Stress In The Foster Home

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There were several studies conducted in the early 1980's that indicated that child abuse occurred at a higher rate in foster homes than in the general population. Although those studies may not be valid today or give an accurate impression of foster care in general, it is a fact...child abuse does occur in foster homes.

Most foster parents are good people who become involved in the program because of a genuine desire to help children. Most have had home studies done to see if they "have what it takes". This information has been reviewed at least by the person doing the study but often several people have participated in that final approval decision. And lastly, most have received at least a basic level of training to help prepare them for what is to come. So, you have to wonder, how could this ever happen?

One obvious conclusion is that sometimes the process just doesn't do a good job of evaluating applicants and people who shouldn't become foster parents are licensed. As one who evaluates those applicants, I know it can happen for different reasons and most of the time, there is no one to blame. I have often said to my colleagues that after the evaluation is done, I wish I could look the applicants in the eyes and know FOR SURE that this is a potential abuser or molester. If I could do that..."I would be outta' here in a minute and would be making millions of dollars a year...because everyone would want to hire me as a consultant." Unfortunately, for me and the children of the world, I don't have that skill.

Another major factor that causes this type of abuse to occur is...the one and only...good old-fashioned...maker of heart attacks, fist-fights, and food fights...stress. Foster families, like any other family, are subject to the wear and tear of everyday life that we call stress.

Some of these components can include:

Financial status...loss of job, reduction of hours worked, reduction of benefits, your bills go up dramatically, problems with the house, you win the lottery, etc.
Structure changes in the family...birth, death, marriage, someone moves in with you, child becomes an adult and "leaves the nest", child becomes an adult and does NOT "leave the nest", etc.
Health...a family member has a serious health problem, emotional illness, always tired, sick often, etc.
Relationships...marriage problems, parent-child conflicts, fights with extended family or neighbors, someone important to you moves away, problems on the job, you find a new love, etc.

Foster families have to face all of the

The characteristics of the children...neglected, abused, sexually abused, ADD, ADDHD, FAS, etc. It would be unusual to find one child in your "average ordinary family" that had any of these characteristics but one foster family might have several of these children in the home at the same time.
Number and type of children...the family has more children than their "approved capacity", have different population groups (mixed ages-teenagers with small children; different sex, race, etc.), concerns about accepting a child that really isn't what you wanted ("If I don't take this kid, will they ever call me again?"), accepting a child for placement to prove that "you can handle anything", wanting to take care of all the children of the world, you are "talked into" doing something that you don't feel comfortable in doing but feel pressured to do, etc.
THE AGENCY (The Agency causing stress? I know...this one's a shocker)...the boarding care check is late...again, the medical card doesn't come, going through training, going through the homestudy process, nobody returns phone calls, no co-operation, little support, etc.
Lack of support...many of your friends think you're nuts for wanting to do this, often there is no ongoing recognition for the job you do, social workers expect you to " have all of the answers" when it comes to parenting, you are treated as a "second-class citizen" by professionals, not allowed to join in the decision-making for the child, don't receive ongoing training, services, or information that would make "the job" easier etc.

There are many more factors that could be listed above and although many of those elements might be on your list, there are many more things that might not be. Each family...each person...has things in their life that causes stress. Your first task in learning to make things better is to develop a personalized plan to minimize the NEGATIVE effects of stress (Yes, Virginia... there are positive effects). This can be done by going somewhere that you find relaxing and can concentrate on the task at hand. Take a piece of paper (or a notebook) with you and try to identify the things (or people) that cause you to get upset. Write these down and add extra details if there are any. Some of these details might be: the times that you feel stress (certain days, at meal times, etc), who is there at the time, and what is going on (doesn't mind me, arguing, ignoring me, etc.). This in itself can be harder than you think. Some things will come easily...some will take more thought and insight to identify. However, Once you get started, you may wish that you had brought the notebook instead of a single piece of paper.

If sitting down and formally trying to come up with a list is too hard for you to do, you might want to try carrying a notebook (or diary) with you and write the incidents down when they occur. Many times we tend to forget or gloss over things that bother us particularly if we have had an "eventful", busy, day. One extra bonus you get with this technique is that writing the items down seem to be therapeutic in itself, particularly if you write down what happened and how you felt about it. It's almost as if the list making activity gives you more control over your life and in does. Another variation to this technique is to write down the hundreds of things we do "right" in our lives every day. This can be a very positive "eye-opener" for those people who claim that they never do anything right or they never have anything good happen to them.

Another good thing to include with either of the above activities is to try to monitor your physical condition and see if:

your stomach, head, or body aches
muscles are tense
you feel jittery
you just feel DIFFERENT

Many times these symptoms are brought on or highly influenced by our emotional state of being. Additionally, these emotions can cause some other conditions that might not be so obvious...such as changes in blood sugar, blood pressure, lower resistance to infections, colds, etc. So...think about your body. If you get tired more easily when you have to be around someone or do certain tasks, your body may be trying to tell you something.

