The most exhausting, complicated, heart-wrenching, maddening, wonderful parenting job.
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.
“The whole formation of self is developed by someone else looking you,” says Katrina, the therapist. “There’s something that happens when a mother or father gazes into their baby's eyes adoringly. It triggers parts of the brain to develop. When a baby has not had that, the baby’s brain is not developing the way it should.”
Another technique Katrina uses with her new foster children is slowing things way down. Foster children come from such chaos, she says, that things need to be dialed down a notch. She will block out her schedule for a while and plop down on the floor with the child. She won’t leave the house. She won’t turn the television on. She creates a quiet, peaceful space, a respite.
One of the hardest parts of foster parenting is the temporary nature of the job. Foster parents can try their best to make a child’s stay comfortable, comforting. They might even try to heal some scars. But once the child leaves, after a few weeks or months, there’s no telling — and no control over — what happens to them.
“I’ll have a child in my care for six months and they’ll be gone,” says Katrina. “For me, there’ll be this period of grieving, and we don’t have a model in this society to really make sense of what that means.”
Creating a safe, quiet place for Kai, and all her foster kids. Credit: Allyce Andrew
When she was a kid, Katrina used to help her mother make photo albums that they’d send along with the foster kids they cared for when the kids moved on. The albums were meant to give the youngsters some record of that brief time in their lives — and maybe give the family some sense of closure. But the separation was always hard.
“It’s not like death,” says Katrina. “The child is gone, it’s usually an abrupt cutoff and you don’t know if they’re safe. They’re off in the world somewhere, and you don’t know necessarily how they turned out.”
When Katrina first started out as a foster parent, she worried, “Am I gonna forget this kid?” But she has learned that the relationship doesn’t have to end when the child leaves. Foster parents can keep in touch with children that have been in their care and Katrina, speaking as a therapist, says that kids only stand to benefit from having more strong relationships in their lives.
Foster parents can also take the next step and become adoptive parents — like Katrina is about to do. She is in the process of adopting Kai and Milo and she looks forward to watching them grow up. “I’m sick of diapers and carrying kids around,” she says. “I’d like to read books and go places. I want to opportunity to parent kids, and to see the payoff.”
Kids at Risk coverage is made possible by a grant from Ballmer Family Giving. Go here for more on Kids at Risk.