out and found the perfect teddy bear pinata.

On the big day when the teddy bear was revealed, she was thrilled.  They lined up all the kids, and armed with a blindfold and a stick, they began the normal pinata routine.  Each child came forward and took a swing, and everyone was having a great time.

And then it happened.

With one last mighty swing, one of the young guests successfully decapitated Mr. Bear and his candy entrails began to pour out onto the floor.  Such an exciting moment for everyone . . . except for the birthday girl who melted into a sobbing puddle of tears.  Her birthday bear had just been executed by some other little punk kid who she thought was her friend.  When she said she wanted a teddy bear pinata, she meant that she wanted one to keep.

The moment we discover that our expectations are not aligned with reality can be devastating.

Traditionally retention rates for foster parents have been poor and the median length of service has been short (8-14 months according to one study).  The reasons foster parents quit generally have more to do with their relationship with the system than it does with the behavior of the kids in their home.  And while most foster parent training tries to prepare potential foster parents for the worst case scenarios when it comes to behavior, I wonder if we do as good a job helping prepare foster parents to enter into an under-resourced system that often leaves foster parents feeling powerless and frustrated.

In the book, Decisive, authors Dan and Chip Heath describe a concept called “the realistic job preview”.  The concept was introduced in a large call center which generally have large turnover rates.   Turnover is expensive in any industry.  New applicants were shown everything that would be considered negative about the job right away.  They were asked to listen to a recording of a call with an irate customer, and were clearly informed about the difficult hours and even the hard commute.  It was a bleak picture to be sure.

You would expect that being so transparent would drastically reduce the number of people who accepted the job.  However, it did not.  The only thing it dramatically impacted was the rate of turnover.  In fact, the call center that employed 5000 people saved 1.6 million dollars due to the reduction in turnover. The result of telling the whole unvarnished truth up front was that people felt prepared rather than surprised when difficulties arose.  Life is so much about expectations.

What if foster parents were prepared ahead of time, not just for the behaviors of children but for the current realities of the system, how decisions are made and the degree of input they may or may not have into those decisions?  What if foster parents knew exactly what would be expected in terms of appointments, visits, therapies and court dates?

In our effort to make foster care more appealing are we actually contributing to the disillusionment of families and unintentionally harming the children they might otherwise care for if they were able to continue on as foster parents?  Maybe one of the kindest things we could tell potential foster parents about foster parenting is just how hard it can be.


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