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Respite Care: Being Open to Siblings and Teens

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

During the licensing process, you'll be asked about the age range you're willing to consider fostering (among other things, like gender and behavioral tendencies). In our case, we were licensed for the number of children that we technically would have enough beds for (even though that number exceeded the number we were comfortable keeping). As a young couple in our twenties, we thought we could only "handle" one infant. We told our licensing agency that we would be willing to foster either gender, with an age range "0-1."

sibling group

This is a little embarrassing and makes me laugh!


Most of our placements were sibling groups and they were certainly older than 0-1.

In a two-year time span, in an area without many respite families, we only received four calls for infants (and two of those calls were for the same child at two different times.) The biggest, most pressing, most consistent need was for sibling groups and teenagers. That's still the case.

Siblings groups and teenagers are the harder to place, both for respite care and longer-term foster care.

Infants are certainly still entering the foster care system. Prenatal drug and alcohol abuse is a major contributing factor and is often discovered when a mom checks in to the hospital to give birth (if not during prenatal care). However, an unfortunate reality is that it may be easier for the abuse or neglect of an infant to go unnoticed. Once a child hits school age, there are more eyes on them and concerned adults can notice when something may be going on - which is why the average age that a child enters foster care is actually 7 or 8.

While every county and state has different needs, the need for sibling groups and teenagers is a pretty consistent one. They are simply harder to "place." Why?

Here are my theories: Space constraints. Horror stories. Projecting our own teen years on every teen. And last but not least, the illusion that "infants don't have trauma." Let's break these down.

1: Space Constraints

Since many families don't have multiple guest bedrooms, space constraints can be a limiting factor. If you only have one extra bedroom, you may not have the physical space available to take a sibling group of three. Siblings may not be allowed to share a bedroom, depending on where you live, the age and gender of the siblings, and their circumstances.

An infant may be able to share a bedroom with their foster parent (in a separate crib), but that's obviously not an option for a teenager. Even if you have a bedroom available for a teen, teens are often part of sibling groups (which goes back to the issue above). While many children in foster care are separated from their siblings, it's obviously ideal if they can stay together in most circumstances.

2: Horror Stories

Infants may keep you up at night, but they can't curse at you or punch holes in the wall. You may, however, hear a story every now and then about a chaotic sibling group or a particularly challenging teenager. These stories may deter people from considering these groups; however, every child and scenario is different.

You wouldn't decide to forego marriage altogether just because one man across town didn't treat his wife with respect. The same principle applies here! You shouldn't discount every sibling group or every teenager because of the actions of a select few. If you're providing respite care, you should know about their behavioral tendencies and dynamics before you say "yes." If you don't know, or they surprise you, it's only short-term. Respite care is a defined period of time.

Let me counteract any horror stories you've heard with this: I could tell multiple stories of teens in foster care who helped their foster parents cook meals, were at the top of their classes academically, took care of their brothers and sisters well, and were a complete joy to be around. Don't close the door before you learn about their situations.


3: Projecting Our Own Teen Years onto Every Teen

If you could be friends with your teenage self, would you? I know I wouldn't! The teenage years are challenging, even coming from a healthy family background. Add in the trauma of being taken from your family of origin, and you've got a perfect storm for challenges. That thought alone presents red flags for people. They think, "maybe I'll stick with the little ones."

For many people who haven't parented a teenager yet, their only knowledge of teens is their personal experience as a teen. As a respite foster parent in my late twenties, I regret not being open to taking teens. I think I projected my own teenage experience (a season when I was NOT fun to be around) onto every teen and thought I simply wouldn't be prepared. It didn't help that I wasn't THAT far removed from the teen years myself. However, under the right circumstances, we could have (and should have) been open to keeping teens.

4: The Myth That "Infants Don't Have Trauma"

Infants do have trauma.

Let me say it louder for the people in the back: Infants DO have trauma.

Infants have physiological connections to their biological mothers that are disrupted when they enter foster care. Even if their biological mothers had uneventful pregnancies, the fact that they are separated from their birth mothers is a traumatic event.

Severe and / or chronic stress during pregnancy can lead to the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can cross the placenta and affect the developing baby's physiology. It can impact their emotional and behavioral functioning as children. Infants can also have long-term impacts from low birth weight and premature birth, both of which can result from severe stress on the mother.

Drugs consumed by the mother can also cause significant trauma for babies. Babies born in withdrawal may require pharmacological treatments to ease their discomfort and close monitoring in the NICU to gauge progress. They can experience irritability, feeding difficulties, vomiting and diarrhea, tremors, seizures, excessive crying, fever, sweating and temperature instability, poor weight gain, sleep disturbances and more.

The main idea is this: there are many scenarios where an infant, toddler or young child will display trauma symptoms. If you think you'll "avoid the impacts of trauma" by fostering little ones instead of teens, you may be in for a rude awakening.

Learn from my experience!

You can certainly make a difference by fostering infants, toddlers, young children and preteens. There's no doubt about it - and if you have the ability to do so, go for it! You are needed! However, if you have the mindset that you want to help where the need is the greatest and the gap is continuing to grow, tell the agency you're open to teenagers and / or sibling groups.

The sibling groups we kept in respite care all had incredibly strong bonds with each other. Even though our kiddos were little, I think they subconsciously understood that even though their biological parents weren't with them, and in some cases some of their other siblings weren't with them either, they still had each other and they didn't take that for granted. They played together and entertained each other (which was really nice for us)!

Don't be like us. Don't tell your agency that you're open to "one infant." You will miss out on some amazing sibling groups and teens that need help. Be open to the possibilities!

Emily | Respite Foster Mom


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