Experienced foster and adoptive parents will tell you that one key to a successful placement is having the information you need to first decide if a child is a good fit for your family and, if so, make the experience a positive one for you and the child.
We asked our Facebook community and social workers who train and support foster parents what questions you should ask when bringing a child into your family.
The first thing we learned is that the answer to that question depends greatly on whether a child has just come into care or is changing placements.
Questions to ask when a child has just come into care for the first time
It’s 7 p.m. and you get the call from your caseworker: “We’ve just removed two children from a home following a police call. Can you take them?”
Put yourself in the worker’s shoes for a moment. This is not a family who had ever come into contact with child protective services. The parents are not in a position to share a lot of details about the children. You may have a lot of questions, but the worker is not going to have answers to many of them for at least 24 or 48 hours. Below are a few questions you might ask.
What are the ages and sex of the child or children?
This information will enable you to first determine if they’re a fit for your family and then start to plan a sleeping situation.
Why are they coming into care?
While you may not know much about a child in that first day or two, knowing why they came into care can help you understand things they might say or do.
For this reason, and for the safety of other children in the home, the workers we spoke with said that it is their practice to inform foster parents if the child may have experienced sexual abuse. If your worker does not bring this up, you should feel comfortable asking about it.
Are there siblings who are also entering care?
While workers won’t have details at this point, knowing if the children have siblings will give you an idea about possible visitation schedules down the road.
Will they be changing school districts if they are placed with me?
This will give you a sense of the immediate time commitment, because it can sometimes take a day or two to get children enrolled in a new school.
What is your cell phone number—and what is your supervisor’s?
Last, but definitely not least in importance!
Questions to ask when this is not a child’s first placement
If a child is re-entering care or being moved from a previous placement, there are myriad questions you can ask their worker. Here are a few that workers and other families recommend.
What is their understanding of the reason they are in foster care?
One mother said: “I wish I would have asked if our now son knew everything that was in his history file that we received. He was turning 17, and I naturally assumed he knew what his files contained.”
Do they have allergies—including to animals?
Several families emphasized the importance of this question, for obvious reasons! In addition to allergy issues, parents and workers emphasize the importance of asking if a child is comfortable and good with animals.
What are their favorite foods—likes and dislikes? Are they vegetarian?
Making a child’s favorite meal can help ease their transition into a new home.
What are their upcoming and routine appointments? What is their visitation schedule with birth family members—and where do they live?
One mother told us that she makes her limitations clear from the start in conversations with children’s workers: “Know that I work full-time and will not be able to transport during the day. If that’s needed I’m not the right placement or you will have to arrange it.”
Are they a runaway risk?
Knowing this will, of course, let families know that they need to take extra precautions such as keeping a tighter watch on the child. It may also affect what you need to tell the school.
When is their birthday? How have they celebrated it—and other holidays—in the past?
Honoring a child’s traditions can help bring a sense of normalcy to a tumultuous time.
What are their medical needs?
Be sure to get their medical insurance information and possibly a Medicaid coverage letter. Also, find out as much as you can about their medical needs to be sure that you can handle them.
But as Laura Wilson, a foster care treatment coordinator, told us: “I find that most families can handle more than they think they can! They see the need, and they stretch to make it work.”
The question you can never ask
How long is the child going to be with us?
Workers get this question a lot. And the reality is that they have no idea. Unless their parent’s rights have been terminated, everyone is working toward reunification—a process that has milestones but not a firm deadline.
So…with so many unknowns, how can you prepare?
Expect to be busy for the first couple of weeks. There may be medical appointments, school visits, and other obligations.
Karla Adams, who works with foster parents in Missouri, recommends: “You may have a kiddo who can’t sleep. I tell foster parents to try to have good kids movies on hand for each age group—cartoon on up. If a child can’t sleep, try putting a movie in and sitting on the couch with them.”
These are just a few suggestions of things to think about when considering a placement. Your agency will likely have a checklist that you can use to collect these and many more details. If not, the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association has this comprehensive pre-placement questionnaire posted on their website.
Read more about foster parenting on our website.