One of the questions people ask AJ and I most frequently about foster care (besides “How can you handle giving them back?!”) is “Do you have any choice in whether or not a child is placed in your home?” There’s a long and a short answer to that, as with everything. In short – yes! You absolutely have control over whether or not you accept a placement into your home. You’re allowed to say “yes” or “no” when you receive a call.
This post is actually inspired by two things. First, AJ and I have turned down two placements recently, and I wanted to talk a bit about why and what it feels like. Second, I did finally start watching “This is Us.” Without giving too much away, one of the families on the show decides to become a foster family. They get a placement call and don’t ask any questions, just basically say “What’s her name?” and then hang up and announce “She’ll be here in an hour.” That’s not quite how it works.
First of all, when you go through the licensing process, you fill out a big questionnaire about different types of behaviors, medical conditions, cases, etc that you feel prepared to take on. You also state your age preference and gender preference (if you have one). In theory, these criteria are kept in mind when you receive placement calls. In an ideal world, you would never receive a call for placements that don’t fit your “list.” In reality, that’s not really how it works.
We are licensed through Greenville County DSS (South Carolina), and for the most part, they have been GREAT about sticking to our criteria. We rarely get calls for kids outside of our preferred age range (which is currently 8-14 ish, but was 4-10 when we first started), and never for large sibling groups (we’ve requested 1-2 children at a time). With that said, there were certain types of cases that we did feel unprepared to take on while we are still inexperienced parents, and we get calls about those pretty often. That’s because the state is legally obligated to call all homes that meet their criteria, even if they know that the answer will be “no.” Well, newsflash – it can be hard to say no!
First of all, whenever we receive a call about a new placement, it basically follows the same pattern. First, the placement coordinator gives a little shpiel about the basics of the child – their age, gender, first name, when they came into foster care, and a general overview as to the reasons why they came into the system. This could be drug abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, homelessness, mental illness of the parent – you name it. At that point, it’s up to you to ask questions about the child if you are interested in hearing more. I always ask if there are any medical issues, known behavioral issues, how often the child has visitation with family members, what county they’re from, if they have any siblings in the system and what visitation with them would be, etc. I ask tons of questions. In our experience, the placement coordinators do the best they can to answer our questions honestly. Do they volunteer a lot of information without being asked? Not necessarily. But when we ask, if they know the answer, they will tell us. The problem is that they don’t always know – especially if it is an emergency placement and the child is just coming into the foster care system – so sometimes there’s just not that much that we can find out.
At that point, it’s time to make a decision. AJ and I always talk to each other first, either on the phone or in person, about the call. Then, if it’s a mutual yes, we move forward. If one person is hesitant, we talk about it, but it’s usually a no. If either one of us is a hard no, then it’s a no without any further discussion. We don’t want either one of us to feel like we’re taking on something we didn’t sign up for, and we try to be realistic about what we can and can’t handle.
In every relationship, there’s always one person who has an easier time saying no than the other, and that person is AJ. We’ve had two situations where we received calls that we ended up turning down. The first call was for sisters who had been victims of sexual abuse by their father. I was extremely sick when we received that call, but even if I hadn’t been, we turned it down because I would be traveling a good bit over the next several months and it would not be appropriate for AJ to be by himself with the girls in this particular situation. In addition to the fact that he would have been really uncomfortable and unsure of what to do/how to parent while I was gone, we also have to be very realistic about the fact that there are false allegations of abuse made against foster parents sometimes. Our social worker told us that until we know a placement well, AJ should not be left alone with them for extended periods of time, because false allegations are most commonly made against the foster father. This was an easy “no” for both of us in this situation, but of course, you still feel worried about the kids, guilty for not accepting them, and just kind of bad in general, even when you know it is for the best.
The second situation absolutely broke my heart. We received a call for a little boy who was slightly beneath our preferred age range, but was a wonderful child. He was being moved from another foster home due to a situation outside of his control (ie not his fault/behavior), but he needed a placement that night. I was still extremely sick, but really wanted to accept the placement. AJ said no, as he should have – I could barely stay awake, was only driving myself to and from physical therapy, and had no energy – but it still broke my heart into a thousand pieces. I so badly wanted to say “yes” to this sweet boy after hearing his story. Over a week and a half later, once I was recovered, I was still thinking about him and even called the placement department to make sure that he had found a good family and wasn’t staying in a group home, since our house was finally back open. I was relieved to hear they found one! But still, it was really, really hard for me. AJ was like “Well he’s outside of our age range and you’re sick,” because he’s practical and reasonable and it’s easy for him to say no. Well, it’s not easy for me!
Fortunately, we have never been pressured into accepting a placement in any way. The placement coordinators are understanding and courteous. They don’t call us at all about extreme behavioral cases because they know that we are still inexperienced, and we really appreciate that. It truly feels like they want to see us succeed as foster parents, which is a really nice feeling. You hear a lot of horror stories about placement coordinators not being honest about what some foster kids are actually like, but that hasn’t been our experience at all. We’re very, very lucky!
My best advice when receiving a placement call is to ask a lot of questions and go with your gut. If you get a bad feeling about a placement call, regardless of the reason, it’s probably best not to go through with it. After all, getting in over your head is bad for both you and the child if you end up having to disrupt the placement later on. I also recommend, if you are a bleeding heart like me, that you find a less emotional person to bounce placements off of. Ideally, this would be your spouse/partner since you can’t share detailed case information without outsiders, but it’s helpful to have someone that will remind you of your boundaries and encourage you to be patient. I’m very fortunate that I have AJ to do this for me in this situation (I do it for him with his project cars, so it works out).
So, yes! You can say no to a foster care placement. It just might be harder than you expect.