More than Just the Caregiver
By: Tina Vercelli
The elevator door opened and in front of me was an all too
familiar scene. It was Wednesday, the designated weekday for all foster
care cases to be heard by our countys family court judge. The crowded
hallway was filled to the brim with children crying, caseworkers flittering
from group to group, making last minute contact with their clients, lawyers
going in and out of the judges office, vying for position on the days
docket. All while the court clerk was making her way through the crowd,
directing people on the small claims docket to their designated courtroom.
As I assessed my surroundings, the caseworker assigned to my foster childrens
case approached me. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, then almost as
quickly as she appeared, she was off again to deal with one of her many
So once again, the children and I were alone in a crowd of people, waiting
for our turn in the courtroom. I busied myself with the children, handing
them toys, and making sure they had their juice and snacks. Doing my best
to keep them and myself occupied.
Suddenly, I was approached by a older man in a gray suit. He looked at
me, then the children, then in a gruff voice asked, Are these the
Franklin* children? I hesitantly replied, Yes. not knowing
who was asking the question. Before I could ask this stranger just who
he was and just why he wanted to know, he quickly said, And you
are the CAREGIVER? The feeling of contempt stuck to the words as
they hung in the air, as if it pained him to even ask the question. It
was obvious that he saw me as nothing more than an employee, paid to care
for other peoples children. As I was replying that I was the foster
parent, he swiftly turned away, moving on to yet another group of people.
It wasnt until it was our turn to enter the courtroom that I discovered
that this man, who never even bothered to introduce himself, was the attorney
assigned to represent my foster children.
After the hearing, I approached the attorney. I introduced myself to him,
and asked if we could set up a meeting so he could meet the children and
discuss the case. In the same curt, gruff voice I had experienced before,
he looked at me and said, I dont need to talk to you, you
are JUST THE CAREGIVER.
So many times, we as foster parents are left out of the loop. We all learned
in our initial training that foster parents are to be treated as important
members of the team. But what do you do when other members of the team
dont want you on the field?
Some team members seem to think they know more. Attorneys know more. Caseworkers
know more, Counselors know more. In some cases, the foster parents are
thought to know less than all of the professionals involved
in the case. Foster parents are then left to wonder about their part in
the team. When the concerns and questions of a foster parent are dismissed
by other members of the team, it can be frustrating as well as detrimental
to the foster child.
Good foster parents make a point to become knowledgeable about the issues
that their foster children face. So many times, foster children have a
multitude of issues such as ADHD, attachment disorders, psychological
problems, or developmental issues. The longer that a child is with us,
the more educated we should become about their issues. Many times, it
is the foster parent that has the most complete knowledge of the childs
needs. But because these children come into care with so many issues,
it sometimes becomes painfully obvious that there is usually no clear-cut
plan to help our foster children. Also, each professional specializes
in only one, or maybe two issues. A teacher would pick up on educational
or developmental issues way before an attorney would. The attorney, however,
would know much more about the childs legal issues than a pediatrician.
Because of this, it becomes even more important that the foster parent
act as the connecting block between all members of the team who are looking
after the needs of the child.
But how do you deal with team members that dont see you as knowledgeable
about your foster childs needs. What about the attorney that refuses
to speak with you, or the school administrator that will not allow you
input into your childs individual education plan? How do you handle
a professional that believes they know more than you do about the child?
Its difficult to alter another persons belief from thinking
you are just a caregiver to understanding that you are an important, knowledgeable,
and vital part of the professional team. What we can do as foster parents
is control how we present ourselves to the other members of the team.
The following is a list of suggestions that all foster parents should
remember when dealing with other members of the professional team:
1. Keep detailed documentation of the foster childs behaviors, eating
patterns, and the childs likes and dislikes. Also, record all doctor
appointments, dental visits, educational milestones and difficulties,
contact with child welfare personnel, and visits with biological family.
Be assured that the other members of the team are keeping records, so
it only makes sense that you should too.
2. Research the issues that your foster child has and become as knowledgeable
as you can about them. The internet can be a valuable tool to use to research
things. Read books that deal with the special issues foster children face.
Knowledge is power! If you think the information you find can help your
foster child with a particular issue, pass that information along to the
other members of the team.
3. Join your local and state foster parent associations and be active
in them. You can gain a wealth of knowledge about the foster care system
by talking with other foster parents. The support from others who are
in the trenches with you can be invaluable.
4. Find out what your rights are as a foster parent. Get to know what
information in the case file you are privy to. Know in many cases, foster
parents are allowed to make input into educational plans, case plans,
review hearings and court reports. Find out what you are allowed to do
and how to exercise your rights. Attend every meeting you are allowed
to participate in and dont be afraid to ask questions about things
you dont understand.
5. When having to deal with more narrow-minded member of the team, be
calm, but persistent. Dont be afraid to step up the chain of command
in order to get the services and attention that the child needs. Everyone
has a boss! Attorneys have to abide by a code of ethics outlined by their
state bar association. They also have to ultimately answer to the presiding
judge on the case. Doctors have a code of ethics that they have
to follow as well. Dont be afraid to seek out a second opinion,
if you dont like how the childs needs are being met.
6. If during a meeting or hearing, you get rattled or off-track, dont
be afraid to excuse yourself to regroup. Always maintain a proper level
of professionalism in your speech and demeanor.
Above all, dont be afraid to stand up for the rights of your foster
child. Be tough, be tenacious, be diligent in your quest. You have a vital
role in the professional team. Stand firm with the knowledge and understanding
that you are important in the life of that child. Show the other members
of the team that you are more than JUST A CAREGIVER.