Don't forget the big kids

Posted: May 22, 2006 12:05 AM
In honor of National Foster Care Month, I would like to say a word on behalf of older kids. We have been foster parents for San Diego County since 2003. We have had 8 children in that time, all between the ages of 6 and 12. In our experience, fostering school age kids has many advantages.

What are some of the questions and worries people have about fostering older kids?

But babies are so cute. School age kids are cute too. They have a mouthful of teeth; they (usually) sleep through the night; they eat with a spoon (most of the time); they are (usually) toilet trained.

Don’t the older kids have lots of problems? Yes and no. If the child has been in the foster care system for a long time, they may have problems, related to being in multiple placements. We’ve had a couple of kids who were sent to us because the previous foster home couldn’t handle them. Sometimes, the kids were the problem. Sometimes the other foster home was the problem.

If the “older” kids are the older kids in a sibling group, we’ve noticed the younger children in the family are often the most disturbed. We’ve never seen any research on this, but we have a couple of guesses as to why it might be.

Most families come into the child welfare system because of some combination of drugs, family violence or criminal behavior. Those families function for a while, and get progressively worse. When the older kids were infants, the family may have been doing well enough to meet their infant attachment needs. But by the time the younger ones come along, the family system has deteriorated to the point that the infants are left to languish, or are cared for by the older kids.

So, in a family a four or five kids, the older ones may be capable of bonding with your family, while the little ones are attachment disordered. The older kids may have had the psychological resources to deal with the family disruption, and even understand it. But for the little kids, it was just disruption and chaos.

Yet foster and adoptive families often prefer having younger kid placed with them, thinking that their problems will be easier to deal with.

Our advice: Don’t sell the older kids short. They can be a lot of fun, and less trouble than you think.

How do your own kids feel about doing foster care? The unspoken question here is: aren’t your own kids jealous of the attention you give the foster kids? Our experience is exactly the opposite: our kids are usually the ones who want more foster kids. When we are between placements, they start agitating: “Mom, it is getting boring around here. We need some more siblings.”

Decide what age group will fit in with your family. Our kids have enjoyed having brothers and sisters close to them in age. When we go places, we are an instant “kid magnet.” Whether it is the beach or the park, or just around the neighborhood, kids attract more kids. Over our years as foster parents, we’ve drawn small kid crowds wherever we go. Our kids love that.

How do you manage all those kids? Mercy. We only have four. Lots of our radical Catholic friends have many more kids, all home grown. I’ve only given birth once. Foster care is a very civilized way to have children: no muss, no fuss. Spare me the natural child-birth.

No, seriously, we are overwhelmed by our own two kids. How do you manage? Once children outnumber parents, you have to move from man on man defense, to a zone defense.

Create adult space and kid space, adult time and kid time. Kids learn to play with each other, entertain each other and to some extent monitor each other. We learn about all kinds of misbehavior from siblings that we would never be able to observe ourselves. We often overhear giggling kid conspiracies, that wouldn’t take place if we were hovering around, supervising their every move.

Isn’t it hard to let go of the kids after you’ve had them for a while? Some kids are easier to let go of than others.

Our standard answer covers the fact that some kids are real stinkers that you’re ready to get rid of and others are heartbreakers. The separation is difficult. But when you know it is the right thing, you do what you need to do to help the kids transition and all of you move on.

What are you waiting for? Call your local social services agency today, and get your application to become a foster parent. You know you want it.