Congratulations, you’ve made it through the licensing process! Now the real challenge begins. On the one hand, you hope the phone never rings – that there’s never another child who needs to be removed from their family of birth to be kept safe. At the same time, you know the statistics for your area and that it’s highly likely you’ll receive a call about accepting a foster placement sooner rather than later.
And when the phone does ring? It can be so, so hard to say no once you’re discussing a specific child in need. Things suddenly go from hypothetical, to very real. We’ve received over a dozen foster placement calls, but my heart still races as my brain scrambles to process the information every time.
When that call comes, it’s important to as many questions as you can, so that you have the information you need to make an informed decision for your family and lifestyle. After the chaos of my first call, I put together a list of questions to ask before accepting another foster placement. I this list of questions to ask a caseworker to guide me when social workers call. I hope you find them helpful!
1. Foster Placement Basics: Age, Gender and Number of Children
Yes, your home study is for a particular number of children and range of ages. But it is highly likely you will receive calls about potential placements that fall outside these parameters. Social workers often reach out more broadly when they need a placement fast.
Do you have enough bedrooms for the kids in question? Can you fit another car seat or booster seat in your car? Would you be able to sign the child up for daycare if needed and cover the additional cost? Can you take time off from work to help the child settle in, or until daycare can be arranged? Are you open to fostering children outside the birth order of your current family?
Know your limits and be willing to stick to them. We’ve struggled with the decision to pass on placements. But it’s in the child’s best interest to find the right foster match. If we hadn’t said no the times we did, we wouldn’t have been free to say yes when the calls came for our little ones.
2. Is this a short-term foster placement or a long-term foster placement? What is the child’s legal status and permanency plan?
It’s helpful to get a rough idea of how long a child might be staying. You may find you’re open to a wider range of situations if the placement is only short-term. Would you consider broadening your age range to keep siblings together until a kinship home could be approved? Are you only taking long-term placements, since you work full-time and can’t take multiple family leaves to help children settle in? Take the time to think through different scenarios a bit before the calls start coming.
3. What county is the foster child from? How often will they have visits? Who provides transportation?
We once received a call about a pair of siblings that could have been a fit for our family. But then we learned that they lived 3 hours away and had family visits twice a week. We’re strong supporters of reunification whenever appropriate. Both girls were school aged and we could not see how it was in their best interest to be pulled out of school two days a week to spend 6 hours in a car. While the caseworker thought we might be a good match, we felt the girls deserved the chance to find a placement closer to their mom. Sometimes the best way you can advocate for a child is to say no.
4. Does the foster child attend school or daycare?
Do you live close enough to their hometown that they can continue at the same school? Minimizing changes by keeping as much of their life as normal as possible can be hugely beneficial for children in foster care. Are you prepared to help them maintain those connections? Answering these questions before accepting a foster placement gives you a sense of the logistics you’ll need to manage in the first few weeks. Registering a child at a new school, or finding a daycare with an opening is much harder than figuring out transportation to their existing providers.
5. What can you tell me about the circumstances that led to removal? Are there behaviors that might affect the safety of other children in my home?
You may or may not receive truthful answers to this question. But if the potential foster placement has a history of experiencing physical or sexual abuse, and especially if they have acted out towards other children, you need to know. While you may still choose to move forward, being informed helps prepare you to put a strong safety plan in place to keep all of the kids safe.
6. What is the foster child’s birthday?
You’ll be asked this question by every medical professional you interact with. And knowing a birth date can give you a better sense of where young children might be at developmentally. There’s a huge difference between a child that just turned two and a child that’s almost three.
7. How long has the child been in care? How many foster placements? And why are you looking for a new placement now?
Learning a much as you can about the child’s time in foster care will help you care for them if you accept the placement. Going into foster care is traumatic. Experiencing multiple moves, reunifications and disruptions is even more so. The experience impacts children in so many ways and the more you know, the more you can provide, or seek out, the help they need. If there are specific behaviors that triggered the move, it’s better to find out now so that you can avoid surprises.
