This article was written for our sponsor, KidsPeace.
Most everyone has seen media depictions of foster children and the foster care system on TV or in the movies — but these portrayals aren't always accurate. The worst representations paint foster kids as misbehaved, "unwanted" children who are unwillingly placed in a temporary home with abusive foster parents who are only in it for the money.
While unfortunate situations and circumstances do exist, KidsPeace — a private charity organization that serves the behavioral and mental health needs of children, families and communities — represents genuine foster care efforts at their best.
"I spend a lot of time talking to people about the positive aspects of foster care. I wouldn't be doing this work for the number of years that I've been doing it if it wasn't positive work," said Sarah Dowd, KidsPeace program manager for the Raleigh chapter.
Dowd has worked at KidsPeace for 17 years across various roles within the agency to champion the foster care community. She emphasized that while the nature of foster care work comes with its challenges, dedication and love are at the center of it, always.
She, alongside another KidsPeace colleague and a KidsPeace foster parent, help debunk some common myths and misconceptions about foster care below.
1. Foster kids are "bad" kids
Foster kids often get a bad rap for being misbehaved, violent, aggressive or juvenile delinquents. While this can be true, it is not always the case. And in situations when misbehavior is an issue, it's a direct result of the experiences the foster child has endured.
KidsPeace, through its therapeutic foster program, works with children who have endured intense trauma and provides them with counseling and medication in addition to nurturing homes.
It isn't uncommon for children who have witnessed or experienced abuse to act out their emotions after they've been removed from a dangerous situation. These aren't bad kids; instead, these are kids who have had bad things happen to them.
"I think a lot of people think that foster kids are bad kids — ones who are always getting into trouble or that they can't be with their families because they've done something wrong. In reality, these kids have been through some pretty significant trauma. As a result, some of them have some pretty significant behavioral challenges — it's how they are responding to what has happened to them," reiterated Jennifer Taylor, a KidsPeace family resource specialist who is responsible for training and licensing foster families.
"They might have some extra challenges, but when you get past that, they're just normal kids who like to do the same things that their peers do. They're not bad. They're not juvenile delinquents. Instead, they need support around them to help them learn how to manage those feelings, and process those experiences so they can move on and get through it," Taylor finished.
2. Foster kids are unwanted or unloved by their biological families
There are a myriad of reasons a child gets placed in foster care. Usually, it is the result of a family being in crisis. While situations of addiction, abuse or abandonment aren't uncommon, a foster care placement does not mean the foster child is unwanted or unloved by their biological family.
"It's definitely not easy whenever a child has been taken out of their biological homes. If you take a child from their biological family, they're hurting. They are emotional. Separation is very hard," said Karen Schmidt, who has been a KidsPeace therapeutic foster parent for almost 18 years. "You want to try to not take the place of their parents, but impact them and embark on this new journey with them with love."
Schmidt had a great-aunt who was a foster parent and she was inspired by the way her aunt loved her foster kids like her own children. She acknowledged the toll it can take on a child when they're separated from their biological family.
It's true, foster parents can be faced with a tough line to straddle — respecting the child has a family who loves them and wants them back, while also providing a nurturing environment that feels like home.
Foster parents like Schmidt, however, are up to that challenge.
3. Foster children can't see their biological families
While it varies case by case, when in the best interest of the child, foster children are able to speak with and even visit with their biological families.
The safety and emotional needs of the child are always taken into consideration first, but it isn't unusual for a foster child to be in regular contact with their biological parents, grandparents, siblings, or aunts and uncles.
"We don't put a child in foster care and then not let them see or talk to their families, because how else are they going to work towards reunification? Our families are very involved with their kids and their treatment," Taylor said.
4. The goal of foster care is get adopted
This brings us to the next point. The goal of foster care is reunification with the biological family or family of origin, not adoption. This is, perhaps, the most common misconception about foster care.
"Foster care does not usually end with adoption — that's not what a successful foster care placement is. We work with kids to get them back home with their families. That's our primary goal when they enter foster care," Taylor explained. "We want to reunite families together, and we work really hard to do that. And in order to do that, families have to participate. So our families see their children, they have visitation with them, they have phone calls with them."
Dowd added, "Foster care is treatment based. It's supposed to help the child be as successful as possible and promote normalcy; it's not supposed to be a permanent situation. These kids are in foster care because of situations that were not their fault or circumstances that were out of their control. So they need somebody to understand that and be their parent figure for that period while they're in treatment. And if a long-term relationship follows that, that's fantastic. If not, foster parents understand, 'I'm here for a purpose. I'm here to help you get you through what you're going through and then you're going to move on.'"
It's important to note reunification isn't always possible and may not be in the best interest of the child or the biological family. In cases like these, there are other options, adoption being one of them.
5. Foster parents are in it for the paycheck
It is true foster parents receive a stipend to offset some of the costs of bringing a foster child into their home, but these funds rarely cover all the child's basic needs. More often than not, foster parents become foster parents because they want to give back, not take.
"In my experience, the majority of the foster families that I've worked with are not in it for the money, and they understand that it's not a money-making thing, and they're really in it for the right reasons to help children," Taylor said. "Foster parents do get a stipend, but it doesn't even cover everything that a child needs. It's there to help offset the cost. We have a lot of families that I've worked with who wouldn't be able to be foster parents without some kind of assistance; and everything that they get, it goes toward their foster child."
Working in an industry that is generally misperceived as a negative situation can be discouraging, but Dowd said foster care is often the "start of a new future" for a child and helps promote a pathway to success.
Schmidt added, "Being a foster parent has definitely been a joy. Don't get caught up with everything negative that you hear and read about foster care."
This article was written for our sponsor, KidsPeace.