Before I became an adoptive parent, I was a foster parent.
While awaiting approval of my foster care license I was an Office Mom.
As OMD volunteers, we encounter a side of our community that may have initially felt foreign to us. But once we snuggle an infant that has been living on the streets or soothe a child with obvious signs of abuse and neglect, our eyes are opened to a harsh new reality. What was before some complex social problem quickly becomes a much more personal issue, something we can engage in solving.
OMD volunteers are a type of ‘first responder’. The scope of your time with a child may be less than an hour if there are open beds, willing foster parents, and a placement team that hits the lottery that day. Unfortunately, many children must await their fate much longer.
So, you know the drill- pull on the OMD apron, set out a few games on the table, plaster on your earnest smile. What do you do when the questions start to flow?
If you are anything like me, you will want to give them something. ‘I don’t know.’ just feels like a cruel and worthless response. My years as a foster parent and experience in adopting two children through this system, have taught me that the unanswerable questions will continue. Sparked by a comment from a stranger, a holiday, a photo, I am confronted with the urge to fill in the blanks when my explanation lacks all the pieces.
Questions are a lifelong struggle for children who have come through the foster care system. I fight to give my two adopted children a thorough history of their family and culture, simply because of my limited knowledge of this information. As a part of the adoption process, I was given redacted files- thousands of pages, reports on every Child Welfare interaction with bio-families, court files, visitation records, and the forms their biological families were willing to answer (names, birthdates, medical history, etc.). I scoured these files, page after page of blacked out documentation, for pieces of a story I had not yet known about my children. It was intense and heartbreaking, satisfying and frustrating. As many questions that were answered were left unanswered. These files are now stored in a time capsule they will receive on their eighteenth birthday along with mementos from every year of life we’ve had together. Even now, my heart aches knowing the feelings of discovery, disappointment, regret, disbelief, and the impact this may have on their sense of identity. For every feeling of abandonment, I hope what they found in my home is a memory of being found, wanted, and cherished.
While volunteering with OMD the ages will vary from non-verbal infant on up to school aged children. If the child is of verbal age, you may be blasted with requests for information. Some sweet Littles will interrogate you from the start, others will wait until you’ve proven that you are a safe and trustworthy adult before the onslaught of questioning begins.
A few simple tips I can offer that have worked well for me:
- Be honest and offer any appropriate information you can- “Honey I don’t know where you are going to sleep tonight, but I know someone is working right now to figure that out for you.” Insert social workers name if you have it.
- Be supportive of their vulnerability and fears, recognizing and validating their feelings- “I completely get why that this is confusing, scary, uncomfortable, etc. Thank you for letting me hang out with you. You are a brave kid.”
- Allow the child to talk freely and listen intently. Understand if they don’t want to talk at all.
- Assure them this isn’t their fault.
- Read their cues- some children need to be kept busy with play-dough or a game to distract from the experience they just went through. Others need space and quiet. Let them know you are available for anything they need without being overwhelming.
OMD volunteers are intercepting children at a traumatic moment, quite possibly a pivotal memory in our kids’ lives. While he may never remember your name, he may very well have a recollection of your comforting tone or your non-anxious smile. You removed her from the chaos, put a snack in her belly and a hug around her shoulders, the exact moment when her life imploded. Their trauma on this day may be too severe to have any memory of it at all, but either way there was a stranger without an agenda who offered a gentle reassurance, calmed some fear, and asked for nothing in return. This lays a kind of groundwork for the experiences they will have in the foster care system.