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First step for foster parents: go to class

Adults learn to see the children's perspective – including leaving the only home they know.

When Charlotte Clements, a veteran schoolteacher and mother of a teenage daughter, heard she had to take a class to be a foster parent, her first thought was: "Yeah, whatever."

She wondered what she could learn that she didn't already know, especially since she had grown up alongside foster children.

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But her "been there, done that" attitude quickly changed after a two-month weekly training course from the Massachusetts Department of Social Services, which taught her to look at foster care in a way she hadn't before.

"It was really great because you got a different perspective in terms of the way the child thinks. You have to remember where they're coming from ... they're leaving a whole life," she explains, the recent course still fresh in her mind.

That foster children aren't necessarily thrilled to leave their homes, no matter how bad the conditions are, is just one of the lessons parents are taught when they go through the training.

Educational support for foster parents is of particular interest this month – National Foster Care Month – as efforts are made around the country to enlighten people about foster parenting and woo more recruits.

Nationwide, about 600,000 children are in foster care, according to the most recent figures from the federal government's Department of Health and Human Services; 134,000 children are waiting to be adopted. In Massachusetts, for example, as of the end of March there were about 7,900 children in foster care, but only about 5,400 foster homes.

That state was one of the first to combine the training for foster and adoptive parents, eventually developing the Massachusetts Approach to Partnership in Parenting, or MAPP. Eleven other states, including California and Texas, have adopted the curriculum since it was introduced in 1985, and it has traveled as far away as Israel.

The program covers a range of topics, from how to help children who have been sexually abused to how the foster or adoptive family can adjust to a new member. Some parents, like Ms. Clements, feel it's time well spent. But it doesn't sugarcoat anything. Through role playing, videos, and discussion, it brings home to parents the unique needs of foster children and how to navigate the bureaucracy that controls their lives.

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Trainers and participants say the sessions place the most emphasis on how to deal with the care and behavior of children who have been through trauma – both from abuse and from being taken from their homes.

Regina McNulty, a recruiter and trainer in Arlington, Mass., says potential foster parents will often say to her, "You're bumming me out here." But she says the state has a duty to explain everything they might encounter.

"It's our obligation to tell you that it could be bad. And hopefully you'll get a foster kid and it'll be nothing like this," but we can't leave anything out, she says.

MAPP has been updated since 1985, but even in its original form it made prospective foster parents stop and think.

"We used to go faithfully every week. It really made you decide if you really want to go through with this," says Rose Ann Pasquariello, who lives in Arlington and had her training 16 years ago. "They present the case that they have a lot of children out there, and not all of these children are perfect."

Not that she had any doubts about the 7-year-old foster son she and her family eventually adopted. He recently graduated from Harvard and is busy launching a mentoring program for foster and adoptive children.

Today, most foster parents go through training before a child is placed with them, but the Pasquariellos received Justin on short notice and wanted him to feel like other kids. That meant not telling him that they were required to be trained to care for him.

"When I was a child, I didn't know where they went. They told me they were going to banquets all the time. I thought they had a busy social life or something," says J. Justin Pasquariello, founder of AFC Mentoring.

To help parents know what it's like for foster children when they are first removed from their home, the parents participate in "guided imagery." Clements says that was one of the most powerful exercises.

"They suggest you close your eyes, then they darken the room and read the scenario," she says. There's a knock at the door, Clements explains, then you're taken from your family – sometimes without being allowed to bring anything with you.

After 15 minutes of this, Ms. McNulty often asks the parents how they feel. Some say they are exhausted. "Now imagine being 7," she says.

The people who attend the courses include married couples, singles, and gay and lesbian parents. Some have thought about becoming foster parents for a long time, others feel the pull after their own children have grown up.

Not everyone is smitten with the training, feeling that some of what's being taught is intuitive and overly simplified. But others find uses for it that even the developers didn't have in mind.

Though the training is not meant to be a parenting primer, that's how Flormaria Genao thinks of it. The native of the Dominican Republic, who lives in Roxbury, Mass., praises the course not only for the guidance it has given her for talking with her foster children, but also for the broader help it can provide immigrants with in better understanding US culture and parenting. She says she recommends it to her friends as a way to help them learn more about communicating with their own children.

"Even if you don't want to be a foster [parent], if you have your own family, they help you a lot," says Ms. Genao, who has a college-age son and has been a foster parent for a year.

In order to help foster children have lasting memories of the people and activities in their lives, the training also has parents put together a "Lifebook." This activity also stood out to Clements. "I love the one I did, I had so much fun doing it," she says.

Instead of just providing photos – of their house, church, cat – in an album, she and her 13-year-old daughter made a storybook in the shape of a house. It even has a door on the front that opens to show a picture of Clements waving with the caption, "Hello and welcome to our home."

She is confident about her decision to apply to be a foster parent. "I'm very spiritually based," she says, "and I just feel like this is my charge at this time in my life."


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