As foster parents we are often stuck in awkward moments with our friends and family when we get a new placement. In fact, it’s awkward and weird for us, too, sometimes. While it is difficult sometimes when we get awkward or inappropriate questions, it’s ten times worse when the kids get them.
Below are several of the questions people ask foster kids that they probably shouldn’t. Not because they don’t mean well, but mostly because the kids often don’t know how to answer, don’t want to answer, or it is too painful to answer. Other times the child is way too ready to answer and the poor adult is simply unprepared for what they are about to hear. The next time one of the foster families in your tribe has a new placement, think twice before you ask them the following questions. I’ll also give you some alternatives if there are any.
1. Where are you from?
They are from everywhere, and nowhere. Unlike you and I, their answer is likely not a simple one. If you ask me this question, it’s easy. It reminds me of fireflies, Christmas gatherings, Sunday mornings, hugs, and all the things I loved about my childhood.
For children in foster care, this question reminds them of being ripped from everything they knew. Even if it wasn’t a good situation, it was still home. I brings up memories of moving from place to place to live with this family then that family. It may remind them of moving from house to house to avoid investigation or eviction (though they wont call it that or maybe not even know why they lived in five different places in 3 years). Thinking about where they are from can bring up some pretty rough memories.
There really isn’t one. This information isn’t relevant to where they are now. In fact, they may not even know depending on age. Just leave this one unspoken. they will tell you when and if they are ready. Also, if there is a reason for you to know, the foster parents will clue you in.
2. What school did you go to?
Similar to the first question, this one can have many answers. Most foster children who have been in care for any length of time, and even sometimes when they are new, have been to many schools and few of them for very long. Our son was in four high schools by the time he was 15. We realized that first year he had never been in a yearbook before. He’d never been around long enough to get his picture made. Thinking about where he had gone to school was a stark reminder of how tough life really was. See alternative for #1.
3. Tell me about your summer? or Are you having a good summer? or Did you have a good Christmas?
When people are around foster families, they learn to expect new faces from time to time, it’s normal. In good faith, and with good intention, they often try to make the kids feel welcome with small talk. For teachers, the return from summer break is always a good time to get kids to plug back into learning with a “What I did this summer” essay. For a child new to foster care, that can be a loaded question.
It is possible all they did was search for food, put themselves to bed, or hide in the closet from an abuser. It’s possible they slept in dirty clothes or stayed alone for days on end. It’s possible they had a really terrible summer and are glad to be in school because it means they get to eat.
Focus on the here and now with questions like, “What are you looking forward to this school year?” Even then, be prepared for answers you might not expect.
4. Tell me about a time you were afraiD?
I have seen this as a writing prompt in the classroom and on a standardized test. Any child who has suffered trauma, and especially foster children, often have no short supply of fearful moments. Dredging them up for a half page essay isn’t all that helpful, to be honest. In fact, you yourself may not be ready to hear about some of their most fearful times. This hit home to me one time when we were working through a writing assignment and what I heard was, “the night we went to CPS.” I didn’t probe any further, but let them disclose and talk about it at their pace.
They have seen and experienced things you and I can barely imagine. When I was a boy my biggest fear wasn’t even bullies, it was really serious stuff like would we run out of snack cakes before Friday. Fear for these children is at an entirely different level.
It may sound cliche, but focusing on positive things is always good. Things like, “What is your favorite candy?” or “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Focusing on the future allows them to create a new path, a new existence free of pain and fear. This is the life we want them to see is possible.
5. What brings you here?
You wouldn’t think this one needs mentioning, but it does, but only because I’ve heard it. When you have foster families in your circle, be aware that the new faces you see at church, at school, or at the corner store could be a new placement instead of just a friend spending the day. Investigate a little first before asking this one. The truth is, they are here because their life is upside down and in shambles. They can’t trust anyone and go to sleep at night wondering if tomorrow they will go to a new place … again. What brings them here is tragedy. Deep, dark tragedy. Tread lightly.
There isn’t one. Just assume they are likely a new placement and treat them like they’ve always been there. Asking “What is your name?”, “How old are you?” and the like are great ways to engage without getting into the nitty gritty.
While these questions are often tough to navigate for the youngsters, there are also some things that you probably shouldn’t ask the foster parents, either, especially in front of the child. Here are a few:
6. Is this a new one? or Is he/she a foster?
Why, yes, it is a new one. Anytime a known foster family shows up to church, school, or the Wal-Mart with a different kid, there is a decent chance they’ve had a late night placement since you’ve seen them last. The safest thing to do is simply assume they are a foster child and proceed accordingly.
None. Just assume it to be so and move on.
7. Was their situation bad?
Can I be terribly transparent here? I’ve never understood this question. The child is in foster care, which almost certainly means something terrible has happened and yes, their situation was more than bad, it was likely completely awful.
Furthermore, it is actually part of the training for us to not disclose too much information for a host of reasons, not the least of which is it isn’t any of anyone’s business “how bad it was.” My immediate reaction is “Why would you want/need to know that?” However, I also know that sometimes people genuinely care and are broken up about it and think knowing more will somehow make them better suited to engage with the child. That may or may not be true. If it is, the foster parents will let you know what you need, if they even know themselves. Sometimes they don’t.
Also, remember, it’s their story, not yours, not ours, it’s theirs and it is theirs to tell. The older they get, the more sensitive it can become. A preteen or teenager probably doesn’t want everyone to know they may, or may not, have been sexually, physically, or emotionally abused, starved, or severely neglected. They want to be like everyone else. This is a case where most of the time, the less you know, the better.
Don’t ask. The family will tell you what you need to know. If the child opens up to you, that’s their business, but it isn’t something one should ask. Ever.
We know it is hard to know what to say to a new placement, it is for us, too. I encourage you to be loving, positive, and welcoming. They will tell you what they need you to know when they are ready. Or they won't, and that's OK, too. Be patient, I promise it is harder on them than us.