8. Does the child have siblings?
Sibling groups are frequently split up in foster care. Try to find out whether they have siblings, why they are separated, and whether visits are a possibility. While it’s a common goal to keep siblings in contact, the reality is that many social workers are overworked and may not get to it. We’ve had placements where contact was less of a priority for the department, because the children were young and didn’t know one another. Advocating for the children in your care means doing whatever you can to keep them connected to their family.
9. What information can you share on family background? Are there safety concerns we should be aware of?
We once accepted a placement where the family have made threats to the department and so we were not allowed to meet the family for our own safety. If you can’t have direct contact, see if you can send letters along to visits. Do what you can to nurture and support the child’s connection with their family. If there are concerns that family members might try to show up at your home or the children’s school, you need to be aware.
10. Does the foster child have contact with their parents?
What is the visitation schedule? Who provides transportation? Are phone calls and emails allowed? Are visits supervised or unsupervised? Getting a sense for the time commitment involved and whether you can balance it with your existing commitments is important information when you are deciding whether to accept a new foster placement.
11. Are the foster children bringing anything with them?
We’ve had little ones arrive in pajamas and others who came with trash bags full of belongings. In time, you’ll learn which friends to call for reinforcements and have some basics you keep on hand. But getting a sense for what to expect before the child arrives can help ease the transition.
12. If the call is for foster care of an infant, ask the following:
A) What type of formula do they use?
We learned the hard way that the formula question is essential. In our area little ones are typically dropped of with at least one can, but it’s usually whatever brand is available at the local office. We accepted placement of a baby who was allergic to the formula provided, but the social worker didn’t bother to mention it. It took up days to figure out why he was so uncomfortable. These kids are going through so much already; the least we can do is provide appropriate food.
B) What size diapers do they wear?
If you don’t already have diaper on hand, buy a small bag of the size the caseworker says, as well as one size up. Social workers frequently guess wrong and you just need enough to get you through the first night. Tomorrow you can pick up more of whatever size actually fits.
C) Was there prenatal substance exposure?
Caring for an substance exposed infant, whether or not they have experienced withdrawal, can be more complicated than caring for a healthy baby. Pathways Family Services provides a guide to Caring for Babies with Prenatal Substance Exposure. Sometimes these babies experience short-term symptoms including:
- Poor sleep
- Poor feeding
- Problems with digestion, including gas or diarrhea
- High or low muscle tone, which make a baby stiff, or floppy, respectively
- High pitched cry
Substance exposed babies typically outgrow these symptoms between 4-12 months of age. But you should be prepared to parent an infant with these symptoms if substance exposure is a factor.
13 What can you share about the foster child’s health and medical history?
Are they allergic to pets? Are they taking any medications? Do they have any medical conditions? Have they been vaccinated? Is there anything important we should share about family history when we take them to the pediatrician? Do they receive early intervention services? Are they on an IEP? Make sure you feel prepared to take on any special needs the child may have before you accept the placement.
14. Do you have any information on their likes and dislikes?
Typically, the social worker calling won’t know much, but occasionally you’ll get more information for kids that have been in care for a while. Any little bit of information can help as you do your best to ease their transition into your home.
15. Is there anything else I should know?
Many of these foster child placement calls are quick and information is limited, so if you’ve made it this far you’ve likely learned a lot. But it never hurts to ask and if the social worker knows the child’s case you may learn more about your potential placement.
Even if you have questions prepared, that doesn’t mean you’ll receive all the answers. Case workers often have limited information when children first come into care. And if they’re busy it’s not unusual to receive information that’s wrong. But it’s still important to ask as much as you can and know which questions are non-negotiables for your family. While you can figure out a lot of things after the foster children arrive, it’s always to your advantage to have as clear a picture as possible of what type of situation you’re saying yes to. The more informed you are up front, the less likely you are to need to request a placement change later.
Have a plan for how you will end the call. It’s completely acceptable to tell the social worker that you’d like to discuss the placement with your partner, or spouse, and get back to them as soon as possible. You may decide that for short-term situations one of you can decide without the other’s input, but for longer-term placements you both need the option to think it over and ask any follow-up questions. For a placement to be a success, it’s important that the entire family be on board.
Looking for More Foster Parenting Tips?
What questions do you ask before accepting a potential foster placement? Are there any questions you wished you asked before your first placement?