One common question I hear is whether people who work full time can be foster parents. The short answer is emphatically “yes.” You don't even need flexible schedules or part-time work in order to foster full time. Those accommodations can be helpful, but they aren't essential. I have spent my entire foster care journey balancing a full-time career as a lawyer. I have learned that what is essential is having a vigorous support network. If you build or find your community, juggling all of your work and foster family responsibilities will be much easier. Below are some techniques I have used and learned about from foster parents about that juggling act.
• The start of the placement is the best time to set boundaries. If you aren’t a good fit for the child, say so before they enter your home. If you need help with anything, such as transportation, set that expectation from the start.
• Consider the number of children, ages of the children and placement length that works best for your schedule. Foster agencies always need placements for sibling sets, but not every foster family can handle multiple children. Some foster parents can take their children to their offices, so babies (who nap a lot) can be a good fit. Other foster parents need school age kids because that schedule meshes best. Similarly, short-term placements or respite fostering works best for other foster carers. Because my job was so demanding, I never could foster special needs or pre-school children. Think through your resources and work schedule and decide how you can best meet the needs of the children that may be placed with you.
• Take some time off work at the start of the placement. You and your children will need some time to get to know each other, and you will need time to deal with all the details of schools, doctors, and caseworker expectations.
• The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) covers new foster placements and can help immensely with the initial round of settling in and orientation meetings.
• Let your employer know that you are fostering, either for the first time or once again. You may be surprised how much support you will get for this journey. Your employer can become an essential part of your support network.
• New foster parents often are surprised at how much it takes for all of the various visits we have to do with our kids. If we already have kids, we know about being the chauffeur for school and extracurricular activities. With foster kids, there’s a whole new layer of therapy appointments, doctors’ evaluations, agency home visits, and court dates. Get as clear a picture as you can from your caseworker and plan which visits you can cover and which the caseworker needs to handle. Know how your employer can accommodate these visits.
•If the goal is family reunification, know your responsibilities. Are you providing just transportation or also supervision of visits with a biological parent? Map out a clear plan with your caseworker — in writing — where you fit in the picture. Then discuss with your employer how those responsibilities will impact your work schedule.
Pick Your Foster Care Agency Carefully
• Consider signing up with a private social services agency. They often can offer more support than the government foster care system can provide. They may also have additional requirements, but the benefits often outweigh the annoyances of the additional approval process.
• Some private agencies offer more support than others. Ask about transportation, respite care, school visits, money for extracurricular activities, and support groups. These items can be helpful, or even essential, for you to handle all of your responsibilities.
• If you have a job that allows you to work from home, that flexibility can be a huge asset. It is important, however, to set boundaries with your supervisor. Don’t let “remotely available” turn into “always available.”
• At the same time, communicate clearly to your kids that your being home doesn’t mean that they can interrupt at will. Set clear guidelines and use visual signals (such as door signs) if your kids need it. A fostered child may have more needs than biological children, but they also need to learn to respect boundaries and the fact that you work for a living.
• Have a back-up plan for transportation if you get caught in a work emergency. Know whether your agency requires your back-up chauffeurs to have criminal history clearances, or whether your state’s reasonable and prudent parenting standard allows you to exercise your own judgment.
• Explore whether you can carpool with other foster families in the area. They will already have passed whatever background checks the state requires, making it much easier to set up joint transportation.
• If all else fails, depend on your caseworker. They can’t provide transportation for every child to every meeting, but filling in the gaps is part of their job.
• Try to ensure that your agency sets up medical and mental health services for your child. In the rush of a new placement, those details can get lost. Keep reminding your agency until they get those services in place.
• Some state-provided services are, to be charitable, less than optimal. Check whether your work insurance will cover foster children or kinship care.
• Look for providers who offer evening and weekend hours, especially for regularly recurring appointments. Not having to take off work for every therapy session can reduce a lot of work stress.
Childcare/After School Programs
• Check out daycare centers and after school programs with extended hours. If you are caught in a work emergency or stuck in traffic jam, will the program stay open long enough for you to get there? You may not need late hours on a regular basis, but know your options for unexpected situations.
• Have a network of people who can pick up your child when you have unexpected work problems. Know whether the agency has to vet them or whether you can use your own judgment. You will need a Plan B, and probably a Plan C and a Plan D, sooner than you think.
Sick Days/School Suspensions
• Know your work options when your child is sick, is home for school holidays, or has been suspended from school. Foster kids often suffer from a lot of trauma that makes it difficult for them to meet school expectations for behavior. Plan ahead for what you will do if the school decides to suspend your child.
• Again, you may need to lean on your support network to help you through these hurdles. Plan ahead and know what options your agency’s rules allow you. Can you rely on family members or a close friend? Does your agency have resource families who can pinch-hit? Try to get answers to these questions before you face the crisis
• Where your budget allows, offload some of your more time-consuming tasks. A cleaning service or lawn care service may be well worth the cost if it gives you more time to spend on other matters.
• Leverage technology. Use grocery pickup, for example, or delivery services. I can’t remember the last time I bought clothes at a brick & mortar store; online catalogs work much better for my schedule.
Time for Yourself
• Build in some escape time for yourself. Whether you use respite care to give yourself a free weekend or just find a babysitter for a date night, you need to relax away from both kids and work.
• Build in time to spend with other adults. If you are part of a foster couple, you need time to pay attention to your spouse and your marriage. If you’re single, you need time to connect with other adults, whether friendships or romantic relationships. Don’t overlook your need to recharge your batteries.
Fostering while handling a full-time job can be challenging, but it is entirely possible. Don't let your need to work be the only thing that prevents you from improving the life of a child. There are ways to meet all of your responsibilities.
If you have juggled foster and work responsibilities, put your tips in the comments or email me and I'll include them in a future blog post.