When Katrina Hanawalt was in sixth grade, her mom brought home a baby girl. There was no pregnancy, no joyful announcement heralding the new arrival. The baby was a foster child, the first of several foster siblings — mostly infants and toddlers and all short-term — who would cycle through Katrina’s childhood home. It was jarring at first, says Katrina. “But I got really into taking care of the kids and figuring out what their special needs were and understanding what was going on with them.”
She took to studying the foster care system, learning about child abuse and child welfare. She became a foster parent in college. Today, Katrina is a child and family therapist at Seattle’s Center for Human Services, where she coordinates the infant, early childhood and mental health programs. Her decade-long stint as a foster parent ended recently when she decided to adopt Kai and Milo, the two foster kids in her care.
Katrina is one of many foster parents in the state. Washington has about 5,100 licensed foster homes, though many are essentially defunct. A 2008 study by Partners for Our Children found that 17 percent of licensed foster homes did not have kids in them. (That percentage could have been inflated as it didn't account for foster homes that were licensed for a limited purpose.)
Unlike most foster parents, Katrina brought a wealth of experience and expertise to the task. But she learned with her first foster charge, a baby girl, that nothing really prepares you for the day-to-day responsibility of caring for a child. “Even though I felt like I knew everything about kids, I found myself asking, ‘How do I feed this kid? How do I give this baby a bath?’ It took me forever to actually pick her up.”
Those initial caregiver insecurities faded in time. Katrina learned that foster parenting is a complicated, emotionally-challenging job. You take in children who are not your own. They often come with baggage, and mostly without the joy and fuss that attends biological parenthood. There is no baby shower, no aunts and grandmas eager to babysit, no excited squeals from friends or boxes of hand-me-down baby clothes.
“You’re supposed to give everything but you’re not seen as a real parent,” says Katrina. She recalls the less-than-thrilled (“Oh”) reaction when she’d tell people she was getting a new foster child; or, when a child she thought she was expecting didn’t arrive, the palpable sense of relief from coworkers worried about the inconvenience to them. Would they act that way if I had had a miscarriage, Katrina had wondered to herself.
On the flip side, and equally disturbing, was the way people would lavish her with praise. “The whole saint thing,” Katrina calls it: “‘Oh, it’s amazing you’re a foster parent. You’re so selfless.’ It’s a lot of pressure, this kind of idealized parent. What do you do when you’re having a terrible day? When you’re put up on this pedestal, how are you supposed to reach out for help?”
Katrina appreciated the state support she received, which included training and visits from social workers. In a 2012 survey of foster parents conducted by the Department of Social and Health Services, 79 percent of respondents said they had gotten adequate support. The other 21 percent found the system's social workers were over-extended and its bureaucracy cumbersome and unresponsive.
There is no doubt that foster parents need all the help they can get. They are caring for kids who can come with serious emotional and psychological scars. Kids whose parents are unable to show love or to establish emotional intimacy can lack a core element of developmental growth. Many foster children have trouble socializing. Even some infants, says Katrina, would avoid her gaze or refuse to be hugged.
To compensate, she says, “I learned to behave as if this child is the most adorable child in the world, as if this kid is delightful and the center of my universe, because that’s what they need.” She is quick to add that it’s not possible to become attached, to fall in love with a child right away. It takes time to develop a genuine bond, especially if the kids act out. But to outwardly show them affection makes a difference.
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