When a Foster Child Leaves: Foster Parents Talk


Helene Rasmussen
Focus on Adoption magazine

“On the sidewalk that leads to the grade school near us, his name is in that cement. We see it every day. It’s nice. It makes me feel good to see it, but the other side is that the feeling of loss resurfaces.”

When foster parents speak of the children they have cared for and seen depart, a complicated mix of emotions rises to the surface. You’ll hear echoes of grief and loss, pride and optimism. Sometimes, the story is told in tones of peaceful acceptance. Here Teresa speaks: “Physically he is gone but it’s like having a son somewhere else. My son has new parents, and they are the ones who are providing him with everything he needs. Of course, he will always be in my heart.” Other times, the words are starker. “It’s almost like a death when they leave,” says another foster mother. “Your relationship with them is over.” Even small, everyday activities can give rise to sudden, sharp feelings through their association with the absent child. “I put on some children’s music for my granddaughter and it was music I’d played for the little fellow who went for adoption. I had to turn it off right away. I couldn’t play it for her. I got too upset just hearing the music.”

These are the voices of parents who are asked to care for that child as if he or she were their own and then to let that child go. Little wonder the emotions can be intense.

The challenges foster parents face in preparing their children and themselves for the departure of a child and then in dealing with the feelings of those still in the home afterwards are many. Changes are happening at the most intimate level of their lives and they are affecting everybody. “Your home changes,” says Simran, who has fostered children on an emergency and long-term basis over eight years. “Every person in the family has a different energy. Sometimes it’s at a practical level of routines in the house, but then it shifts over and makes its way into the emotions and the energy of the house.” You can hear the depth of engagement in her voice as she says, “When they’re in our home, we live with them.”

Given this level of involvement in each other’s lives, kids and adults alike go through an often difficult adjustment. While supporting the foster child through the complex emotions and resistance he or she may be feeling about the upcoming move, parents are often coping with the reactions of other kids in the house. As Carol’s family prepares for their first foster child to leave, her youngest birth son has become suddenly angry and emotional. He’s having a hard time adjusting to a situation he doesn’t understand. “There’s no normal way to explain this to an eight-year-old,” she says. “There’s nothing normal like, ‘This happens in all families.’” Barbara, a foster parent to 80 kids over 35 years, describes how her five-year-old has taken to sleeping in the crib of his departed foster brother as a way of dealing with his absence. Both she and Simran have seen kids resist attachment to future foster siblings, on guard against the sting of another loss.

While foster parents cope with the emotional needs of foster and other children, they are often grappling with powerful feelings of their own. Each of the mothers interviewed for this article described moments of great sadness and loss, rising and subsiding like waves breaking the surface of busy and demanding lives. Carol finds that “if somebody says, ‘Oh, that must be really hard,’ I may have been fine five minutes earlier, and all of a sudden, I feel overwhelmed with tears.” Other parents talk about concrete expressions of their grief, like the need to leave a child’s bedroom empty for a while or the difficulty in packing a suitcase.

At the same time, feelings of loss can be complicated by other factors. If a child has been very difficult, relief may be mixed with the sadness, says a mother who nevertheless describes how after children have gone, she forgets the difficulties and holds on only to the hopes for their future. Barbara speaks with the experience of many years and many good-byes when she points to another conflicting set of feelings foster parents face: “If you get really attached and don’t want them to go, it makes it very hard on everybody.”

As these foster parents describe it, there’s always a period of adaptation after a child leaves and it can be unpredictable in length and intensity. Feelings surge unexpectedly. Simran has found that it’s not an experience you can ever be entirely prepared for. In the words of Barbara, the foster mom who couldn’t listen to the music she’d played to the baby she cared for from birth to 11 months, “That was the one thing that really stuck in my mind: my God, you’re still connected. And I think I probably always will be very connected…. After such a length of time, you never forget that.”

Given this connectedness between foster parents and children, it’s no surprise that the parents interviewed for this article consistently brought up a common theme: when their kids leave to be adopted, the parents feel a great need to be involved in the arc of the child’s life from the pre-adoption process through to life with the adoptive family. Carol describes the satisfaction of being included throughout the process. “It’s not feeling like something is being wrenched from me and I’m fighting it all the way. I feel like I’m part of the process. That makes a huge difference. It makes me feel like I have some control. It’s not happening to me. I’m part of it.”

Teresa’s experience as the foster mother of a five-year-old boy who was adopted after a total of two-and a-half-years in her family is a case study in how a foster parent’s grief can be eased through continual involvement in the child’s life, along with excellent support services. Teresa’s bond with the boy remains powerful. Her emotions have been correspondingly intense. But she describes a network of support and social workers and an adoptive family who have been remarkably open, supportive and respectful. She found the services she needed to prepare her family for the move and a worker who eagerly accepted her input in the choice of the adoptive family. Together, they went over the family files and she was able to say without hesistation, “This is the place for him.”

From the start, the adoptive parents have opened themselves to creating a relationship with Teresa and her family. “They wanted to know us,” says Teresa, in every way from learning about the foods and traditions of her native Mexican culture to joining her family for a week spent eating, talking, playing in the park and flying kites together. Now that the boy is with his new family, they stay in touch with e-mail, photos and phone calls. “You are his family. You will be in his life always,” the adoptive parents have told Teresa. With the peace of mind that comes from knowing he is doing fine, that he’s in a lovely home and that she will remain part of his extended family, she can take a little song she’d invented for him, “I’m so happy you’re here,” and now sing to him over the phone, “I’m so happy you’re there.” The experience has been so positive, she and her husband are motivated to begin considering the adoption of a child while continuing to foster.

So what can prospective adoptive parents take from all this? Teresa asks that the parents “think about appreciating the foster parents’ work and seeing them as extended family. Don’t feel insecure.” Barbara says, “Even if it’s just a phone call, a picture, please let me know that he’s doing okay and that things are working out.” Carol appreciates how the couple that will be adopting her foster son gives attention to her birth children during visits. When adoptive parents, as well as social workers, are open and sensitive to the needs of the foster family, the feelings of sadness may still be strong but foster parents describe an acceptance of the loss. Here’s Teresa one last time: “I felt peaceful, I felt confident, I felt really that I had done my part and that this was where he needed to be and these were the people that were the best choice for him. So I could pack, I could let him go.”

by Helene Rasmussen