Is it Possible to Actually Parent a Foster Child?

(Originally published Oct 21, 2015)

What is a parent and what does it mean to parent? These are some of the issues at the heart of being involved in foster care, and are some of the questions that my wife and I are asking ourselves on (what feels like) a daily basis.

As our current foster children are also our first foster children, we don’t have a lot of experience to compare them with. We do have our teenage daughter, but we raised her from in utero so it is not the same. Complicating the situation is that the boy (3) is labeled level 4 trauma, which is the highest acceptable level for non-therapeutic placement, and the girl (2) is special needs, with developmental delays in multiple areas.

Additionally, being a foster parent has inherent limitations. Specifically, you are not the child’s/children’s ‘natural’ parent(s) and therefore cannot raise them with the freedom that you would your own; this is especially evident when it comes to disciplining. Due to governmental restrictions, differing theories on corporal punishment, and the prevalence and history of abuse among children in foster care, disciplining is a hot-button topic and a perennially difficult issue to address, much less implement. But that is the subject of another day.

Returning to the previous question, what does it mean to be a parent, especially in a foster care situation? According to Webster’s, a parent is defined as “one who begets or brings forth offspring; a person who brings up and cares for another.” Given the common use of the word, the definition holds no surprises. And when used as a verb, the word “parent” refers back to the noun’s definition: “to act as a parent.”

Not mentioned explicitly, parenting seems to imply a certain level of permanence, and foster care, by its very nature, is temporary. Can the two (permanent office, temporary condition) co-exist in harmony? There are some days in which we feel like the children’s parents, for we are raising them. However, there are other days in which we feel like custodial managers, knowing that at some point the situation could end and they be returned to their family. (In our case, that is becoming less and less likely, though not completely ruled out as of the writing of this post.)

Again, I return to the question: what does it mean to be a parent, especially in a foster care situation? To attempt an answer, I think it is best to look at what a parent provides their own child and then see if it is also applicable in a foster situation.

Moving from the dictionary definition, a parent is not only one who “brings forth” an offspring but also one who “brings up” up said offspring. Put another way, a parent cares for and raises their offspring, nurturing them and assisting them as they grow and mature. It is not the parent’s job to make their offspring grow – nature sees to that. Rather, the parent molds and shapes their offspring in such a way that they are prepared, to the best of the parent’s ability, for life away from the home. Furthermore, they prepare their offspring in such a way that the offspring will one day be ready to have offspring of their own.

In thinking and writing, contrary to the typically permanent position of a parent, I have observed that there actually is no time minimum or maximum to qualify. In other words, one can be a parent if only for a day or for 50+ years. The role of the parent is to love, nurture/care for, and prepare the offspring as they grow and mature towards adulthood. In addition, there is no requirement that the offspring be naturally the parent’s or that the parent raise the offspring from start to finish (birth to majority).

I would like to insert a caveat at this point. To qualify as a parent by definition, one needs to care for the offspring and attempt to prepare it for maturity. Simply donating chromosomes does not qualify one as a parent.

Returning to the foster care issue one last time, can one “parent” a foster child? Inserting the nature and role of a parent may help achieve an answer: can one [love, nurture/care for, and prepare] a foster child? Yes. In fact, if a foster parent is not doing this, they should discontinue their participation in the foster care process.

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