There are many techniques to combat stress and they can be discovered at the library, by surfing the net, asking for advice from friends and family members, or interacting with that very large extended (but often dysfunctional) family...the talk shows. These resources should be added to your beginning inventory but eventually this list should also become very personal and only include the things that make YOU relax.

Some of the techniques I find interesting are:

Letting your feelings out by: screaming (by yourself), writing a letter to someone who irritates you but don't send it, put your feelings on a tape recorder, or keep a diary.
Exercise by walking (slowly and taking in the scenery), undertaking a special restoration or cleaning project, sewing, doing crafts, or "working out"at a gym.
Share yourself by getting a pet, volunteering, doing church work, getting a job, etc.
Rent several funny movies, do something silly...even if you are old like me, you still can find humor in life...if you look for it.
Try relaxation techniques by meditating, praying, yoga, listening to music, going somewhere by yourself, or communing with nature.

A final part of your personal stress prevention plan is to identify those people around you that can give you support. This support can be in the form of talking, listening,"hanging out" with you, giving advice, etc. These people could be family members, co-workers, other foster parents, social workers, ministers, grocery clerks, the local court jester or village idiot, etc. Again, the key is...whomever makes YOU relax or feel better. This list can be a source of help to you with the day-to-day stress that occurs but also will be helpful at those times when you are under heavy pressure. At those times, your thinking might get a little muddled and it would be helpful to have a resource list of people already available that you can use for help. And even though a lot of people don't want to get involved with the mental health may be necessary. So you may want to identify resources in the community by talking to others who have used counselors (or whatever) and have gotten good results.

In case you haven't guessed it by now...I confess...I used to be a Boy Scout (SURPRISE!). One thing I remember about scouting (obviously) was the old motto about "being prepared". For the most part I believe that motto is true. I think that most of life's situations for us and our children are made better if we know what to expect and what our options are. However, somewhere along the way we have come to believe that stress is one of those things that just happens to us...that we have no control over it...that we have to suffer our fate, and so on. But I believe that it is possible to soften it's negative effect on us by being actively involved in shaping our future. Review the above and try out parts of it, shape it to your needs and lifestyle, share it with your kids, ask them what they do to reduce stress (they probably can add a lot of good ideas), and see if it doesn't help both of you. And last but not least, always remember two old sayings: If they're not're not stressed (and vice versa) and that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". How true they are!

A Postscript...

Several people have emailed me wanting information about the studies I mention in the beginning of the above article. At the time, I had to rely on my sometimes feeble memory because a search for the original material at work had yielded nothing. I thought sure it was lost for the ages. However, while I was recently searching for information to use in an in-service training resurfaced. So, here it is folks...

In the mid-1980s my Agency purchased copies of "Preventing Abuse in Family Foster Care" a training program created by Emily Jean McFadden, MSW, Marjorie Ziefert, MSW, and Bennie Stovall, PhD. This information was prepared for The Institute for The Study of Children and Families in conjunction with the Social Work Department at Eastern Michigan University. The project was funded by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, ACFY-HHS Grant #NCAN 182/90 CA898.

Part of the material was written by Patricia Ryan, who later provided the material for West Virginia's fostering discipline program. In an article entitled, "What's the Problem?" (written Spring, 1983), she reviews the Survey on Abuse and Neglect in Foster Care.

This survey was conducted by the National Foster Care Education Project in all 50 states. All states responded by mail or were contacted directly by telephone. The respondents were asked to list the number of abuse complaints that had been leveled against foster homes, what their procedure for preventing maltreatment of children in care was, what training they provided, etc. The data was based on the 137,389 foster homes in the U.S. at that time.

Twenty-seven states reported the number of complaints reported against foster parents and the documented cases of child abuse per 1000 foster homes. The number of complaints ranged from a low of 3 per thousand to a high of 67 per 1000. Substantiated abuse ranged from 2 per 1000 to 27 per 1000. In four states, substantiated abuse rates were over 18 per 1000 foster homes. The Vera Institute of Justice (New York) suggested an abuse rate of 8 per 1000 children in care, approximately twice that of the population of children as a whole.

Also, around the same time, the Child Welfare League of America conducted interviews in West Virginia, and probably other states as well, with adults who had been children in foster care. Their surveys suggested similar results.

(E-mail Emil at:

Credits: Emil Baldwin, Jr., LSW

Visitor Comments (1)
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Lorri - 4 years ago
0 0 0
Very sad, but when I was about 10 - early 80's - I knew four white headed kids that were in foster care (Houston,TX). They were locked out of the house every morning at around 7am and let back in at dark. They came to our house for something to eat or drink sometimes. When they didn't come to our house, I don't know what they did. For years that was my idea of foster care. I felt so sorry for those poor kids. #1

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