A foster mom at 22

This summer I came across a blog post that immediately caught my eye. It was about a 22 year old woman named Allison and her fiance who had just become foster parents to a little girl. I think it takes extraordinary generosity and bravery for two people as young as Allison and her fiance to open their home to a child in need. As it turns out, Allison (pictured below) and I have some friends in common and she agreed to chat with me about her experience so far.

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Caitlin: So, you’re 22 and you’re a foster mother. That’s pretty unusual! What inspired you and your fiance to even be interested in being foster parents?

Allison: We had heard an advertisement for it on the radio when the House of the Good Shepherd was recruiting foster parents about a year ago. They had an orientation coming up, so we talked about it, and since we both love children it seemed like a great fit.

I particularly have a connection to children because I taught dance for years. Also, there’s ten years between my younger brother and I so I’ve really been exposed to children a lot and I love working with them. This seemed like a great way to help a child who was in a less fortunate situation.

So about a year ago we went through the training. This involved a 12 week course that included home studies, inspections, and background checks. Our initial goal was just to provide respite care, as needed. Respite care is temporary care for children who are in the foster care system when their foster family needs a short break, for whatever reason.

Since we became certified, we have cared for four children in respite care between the ages of 9 and 13. About four months ago, we had Sweet Pea* for respite care over a weekend and really enjoyed her company! She’s a young, outgoing girl, so you can imagine the fun and entertainment she provides. When we were told that she needed a new foster placement the following week, we decided to take her in full time.

Caitlin: So, how much time is there between finding out she needs a home, and her moving in with you?

Allison: We had a little less than a week. In this particular situation, we had great contact with her family which made things a lot easier. Typically, the agency is the middleman between the foster family and biological family. But, in our circumstance, we were fortunate to begin to build a relationship with her family to make sure that we were well enough prepared for the transition. I mean, as prepared as you can be.

Caitlin: What do you hear from people when they hear you’re 22 and a foster parent?

Allison: You know what I found, actually? When I’m out by myself with Sweet Pea, I understand what a young, single mom feels like. It was really hard to get over the way I felt people were judging me. I think people see me with Sweet Pea and make assumptions. When they find out I’m a foster parent, they’re attitude changes and they are very supportive of it. That’s great, but I think it should make people think twice before they judge someone.

Caitlin: This is probably such a broad question, but how did your life change?

Allison: It’s really difficult to prepare yourself for that transition. As much as I was around children growing up, there’s nothing that gives that preparation for taking on a child full time and, of course, there’s no manual that come along with parenting. So, you take a lot of trial and error.

But, I would say the biggest adjustment was time management. I work full time as Manager of Business Development for Washington Street Properties, I own a dance wear store, I own a photo booth business, I had just stopped teaching dance for the summer. I also won the title of Miss Thousand Islands a few weeks after she came into my care. And, of course, I’m engaged so I had that relationship along with family life and friends that I had to juggle with her and her schedule – day care, swimming, dance, gymnastics, etc.

I knew it would be difficult for her to be taken from everything she’s known so I thought distractions like dance and gymnastics would be a good way to help her adjust. To learn that change can be a good thing.

We got her on a Sunday so I took Monday off because I didn’t think it was fair to her to be sent right to daycare. I also was fortunate to have my Mom watch her the rest of the week to help with the adjustment. My parents are really supportive and are just as attached to Sweet Pea as I am. She’s just a doll. So, that week was just us getting to know her and getting used to a new schedule.

And, of course, with any child, you have to handle behavioral issues – especially with a child who’s been through several different homes. It’s mostly testing to see what the boundaries are. Sweet Pea didn’t have many boundaries in any of the homes she’s been in, so it was difficult for her to adjust to a schedule, stability, and consequences for actions. So that was difficult for her and for us to figure out.

Caitlin: So, you guys have done some really fun stuff. You took Sweet Pea to Disney World. What a dream!

Allison: Yes, before I took Sweet Pea in I was already planning to go on this trip so when she came along, it was perfect timing. I was so excited to be able to give her the opportunity to experience something so magical. She didn’t know where we were going until we got there. She said she had heard of Disney and had seen commercials for it on TV, but she didn’t know what to expect at all. She saw the castle and all the rides and was just amazed by it. My little brother also joined us for the trip. The best part about it for me was just seeing her reaction and watching her take in the whole experience.

