The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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How to Be a Great Foster Parent
Represent Staff

Stephen Hamner is Director of Education and Permanency Support at SCO, one of New York City’s largest child welfare agencies. He talked to Represent about how the agency tries to ensure that SCO helps foster parents live up to the huge responsibility of nurturing and supporting the youth they care for.

Q: Describe the ideal foster parent.

A: A foster parent should create a space where a young person feels safe, integrated, supported, and affirmed. Accept the foster youth as they are and meet them where they are. Treat the child the same way you treat your biological children. Understand that foster youth come with trauma and have been through significant disruptions, and that the ways they act out are normal.

You can’t have the focus on yourself, but at the same time, you need to take care of yourself and reach out and ask for help when you need it.

Ideally, you see it as a vocation, something that gives you a sense of purpose. My wife and I did foster parent training, and learned it’s about creating a space where a young person can see and understand their own childhood and also see a realistic sense of hope.

The betrayals, neglect, and abuse foster youth have experienced go to a person’s deepest sense of who they are. And that makes them test boundaries. Many foster youth assume, “You’re gonna leave me,” because others did. So you as the foster parent set boundaries, but you also communicate, “I’m not going to leave you.”

When we’re getting close to adoption, sometimes kids will act out. I tell parents, “They’re testing you because they feel the love you have for them.” Patience is one of the most important qualities of a good foster parent. And you have to listen. But a teen needs healthy boundaries, too, and consistent rules.

Q: What are some of the things SCO does to train foster parents?

A: At our monthly trainings with foster parents, we have three-hour conversations, starting with asking them, “What advice would you give yourself at 18?” It helps them go back to their own teen years. We ask them, “What are some challenges that all teens face now?” Then we ask them about challenges that foster kids in particular have. It helps them remember that kids in care experience different stressors.

We draw up foster parent-youth agreements, where we go through the expectations of school, curfew, allowance, a key, telephones, computers, chores, child care if your foster kid has a kid, and everything else. Experiencing different parenting styles is really hard for kids, and this helps everyone know what to expect. The foster parent and the foster child both sign the agreement.

Q: What is a foster parent required to do?

A: The child must have access to the home—if they don’t get their own key right away, then someone needs to be there to let them in. You must be involved in the kids’ schooling. Make sure the young person is safe. Give allowance or somehow make sure the kid has money in her pocket. That allowance shouldn’t be used for food, toiletries, and adequate seasonal clothing: the foster parent buys those. The youth must have access to a phone.

Create a family environment, a space of support and recognition. Don’t criticize their parents (we call them parents, not birth parents). Don’t personalize your feelings about an angry parent screaming at you, or a foster kid screaming at you.

Q: How do you get feedback from teens on foster parents?

A: The main way is the youth talks to their caseworker. If they say, “My foster parent touched me, or hit me,” they get moved immediately. If the complaint is “I don’t like it here,” we’ll talk to the young person and keep asking questions, like “Did you tell the foster parent this?” We model how to talk to them and remind them that the foster parent can’t read their mind.

image by YC-Art Dept

No one size fits all. We might say, “Can you talk to your foster parent?” If they say no, you ask them if they want you to talk to them. The most important thing is to respond to the youth’s complaint.

It may be that this parent can’t handle this kid or any teenager. We really encourage communication. At the annual recertification of a placement, everyone gets together and talks about what’s going on in the home. We ask youth if they have concerns and try to get them to be more specific than “I don’t like it there.” We ask, among other things, “Do you feel welcome in the home?” “Can you talk to your foster parent?” “Do they listen to you?” “What do you need that you don’t have?” “How do your foster parents support your connection with your parents?”

Our last question is “Would you recommend this home for another young person?” If they say “No,” we drill down into that—maybe they mean “I don’t want to share my home with another foster youth. I like being the only kid there.” Maybe “I don’t like it there” means “I’d rather watch TV and they make me do my homework.” Then we say, “Eh, that’s part of being a teen.” But if it’s a real problem, we will move the child.

Q: How do you help support the foster parents and the youth?

A: In addition to foster parents, we train other people to support the youth through our mentor program. We now have 40 kids with mentors, and sometimes the mentors are in touch with the foster parents. One 13-year-old who’d had a challenging relationship with his father was placed with a single foster mother. He was assigned a male mentor who’d been in care, who takes him to the gym and out to eat. A good friend of the boy was shot and killed, and the boy got very upset. The foster parent called the mentor, and he rushed over and comforted the youth.

Youth also get a youth skills coach. The youth skills coaches have high school degrees and some were in care. They are “credible messengers.” That means that, because they have similar backgrounds as the foster youth, the youth tend to connect to them and be more willing to take their advice. They connect youth to housing, employment, financial literacy. We also have a partnership with Columbia University on work readiness.

Q: Kinship care is the first option when a youth goes into care. What makes kinship care work better? What are some problems with it?

A: As with everything, we’re trying to minimize disruptions and maintain as many connections as possible. We try to keep kids in the same school where people know them. Similarly, if there’s a relative the young person already knows, that’s one less disruption.

There is a lack of foster homes, in New York and nationwide. So the first line is to keep families together. Next is with a family member. Then foster care. Then a group home or residential treatment facility.

Challenges that can arise in kinship care include possible boundary issues with the relative. A lot of the reason why the youth is in care can spill over into kinship care. If my son goes into my brother’s house, and my own relationship with my brother is difficult, then that spills over.

Q: What should foster youth know that they might not know about foster parents?

A: You need to communicate with them. They don’t know you, so you can’t expect them to know what you’re thinking. Most foster parents are well-meaning.

But their role is to serve your safety and well-being. And if that’s not being met, you should immediately inform your caseworker. You have a voice and you have rights, and you have a responsibility to communicate.

It’s a two-way street. Try to place yourself in their shoes: How would you handle a kid AWOLing or skipping school?

Q: And what should foster parents know about foster youth?

A: Just because you’ve been a parent doesn’t mean you know this kid. You have to understand they’ve been through trauma, and that their responses may not be directed at you, but to their past. Trust has been broken and needs to be repaired.

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