© Lisa Shara; Published at North State Parent
Senta Burton is passionate about advocating for families. She stands for children, but also for parents – both birth parents and foster parents. A mother of six, Senta’s four younger children are adopted, initially joining her family as foster children.
As parent educator at Counseling Solutions in Butte County, Senta works with birth parents whose children have been removed from their care. She teaches a 16-week “Nurturing Parenting” class the parents are required to attend. She also works with the county’s Supporting Our Families’ Transition (SOFT) program, which offers parents support and access to resources, assisting them as their cases conclude and their children are about to return home. The program’s goal is to help parents create a stable home in an effort to prevent the possibility of having their children reenter foster care again in the future.
Senta additionally teaches a variety of parenting classes for the Butte Foster Kinship Care Education program, including Foster Parent Preservice; Nurtured Heart Approach; Nurturing Parenting; Parenting the Special Needs Child; and Understanding the Alcohol and Drug-Exposed Child. Everyone is welcome to attend Butte Foster Kinship’s free classes and workshops: parents, non-parents, people thinking about becoming a foster parent, parents whose children are currently in foster care, teachers, social workers and other community members.
What inspired Senta to become so deeply involved with families? She first became a foster parent in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 20 years ago. In her first year, dozens of children came and left her home. “It broke my heart to see the fear and confusion on their faces as they were moved from one strange home to another,” she says. “It became clear that moving children from home to home – which often happens in foster care – was taking a toll on them, often making them feel they weren’t loved or wanted.”
Watching this loss of innocence happen before her eyes prompted Senta to take stronger action. “Although I was a single parent of a 6-year-old and 9-year-old at the time, I decided that any child placed in my care that was not returning to his or her home would become a permanent part of our family.” That decision led to the adoption of two of her children 16 years ago.
Part of parenting is knowing what’s best for your family. For Senta, “In order to help my new family blend and heal, I didn’t foster for ten years after adopting,” she says. “I began fostering again in Chico – and subsequently adopted our two younger children.”
Many people have entertained the idea of foster parenting at some point. For some, it’s in crossing paths with someone who is fostering that we begin considering the option. For others, perceptions about foster parenting come from the media, and let’s face it, those often-negative stories can make anyone question the wisdom of becoming a foster parent.
“The media tends to focus on the worst-case scenarios,” says Senta, “but I can tell you that in my 20-year experience, the percent of success stories far outweighs the few that warrant media coverage. I often joke that the bad stories become TV specials – not because they happen so often, but because they happen so rarely, and even those are sensationalized.”
What about the fear? “Given the negative publicity foster care receives, I think it’s normal that families considering fostering are concerned,” says Senta. “It’s natural to be fearful of the unknown, and that’s why I encourage parents to attend preservice classes or call an agency to get more information prior to deciding. Most parents who attend the trainings find that there is a lot of information and support to help them in the process. Once families attend and are given factual information, only a very small percent decide that fostering is not for them. And that’s okay. My main hope is that families make an informed decision.”
What follows is a conversation with Senta addressing some of the most common fears about becoming a foster parent. I hope her insight is as inspiring for you as it’s been for me.
Fear: Foster children are damaged; I won’t be prepared to handle what comes up.
Children who are hurting and in need of love sometimes ask for it in hurtful ways. These children are suffering the most significant loss of their life – that of their parent and/or attachment figure. They are grieving, and as we know, one stage of grief is anger. But there’s also a sadness and a “surrender” that takes a toll on a child; the constant movements through foster care and the uncertainty that doesn’t allow a child to feel safe. Without feeling safe, they can’t begin to heal. Ironically, that is exactly what is needed of foster homes- simply, a place to heal.
We have to remember that these children and their families are having a difficult time in their lives. I have seen many examples of foster parents becoming mentors to their foster children’s parents and surrogate family members to the children, long after they’ve been reunited. In those cases, everyone wins. The parents and children heal, and their support network expands. The foster families, who have come to care immensely for the children, don’t have to lose contact with them. More importantly, the children don’t have to face another loss.