Caitlin: Oh my gosh, that’s so cool. What’s been the most rewarding part of the experience for you so far?

Allison: Just having her in my life is an amazing experience that I feel very blessed to have had, but I am particularly happy to be involved with all of the progress I’ve seen her make. When she came into our care she wasn’t used to having any structure or stability so that’s something we’ve been working on. She’s come a long way and it’s so rewarding to assist in creating a better life for her.

Caitlin: Do you know what the future holds? Can there be a day that comes and she’s gone? Or could she be adopted at some point?

Allison: It’s difficult to say. Generally, across the board for foster care, it’s something that’s scary to think about. Things can change at any minute and you really don’t have any control over that. You can make suggestions, but you really have no way to sway things one way or another.

With Sweet Pea, it’s difficult to see what the future holds. I can say that if the opportunity for adoption was made available to me, I wouldn’t hesitate to move forward with it. But if it doesn’t, she will always remain an integral part of my life in some capacity. It’s very important for me to build a relationship with her family so that I will have the ability to stay involved.

Caitlin: How do you guard your heart in all of this? I mean, do you?

Allison: It’s something that’s been discussed a lot between my fiance and I. For me, it is natural to treat her as if she were my own, whereas he feels that she should be treated differently. I can’t replace her mom and I would never try to, but at the same time, she’s very young and needs the nurturing and care that a mom would provide. Because of that, I’ve tried to build a strong relationship with her to be sure she’s developing in a way that’s appropriate.

As a foster parent, you work hand in hand with a therapist and case workers who provide advice that is crucial in a situation like this. They’ve encouraged me to build that relationship so she has someone who is safe for her. Someone who is going to provide the safety and structure that she needs.

So as we’ve bonded and built up our relationship, I’ve realized that it’s impossible to guard your heart against the things that could happen. It’s important to take things one day at a time and trust that everything happens for a reason. It’s just my hope that by keeping a great relationship with her family, if she goes back to them, they’ll allow me to still be in her life.

Caitlin: I think being a foster parent is such a noble cause. When I think about whether or not I could be a foster parent, those are the things I think about. I mean, your heart might be broken at some point in the process. What advice would you give someone who was thinking about being a foster parent?

Allison: There are a lot of ways to be involved besides being a full time foster parent. For example, there are Court Appointment Special Advocates (CASA workers). In this position, you volunteer to be assigned to a child and become the eyes and ears of the case. You go to home visits and court cases and  try to access the situations in each case as best you can and then report to the judge. They attempt to be an unbiased source who is working on behalf of the child.

Also, when we first started, we just did respite care. This helps to ease concerns about attachment because you only have the child for a few days. However, if you really enjoy working with a certain child, you might be given the opportunity to have the same child for respite care multiple times.

There are also volunteers for transportation for children in foster care. Volunteer Transport Services in Watertown is very helpful when transportation becomes difficult.

But, if someone decides they want to be a full time foster parent, I think they need to realize your job is to do what’s best for the child, although that might not always feel like what’s best for you. You tend to see one side of the case, but there’s two sides to every story.

You still might end up with a broken heart at the end of the day if things don’t go the way you hoped, but you have to understand that there’s a reason for the choices that are made and everyone has the child’s best interest at heart.

Caitlin: How does having a young child in your home impact your relationship as you plan to get married? I guess you really get to see what kind of parent your partner will be.

Allison: Yeah, we have had different opinions on what a “mom” is versus a “foster mom” and a “dad” versus a “foster dad.” My fiance has been much more guarded with his relationship with Sweet Pea to try to protect his heart. So if the day comes that she has to move on, he wants to make sure he’s not attached to the point where it’s too difficult to let go.

Caitlin: He must be worried about your heart, too.

Allison: Yeah. I’m her primary caregiver so I spend a lot more time with her. I think that’s definitely a concern of both of ours. I’ve built up such a strong relationship with her that will not easily be broken.

You certainly do learn things about how someone interacts with children. Our approach is unconventional but is an eye opener before marriage.

Thank you so much Allison for taking the time to chat, and most of all, for your generous heart. You’re an inspiration to all of us to consider what more we can do in our own lives to help others. Best wishes to your family!

Image courtesy Allison

*named changed for privacy