Vol. 12, No. 1• November 2007

Fostering teens and their children

by Becky Burmester

Over the course of fostering nearly 80 children (many newborn infants whose mothers made adoption plans) and serving as a foster parent for infants of incarcerated women, my husband and I decided that we might have a greater positive impact if we fostered pregnant and/or parenting teens.

No one tries to be an inadequate parent. However, most people parent as they were parented. For years I suffered from undiagnosed depression. I remember well that when a therapist identified untreated depression as requiring medication as well as talk therapy, I complained that living my life was like playing monopoly without knowing the rules.

Many children and youth in foster care are living lives without understanding the rules. Younger children and teens without children face obstacles in daily living, but teen mothers in care are doubly challenged. Having experienced less than ideal parenting, they are poorly prepared to parent but must now parent under the critical eye of social services and the court system.

How can foster parents best meet the needs of both the teen parent and her child?

After she had lived on her own for two years, one of the young mothers we had cared for told us that what meant the most to her when she was in foster care was having someone who always believed in her and expected her to do well, someone who “had her back.”
Another young mom we know believes that being asked if she would like some help with her baby is important.

Here are several things that guide my husband and me as we foster teen parents.

Be Mindful of the Learning Curve
The moms may very well NOT know better. No one can do well those things with which they are totally unfamiliar. Some child rearing techniques have to be observed to even make sense.

Anticipate (and Accept) Differences
There are ways to nurture a child safely that are different than the ways I might do things. There are wide variances in what is acceptable parenting. I am not a perfect parent. Neither will a teen mom be a perfect parent. Our goal as foster parents is to develop moms who are “good enough” or “better than good enough” parents.

Shared Parenting, and Then Some
Most foster parents in North Carolina are familiar with the concept of “shared parenting.” Fostering teen moms and their children is the absolute demonstration of shared parenting 24/7. This is 52 weeks a year, not once a week for an hour or two. Handing down rules and regulations is not an effective way to improve parenting skills. Demonstrating without saying “this is how it should be done” allows the teen to see interactions and to internalize them. The desired changes don’t happen overnight. Every day is not a good day. But teens can learn to provide good care for their children and to enjoy their children.

Teens Will Be Teens
Teen moms are children themselves. As such they will, upon occasion, act immaturely. They are immature. As foster parents of young moms one of our roles is that of grandparent. We provide a break from parenting and help teens make safe plans for time away from the responsibilities of single parenting. We also model break times from children in our own lives. Some time alone or with friends or spouse is healthy and makes parents better able to cope with the demands of raising their children. If alcohol or substance abuse were the coping methods of choice in your family of origin, the idea of getting a sitter and going to see a movie or hanging out with friends might seem foreign.

Placing Moms and Babies Together
Currently in North Carolina there is a big push to place sibling groups in a single foster home. I believe that it is just as important for teens to be placed in the same foster home as their children. Research shows that the long-term outcomes are better for young moms and their children placed together.

The right foster home is very important. The foster parents of parenting teens should not have any desire to adopt an infant or young child. Such a desire would present an incredible conflict of interest (e.g., “if this mother fails, we could adopt this child”). The foster family must be willing to acknowledge shortcomings and failures. The indicators of a strong family are not how much they do right but how they deal with their mistakes. Teens need to see how mistakes can be remedied.

Placement Should Be Warranted
I wish that county DSS workers were less quick to take both teen mom and her child into custody. Teens abhor having their children in the custody of DSS. Provided the foster parents are willing to supervise the young mom and her child, the young moms could be encouraged to succeed and to demonstrate that their children do not need to be in the custody of DSS. If a teen in a functional family gives birth to a child, the child only enters into DSS custody in the case of abuse or neglect. If positive outcomes for both teen mom and child are the desired result, placement together with only the teen mom in DSS custody would seem the best approach.

If you currently foster teens or are thinking about fostering teens, my husband and I would like to encourage you to explore caring for teens and their children. The babies and toddlers are a joy, but nothing can compare to the feeling you have as you watch a young mom and her child interact appropriately and have fun. This really is the opportunity to change the future. Young moms tend to stay in contact with us after leaving care. Shared parenting has built a level of trust that encourages the moms to reach out for answers to questions and for help making decisions.

Resources for Learning More

Copyright 2007 Jordan Institute for Families