Fear: I’ll have to interact with the birth parent(s) and am uncomfortable about that.
Interactions with a birth family are done through a social worker and certainly not until the family has been determined to be safe and appropriate. I have found that meeting and working with the birth family not only alleviates some of the stigma foster families have, but also helps the children adjust and not feel guilty about the relationship they are developing with the foster family. It also helps the birthparents feel they are still a part of their children’s lives. We have to remember, they’re grieving also.
Fear: In our rural environment there will be unexpected confrontations with the birth parents or others connected with the child.
In my 20 years of fostering I have never had a parent disrespect the boundaries of my home or my family if we happened to meet in public. It can happen, but again, it’s the exception, not the rule. Parents of foster children are too often labeled as horrible people who don’t love their children. I have never found that to be the case. After working with thousands of parents, I no longer question the fact that the parents love their children and have provided for them to the best of their abilities, given the limitations of their lives. They want better for their children, and while they are doing the work of getting them back home, they do not want to do anything to jeopardize the placement.
Fear: Foster children have likely been exposed to drugs or alcohol in utero.
There is the possibility of drug and alcohol exposure. That’s not something to fear, but instead it’s best to get trained. For instance, the Options for Recovery program of Butte and Glenn Counties specializes in working with this population of children and offers specific training. They have a nurse on staff who is trained in substance exposure to offer additional support. With training, foster families can be instrumental in the healing of substance-exposed children.
Fear: Foster children have developmental issues.
Some children do have developmental issues that need to be addressed. Many of the children I’ve cared for have had speech, academic and emotional delays. With support and stability, they can and do catch up.
Fear: I’ll be putting my own children at risk.
This was a big one for me. When I first started fostering, I was hypervigilant about what my children were exposed to. However, as a family we were gifted with something that far outweighed any negative experiences: the fact that I have the most loving, non-judgmental and caring children who have a heart for people who have had different experiences than themselves. That came from fostering, which taught us unconditional acceptance of others.
Fear: The child placed with me may not be capable of forming an attachment.
This is one of the concerns I have for children who have had multiple placements – they learn NOT to trust and attach. When you think about it, that’s actually smart. It’s a survival skill, a way children protect themselves from further hurt. Again, with time, nurturing, and a consistent supportive environment, children can and do heal. In fact, most of the current research states exactly that.
Over the years, researchers have learned that most of what we thought about early attachment was false, and in many cases, our knowledge has not caught up to current science. Dr. Dan Siegel has done a lot of research in this area. He’s written several books and offers YouTube videos on the topic. Butte Foster Kinship offers excellent trainings based on his work.
Fear: Older children in need of foster care will present too much to handle.
Older children in care can be more challenging, but again, we have to be careful assuming that they all are. Older children, like all children, want a place to heal and feel safe; the difference is they’ve lived with more hurt and disappointments and therefore aren’t as quick to trust.
Fear: I’ll get in over my head and won’t have the know-how or support to handle what comes up.
All foster family agencies have social workers assigned to work with each family whenever there are concerns. There are also training and support groups throughout the North State to assist.
Prospective foster parents can find an agency that is the right fit for their family. Foster parents must be age 25 or older and complete CPR training, first aid training, a home inspection, a criminal background check, and foster parent training. Prospective parents can take in one child or multiple children, and financial assistance is offered to help with the child’s basic needs.
Children need homes that understand and support them without judgement. The foster parents supporting them have diverse qualifications and come from all walks of life. They include both working and single parents and come from all ethnic backgrounds.
Lastly, fostering is not solely about the process of “placement to adoption.” Many birth parents are succeeding in becoming responsible, caring and effective parents to their children, and fostering can be precisely what is needed to promote that outcome. “I want people to know that birth parents aren’t scary people. They are in a tough spot for a number of reasons. Given time and support, they can and do learn from their mistakes and become better parents,” says Senta.
“Fostering takes someone who is willing to provide a temporary, safe and nurturing home for a child in need, who is willing to get training to learn how to best support that child,” says Senta. In that, fostering may be one of the greatest gifts we can offer, whatever the scenario and outcome.