What ‘This Is Us’ gets right about foster parenting

The NBC show may inspire you to foster a child—here's what you should know
By Nicole Roder  Published on 11/28/2018 at 11:43 AM EDT
Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), Déjà (Lyric Ross) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) in 'This Is Us' season 2. Ron Batzdorff/NBC

If you are a foster parent, you could learn a lot from This Is Us. Of course, we don’t know exactly where the foster care storyline will ultimately lead, but it’s off to an awfully good start.

The season 2 episode “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life,” which aired in March and told the story of a foster child named Déjà, was ambitious and honestly examined the lives of foster families like the Pearsons. Season 3 has proven to be just as real, from the premiere to the most recent episode, the fall finale, “The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning.” Ever since Déjà (played by Lyric Ross) joined the show, I find myself shaking my head in disbelief. How did they know?

Years ago, after graduating with my Master of Social Work, I found my first job in a foster care program. I’ve worked in several others as well. For some children and families, foster care is a life-saving rescue operation. Kids who once suffered dehumanizing abuse and neglect are given a chance to live a dignified life.

But for others, the system is a nightmare. In “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life,” we see Déjà’s journey through foster care. We see her dancing in her room with her foster sister, Raven, only to be interrupted by Mr. Miller, their cruel and abusive foster father. We watch as she submits to peer pressure and shoplifts some makeup.

After Raven gets a particularly hard beating from Mr. Miller, Déja tells her social worker, Linda, about the abuse, and the girls move. Raven’s response to this is one of the most telling lines of the episode: “At least he just beat us.” Raven isn’t relieved to get out of the violent, old guy’s house. She’s angry. She knows that the next place could be worse, and that she and Déjà will be separated.

This is the reality for many children in foster care. A 2017 HHS report found that of children who were in foster care for two years or longer, only about 35 percent had two or fewer placements. Meaning 65 percent of them had more than two. A move usually means a trash bag stuffed with their clothes and a car ride to an unknown place. They’re leaving behind toys, friends, pets, teachers. Their next classroom might not be covering the same history unit as their last. Their next school might not have the same rules. Their next family will probably not cook the same foods or use the same discipline. And all of this comes after they’ve already experienced the trauma of being taken from their parents.

The HHS report mentioned above also found that the median rate of child abuse in foster homes is 0.27 percent. Though any abuse is too much, that’s lower than many imagine it to be. But that doesn’t mean that the foster care system is a peaceful haven. Look at how Déjà felt when she was taken from her mother. Confused, alone, and totally out of place. She didn’t know what the rules were, or how long she’d be there.

I’ve worked with a child who was raped by his foster brother. I’ve seen foster parents cover up an abusive incident that was perpetrated by someone else because they didn’t want to “get involved” with the system. I’ve seen families who have a “special shelf” in the pantry for foods the foster kid is allowed to eat. One foster mother kicked out a boy who had called her “mom” for 12 years because her payments were reduced.

There are a lot of heart-warming stories as well. There are foster parents who do remarkable work rebuilding broken kids. And it’s hard work. I’m the first to admit, I don’t think I could do it. You think you need patience as a mom? Try parenting a 16-year-old who purposely pees on your sofa. Or an 8-year-old who masturbates in public. (All real life examples I’ve encountered.) My point is this: Foster parenting takes a very special kind of person.

If you’re thinking of taking on this vocation, first of all, thank you. The system is in desperate need of good foster parents. But second, let’s do a reality check. There are several things you should know and accept before you take on this mammoth of a job.

  1. Trust your social worker. I can’t tell you how many foster parents I’ve trained who refused to believe that this kid would be different. They assumed that they were already experts because they’d raised children of their own. As a mother of four and a social worker, I promise you that parenting your foster child is unlike anything you’ve experienced with your biological children. Think about everything the social worker on This Is Us, Linda, had to teach super parents Beth and Randall. These are kids who have suffered abuse and neglect. They might not understand how a family works because theirs was never what you might call “normal.” Your social worker has tools that can help you handle all these challenges.
  2. Your child, your responsibility. You’ll get a check to cover expenses, and your child will have health insurance from the government. But all the work of parenting is yours, not your social worker’s. Just like Randall and Beth do in This Is Us, you’ll have to get your foster child to school, appointments, and home visits. If she’s sick, you’ll take off work. You’ll help with homework and hygiene. Expect to put in a lot of time.
  3. She has suffered a loss. If you foster an older child and you plan to adopt her, that’s fantastic. But be aware that her reaction might not be what you think. In season 2, when Déjà’s mother, Shauna, was released from jail, Randall and Beth considered hiring an attorney to keep Déjà from returning home. They finally realized that was a selfish decision. Déjà wanted and needed her mom. Even after Shauna leaves Déjà with the Pearsons and terminates her parental rights, the child still has second thoughts about adoption. She does finally choose to legally join Randall and Beth’s family, but her feelings for Shauna continue to cause conflict. In “Six Thanksgivings,” we saw Déjà consider for hours before finally deciding to text Shauna “Happy Thanksgiving, Mom.” In last night’s fall finale, we saw Déjà texting and calling her mom in secret, unsure of what she still wanted from that relationship. Your foster child might have similar feelings. Even if her biological parents were abusive, be aware that she will mourn the loss of her family and her home.
  4. The best place for your foster child could be with her biological family. Each foster child has a permanency plan, and the most desirable one is reunification with the biological family. Yes, children are placed in care after being removed from an unsafe environment, but the goal is to help the parents make their homes safe again.
  5. Her biological parents are probably good people. The number one factor that predicts whether or not a child will end up in foster care is not abuse. It’s poverty. Think about the reasons that Déjà landed in the system. She was 15 and home alone. Her mother went out with some friends after work for her birthday, and Déjà sliced her hand while making dinner. Because the family had no water, Déjà couldn’t clean the wound herself and had to go to the ER. If your teen cut her hand while you weren’t around, what would happen? In my house, my daughter would wash the cut and get a bandaid. Maybe she’d go across the street to our neighbors’ house. There would be plenty of running water. Plenty of first aid supplies. And no calls to social services. A confluence of circumstances led to Linda getting that first call, but poverty is what put Déjà in foster care.
  6. She will test you. Most foster children go through a “honeymoon” phase at the start of each new placement. There’s no way to know how long it will last, but this is where you will see your child’s best behavior. What comes next, though, will be a lot of testing. Remember Déjà refusing to wash her hair and then cutting it all off? She will try everything she can think of to get you to kick her out. So far, she’s lost every home she’s ever had in her life. She assumes she’s going to lose you, too. She might as well get it out of the way now. Don’t give in. Be the one person in her life who never gives up on her.

If you’ve read this far and you’re thinking, “I want to help a child, but this sounds so hopeless,” then you’re onto the biggest bright spot I know of in the foster care system. It’s people like you, and Randall and Beth Pearson, who care enough about these kids to want to change their lives for the better.

The Pearsons accepted Déjà into their family full stop. After a bumpy beginning, they accepted her mother, too. The season 2 finale revealed that one of their daughters even grew up to become a social worker.

If you are a caring person who wants to give these children the opportunity to learn what a healthy family is like, if you’re willing to share your life with a child and everyone else who comes with her, then you’re my reason to hope. Be the Randall and Beth Pearson that some Déjà out there needs.

For information on how to become a foster parent in your state, check out the National Foster Parent Association (NFPA) website.

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