Stressing Self-Care for Foster Parents

Ongoing Case Manager Sarah Benitez had an “aha” moment about compassion fatigue when a foster mother with whom she had been working for a long time had to go to court and testify regarding the termination of parental rights for her foster children.

“Going to court to me is like going to the office, but, with changes and rescheduling, the case had been going on for six months,” Sarah said. “The foster mom kept expecting to testify, and she was very emotional about all of this. She had these kids for more than half of their lives and she was worried about what would happen.”

Sarah Benitez
Sarah Benitez

So Sarah took the woman to Children’s Court before the final hearing to show her where she would go. In an empty courtroom, she pointed out where everyone would be sitting and explained what to expect. The woman made it through the hearing with little difficulty and told Sarah what she had done had made a big difference.

Sarah said she’ll probably do this now with every foster parent who has to testify.

“Foster parents get so invested with their foster children, and as we learn more about secondary trauma and compassion fatigue, we see how often they can be dealing with heightened stress because of their concerns. They want to protect these kids, and they can get overwhelmed and not know how to deal with it.

“As ongoing case managers, sometimes we forget that piece.”

As a participant in a research study funded by a grant from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Sarah is very familiar with trauma and its effects on children, biological parents and foster parents in the child welfare system. She received specialized training focused on SaintA’s Seven Essential Ingredients of understanding and implementing trauma informed care. Through her training and her work, Sarah has become very aware of the need for the ingredient of caregiver capacity, which means that caregivers have to take care of themselves to be able to do so for others.

Foster parents can experience secondary trauma from witnessing its effects on the children in their home or because they see things from their own personal histories being re-enacted with the children, she said.

“As a foster parent, they try so hard, and they want so much for these children that they don’t think about themselves. A quality we want in a foster parent is dedication, but we have to teach them about self-care, too.”

The first step is recognizing the signs of secondary trauma in a foster parent, Sarah said. Those include things such as a heightened stress level, which might be exhibited by someone who usually is calm overstating a point or going over and over something, fixating on it. A foster parent who is experiencing compassion fatigue also may withdraw from activities they usually enjoyed. They might exhibit changes in their sleep patterns and seem exhausted. They might lose or gain weight.

“With cases you’ve had for a long time, you can tell by the tone of voice on the phone if someone is stressed,” Sarah said. “It’s important to establish a good enough relationship to have a candid conversation with the foster parent about your concern. We have to talk about it with them in a respectful, compassionate way.”

Sarah usually starts out by giving a foster parent the chance to vent. Then she works to find a solution that will satisfy everybody. She stresses the need for foster parents to do things for themselves in their free time, to find something they like such as going for a walk, listening to music, exercising, whatever. She recommends respite care for the foster children to give the foster parents a break.

“We need to remind them that they have to take care of themselves and that they cannot care for anyone if they don’t.”

Sometimes the focus on self-care is a new concept for foster parent.

“When I ask them about these things, they’ll stop, take a breath and say, ‘You know, I AM stressed!’”

Compassion fatigue within foster parents probably occurs more often than case managers realize, and it can be caused by a number of things, Sarah said. For instance, required visits with their biological parents often trigger stress in the children and secondarily in the foster parents. The children may remember things they don’t want to remember, such as mom hit me or yelled at me. Initial visits may be outside the child’s regular home, and often the children cry a lot after the visit. Children who have been very traumatized may experience night terrors, which causes a lack of sleep for the child and the foster parent, and often this is immense fear that a child cannot put a name to and might not be directly related to an experience, Sarah said.

“The foster parents get so invested in these kids, they want to protect these kids, and sometimes it’s hard for them to separate themselves out. It’s our job to help them understand the effect trauma has on them and how they can learn to help themselves, so they can continue to help the children.

“We need to make sure they’re OK. And we need to remind them that just because they’re a foster parent doesn’t mean they need to be super heroes.”

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