I Grew Up In Foster Care—Here's What I Wish Parents Knew

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My entire life has been focused on getting approval. I don't mean the kind of approval that you think of like being allowed to go out with a friend—I mean the kind of approval in which you are looking to be accepted long-term. I needed approval from my parents.

I grew up in the foster care system. From 3 months to almost 12 years old, I did not have permanent parents. I think about the time that I spent growing up in the foster care system and I knew I tried my best to be the kid that my foster parents wanted me to be. I just wanted to be able to stay in the same home, stay at the same church, and have the same people to wake me up every morning.

In the U.S., there are over 407,000 children and youth in foster care. Further, only about half of the youth raised in foster care finish high school. Less than 3% graduate from a four-year college. And around 80% of the prison population has been in foster care. While these numbers are staggering, it's crucial to remember that each number represents a child who needs connection, compassion, and consistency. If I were to have one wish granted, it would be to have each foster child receive these three things.

Be Connected

How I grew up significantly impacted my career choice. I decided to choose a career that I knew so well: a case manager. I wanted to focus on seeing and finding forever families for children in the foster care system.

While in training, we were told repeatedly not to let a child get too attached to us. This bothered me, especially hearing it coming out of the mouths of people who talk about the severe trauma that so many children in the foster care system endure. The same was said in an adoption class I attended. I sat in the classroom and challenged the instructors. I said, "Well if you aren’t going to love the child completely, then why are we here? Aren’t we supposed to be here to provide another loving adult to the child?" The questions would continue, class after class.

It was a reminder that children need an adult they can trust and connect with, even if it's just for a short period of time. Being open to making that connection can make a world of difference.

Be Compassionate

Not only do children in the foster system need connection, but they also need compassion. When I was in foster care, I wished to maintain the activities that were important to me. Whether it was seeing my mother, my siblings, or just going to my favorite restaurant. Being able to participate in the things that I value might've been exactly what I needed to feel comfortable and to feel safe in a new home. Foster parents can show this compassion by allowing kids to continue participating in the things they value.

Besides the physical necessities (like clothes, a roof, etc.), I needed a foster parent who listened, not someone who assumed they understood. I needed someone to say, "I don’t know where you came from," and acknowledge that they may not understand what I was going through instead of pretending to know.

In trauma-informed training, we hear people ask questions time and time again such as “What happened to you?” But in asking that question, we forget the all-important follow-up question: "What is showing up for you in this moment? How are you feeling?" We can't truly understand someone until we ask these questions.

As an adult now, I see myself having to fight this battle of explaining what happened to me, but not acknowledging the feeling that I am hurt, or weak, or as if I'm not showing up as my best self. Having someone be there to ask those questions and hold space for my feelings means the world. To me, that is how true compassion shines through, and it's something foster parents can practice regularly.

Be Consistent

It's plainly understood that cute little newborns need constant and consistent care, from diaper changes and feedings to skin-to-skin contact and cuddles. It often seems like the thought process is that preteens and teenagers do not need this constant nurturing. The thing is, they do.

While it may not look like bottles and tummy time, teenagers need someone who is going to tell them that we can make it and that we can be anything that we want to be. (You would be surprised at the number of children in foster care who have not heard this.) Teenagers need consistent support, just like a newborn. Support at this age is emotional, rather than physical.

What teens don't need is adults labeling them—in any sense—especially when times are tough. Teens are not "bad" or "troublemakers" or anything of the sort. In fact, some of these labels may even reflect why a teen was removed from their biological families. This can be triggering and damaging. Instead, show up consistently for a teenager and remind them that they are capable and special over and over again.

A Word From Verywell

Foster care is not an easy experience for anyone. Foster children often end up mirroring the foster parents who are taking care of them, for better or for worse. Foster parents often set out to do good—they want to help kids. One of the best ways to do this is to be connected, compassionate, and consistent.

I also task every parent who is considering fostering to establish an awareness of the culture that your foster child comes from. This can help you reinforce the child’s cultural identity and traditions. Remember that 100% of children come from a community. Even even child who may be removed from their parent temporarily should have the chance to stay a part of their same community.

Fostering can be difficult at times, but doing so with care and thoughfulness means you're providing a safe and loving environment for a child—and 100% of the children deserve a chance at a loving home.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Administration for Children and Families. National Data Shows Number of Children in Foster Care Decreases for Third Year in a Row.

  2. NYFI. Higher Education for Foster Youth.

  3. The Center for Law and Social Policy. Young Leaders Advocate for Ending the Foster Care to Prison Pipeline.

  4. Storer HL, Barkan SE, Stenhouse LL, Eichenlaub C, Mallillin A, Haggerty KP. In search of connection: The foster youth and caregiver relationshipChildren and Youth Services Review. 2014;42:110-117. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2014.04.008

By Victor Sims
Victor Sims grew up in Florida’s foster care system without the stability of a permanent home and supportive family for 11 years prior to being adopted. From his work helping to improve children’s experiences when they are removed from their parents to his TEDx Talk on the importance of social capital for youth in care, Mr. Sims is focused on bringing about positive changes to the foster care system.