Melissa got a call from a caseworker. A 13-year-old girl needed her care. The only problem? She was out of beds. But her 21-year-old son—who had temporarily moved back in—soon volunteered to sleep on the couch, and they were able to take her in.
That son was no stranger to foster care and adoption. He came into Melissa’s home when he was 14 years old. When it came to moving to the couch, he didn’t give it a second thought, saying “Of course I’ll move. If it were me, there’s no place I’d rather be than in this home.”
This touched Melissa, who explains, “He was a teenager when I got him. He just knows this is what we do. If there’s a child that needs help, our family will do it.”
Melissa has been fostering for 15 years. Her friends in high school were in foster care, and this inspired her to foster as an adult. It was after a divorce that she started fostering, and she has been single-parenting ever since. Today, she is the adoptive mother of three children and continues to foster many more.
You adopted your son when he was a teen. Did you always want to adopt and foster teens?
When I started, I was like ‘I want to care for babies.’ For a while, I only fostered babies. But one summer, my oldest daughter went away to a ballet camp. That’s when I took in my first teen.
After that, I thought, ‘You know what, teens are great! I don’t know why I was afraid.’ I’ve had a few teens over the years and honestly, the stuff that they bring to the table is just amazing. And they’re not any harder than your teenagers who are not in foster care.
Many people are interested in fostering but feel hesitant, like you did. What would you say to them?
There are so many people who can and should foster but who are probably afraid of the same things I was. They might be thinking, “ What are the child’s behaviors going to be like?” So, you know what, take a chance and do it.
You don’t have to commit to a lifetime of foster parenting. If you can help one child—for example, if you’re a schoolteacher and there’s a child in your classroom that you know is going to be placed in the system—take them in.
And if you do decide to move forward, what’s most important is just to attach. Get attached to these kids. Love them and let them love you. It’s okay to get attached; these kids need this.
And find supports. You have to find your people who can understand what you’re going through and are going through the same things. I’ve found that in support groups. The Massachusetts Alliance for Foster Families is a great support here in the state as well.
Just help one child and it’s a beautiful thing for your whole family. My kids have learned so much. I think if you have thought about it and if you have the heart for it, go for it.
Speaking of other kids in the home, how have you talked to them about fostering and adopting?
In the initial days of bringing new children into my home, I make sure everyone has their own space. It’s just like when you have biological kids, and you have a new baby in the house. Everyone has to figure it out. We do talk a lot about, you know, ‘this is what our family does. I became a foster parent to help as many kids as I could.’ And when my children have struggled with new people in the home, I’ve made sure they’re able to talk about it in therapy.
And when it comes to parenting children with trauma histories, what have you learned?
Just find out as much as you can about trauma and then meet each kid where they’re at. For every kid, you need to figure out what they need at that time. I looked as much as possible online for trauma-informed parenting information. I also went to a conference where I learned about TBRI, or Trust-Based Relational Intervention, and that was really helpful for me with going through scenarios and seeing what helps.
This is important because say that you have a child that comes to you, and you don’t know what their triggers are. When something happens, you might have no idea what the trigger was. I went to a conference once and they said a trigger could even be something like a smell that a child walks by. So, I love learning about trauma and how to help kids.
One strategy that I really lean on is play! Get kids moving. I’m fostering two young girls right now and could tell things were going a certain direction the other day while we were out. I got everyone skipping around and laughing. So, make everything fun, make it a game. When kids have been living in their trauma brain, you need to teach them how to be a kid. The Playmaker Project is a great way to learn about helping kids through trauma.
Did trauma-informed parenting come easy? Did you ever mess up?
My daughter is 14 now. She came into my care at 8 months old. You’d think, what does she remember from before that? But I actually triggered her one day by sending her to her room when she was fighting with a sibling.
I had made the mistake of not connecting with her first. I didn’t explain why she was being sent to her room. So, she felt I had given up on her, and it was really triggering for her. I learned from that. Now, we connect instead of correct. We talk about what happened and instead of punitive punishments, it’s about seeing how we can fix something so we don’t do it again.
You keep your kids connected to their birth families. Tell us about that.
I think it’s really important. You know, you need to know your people.
For example, my 10-year-old son’s father doesn’t live far away. We sometimes passed places where he used to go with his dad. When that happened, he’d ask, “When am I going to see my dad again?” So, I reached out to people who lived near where he worked to see if we could find him. Within an hour, he called me. We’ve been doing visits ever since. And now my son has that important connection with his father and his extended family. That relationship with his dad is something he really needs, so that’s wonderful.
Any final thoughts?
I think that everybody should foster or at least help kids in foster care. I’m recruiting all the time! The greatest joy is giving kids families.