When individuals or families choose to become foster parents, they do so to help children in their communities and to provide a safe place for them—they open their hearts and homes and become licensed with good intentions. So, when an allegation occurs, it can leave foster parents reeling. A system they worked within is now investigating them. Foster parents are left feeling a range of emotions from fear, disbelief, shame, and bewilderment—all of which are common feelings when faced with dealing with an allegation.
Veteran foster parents often say that it is not if you will face an allegation, it is when. Foster parents are told of the possibility that they may face an allegation during training or during the licensing process, though that is certainly not the same as going through such an experience. Allegations can vary from a misinterpreted trigger from a child with a trauma history to a licensing violation. Regardless of the particulars and details, the experience of facing an allegation can be both painful and scary. Being prepared and knowing where to turn for support can help make the process a bit less stressful.
We spoke with Sherry Benson and Tina Christopherson from the Wisconsin Foster and Adoptive Parent Association (WFAPA) and asked them to share with us the tools foster parents need in order to survive an allegation. Following are some of the suggestions they offered to help protect yourself, as well as the children you provide care for:
- Document, document, document! Keeping track of phone calls and conversations with workers and other providers can help. Document behaviors observed and information disclosed to you by a child in your care—anything that may leave you feeling uncertain or wary—better to have it and not need it. It can help provide information during an allegation.
- Seek out help and support. One of the most important things, say Sherry and Tina, is, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help. The more knowledge you have the better; knowledge is power.”
WFAPA has a program to help foster families who may be going through an investigation of an allegation. The Foster & Adoptive Support & Preservation Program (FASPP), is a volunteer peer network that was developed to help support adoptive and foster parents who are experiencing investigations of allegations and provides a supportive and safe place for parents to talk about what they are going through. Sherry and Tina both recommend that foster parents talk to someone, ask questions, and ask for help, whether from a confidant, a support group, or therapist.
- Take care of yourself. “Try to keep your life as normal as possible and make sure you take care of yourself,” advise both Sherry and Tina. “Make self-care a priority and don’t make any big life decisions during this time.”
Part of taking care of yourself means making sure that you are meeting your basic needs: sleeping, eating, exercising. Talking to a therapist might be beneficial during this situation or seeking legal counsel from an attorney; every person and every situation is different. Ensuring you are taking care of yourself can help you better deal with this stressful situation with a clear head.
- After an allegation and investigation has occurred, it helps to debrief. Learn from the experience: What could I have done differently? What might I do differently from here on out? How can I better take care of myself? How can I prevent something like this from happening again? How can I better protect myself and my family? Learning your personal limits, and knowing that it is OK to say “No” when you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed, can prevent a situation from reoccurring. “After-care is very important,” Sherry and Tina agreed. “There is hope.”
Sherry and Tina shared that the experience of dealing with an allegation is similar to going through the stages of grief and loss; it is a process that can impact relationships with your worker, agency, a child, and other providers. Even when a situation is resolved, many people are left feeling as though their reputation is tarnished and they second guess themselves. It is important to remember that this is a temporary situation. It is a frightening experience, but there is hope and help.
Becoming a foster parent exposes oneself to a certain amount of risk, though it is a worthwhile risk helping to keep our children safe. Please see our additional resources for more information and support. And, remember, you can always call the Coalition for help—we are here for you!
Thank you to Sherry Benson and Tina Christopherson from WFAPA for contributing to this article.