Foster parents are in a tough position. On the one hand they are expected to welcome unfamiliar children into their homes, invest in them emotionally and physically, and help them through a difficult time.
On the other hand, this intense investment is supposed to be temporary. When the placement ends, foster parents are expected to disengage in a way that is helpful to the child and everyone else involved. In the hustle and bustle of a placement move, whether the child is going home or moving somewhere else, foster parents’ feelings of loss are often not given adequate attention.
Agency Support Factors
A study, that was done involving 376 Foster homes, 275 of which were licensed and open to children, and 101 of which had been previously-licensed but had closed within the past three years. It was found that both groups of families expressed love and affection for their foster children and sadness at their loss. The two groups also felt similar levels of anxiety and uncertainty regarding foster care placements. In conclusion, however, it was determined that the Foster parents who were “unprepared or unsupported for the separation and loss experience” have left the foster care system all together.
To continue on in their work after the end of a placement, foster parents need to resolve their grief. One step in this process—expressing the pain associated with the loss—can be especially difficult for some foster parents.
In When Foster Children Leave: Helping Foster Parents to Grieve, Susan Edelstein (1981) identifies four obstacles that prevent people from expressing grief over a loss. Foster parents can run up against any or all of these. First, grieving is difficult when the relationship to the lost person was ambivalent or hostile. Foster parents may experience mixed feelings about foster children, especially those who are prone to act out. A second barrier to fully expressing feelings of loss when a child leaves the foster home, is the number of other demands placed on foster parents. Usually, there are other foster and biological children still in the home. Foster parents must continue to attend to these children, leaving little opportunity to express themselves.
Thirdly, unmet expectations can be another barrier. It may be an unspoken expectation that foster parents should not get too attached to the children in their homes. Foster parents who express feelings of loss may feel that they will be considered week for doing so; they may even fear that their ability to foster questioned. The final barrier has to do with differences in individual personalities. Some people have a need to always appear confident and independent, and grieving makes them uncomfortable; they view the vulnerability that is part of grief as a sign of weakness.
Support at the End of Placement
What can be done to help foster parents deal with/ better prepare them for the feelings of loss that come at the end of a placement?
- Foster parents should learn about the stages of grief. Coping with anger (or despair) may be easier if you see it as a natural part of the grieving process. This will help them understand their own reactions to loss, as well as the reactions of their foster children.
- Foster care support groups should be established, and utilized to immediately supply any form of comfort they can to assist during this time of loss. (Support can include visits, meals or even just regular phone calls).
- Foster parents should not hesitate to make use of trained Social Workers/ or Professional Councillors, to start talking about their feelings of hurt and disappointment. The sooner the better. It is not weakness to admit needing advice and asking for help. It reaffirms inner strength and maturity!