The first night in foster care: what you need to know

A school-age child is dropped off at your home by a police officer or social worker.  Likely they have just been removed from Mom, Dad or directly from the school.  They likely are scared, confused and totally mixed up inside.  The police officer or social worker leaves.

Now what?
  1. Say hello to the child, introduce yourself briefly, show them in.  
  2. Talk to the police officer or social worker, briefly, briefly - tell them to email or call later with any sensitive or graphic information.  Then most of the time, they leave rather quickly.
  3. Give the child the tour of your house, make sure to show the child the bathroom and where they will be sleeping right away.  Let them open whatever cupboards they like and play with any and all toys (within reason).  It's GOOD for them to explore and not stay stuck.
  4. Find something for them to do - age-appropriate toys, tv shows, etc.  If they have a backpack or jacket,  let them keep it with them or put it in their room, it is 100% up to them.  I had a girl keep her jacket and winter hat on for the first hour she was here once.  She got to choose when she took it off, I let her know she could take it off but didn't try to help or worse, make her.  There is very, very, very little they are in control of at this point, let them control their stuff.
  5. LET them be for a minute with you in the same room but not talking to them - they need to BE in the space before they can process you as another adult.
  6. Get them a snack with something to drink.  It's OK if they don't eat it, provide it.  Let them be again.
  7. Once they start to look at you, look curious, etc.  I ask, "Okay, so what did the officer/social worker tell you about me and this place?"  Generally, I get a shrug.  "My name is Alisa (I don't assume they remember) and I live here with Sweetie.  We are the only ones who live here, I am not married and right now there are no other kids.  I am a foster parent and it's my job to keep kids safe while the other grownups are figuring out what the plan is for you and your family".  If I know what's next (court, weekend, visits, no visits, etc), I tell them.  Kids need to know what is going on and they deserve to.  "What questions do you have?"  Most likely other shrug but I assure you, it's all going in.
  8. Tell them why your house is awesome ("I have a Wii and lots of board games and I love to do art."), and the try to get to know them.  Ask about school, what subjects they like, what they like to do, etc.  Be interested and remember they had a whole life before coming to you and its okay to be curious.  In that same breath, be sensitive and if they clam up about something or if you know a certain area or person is sensitive, be quick to jump to an easy subject - favorite TV show, etc.
  9. Find something they like for dinner/snacks and make it for them.  
  10. While they are eating dinner:
    • Ask what types of food they like and make it a point to get those foods the next day. I say, "I was wondering what types of foods you like because we are just getting to know each other and everyone likes different things.  Since you'll be staying here for a while, at least for the night, I want to get food that you like too, so let's make a list.  What is one thing that you like to eat?"  Then I write it down.  Whatever it is.  Even if the entire list is chips and ice cream I write it down, commenting whenever it's true that I like that food.  I really do like chips and ice cream.  However, since I also like real food, I am sure to ask what fruits and veggies they like.  If they are really stuck, I ask what they like to eat for dinner with their Mom or Dad.  If they say they eat Mac and Cheese, then I'll say, "Great, that's yummy.  When you have Mac and Cheese, what else is on your plate?"  Gets the juices flowing.  The important thing to remember here is NOTHING they like or don't like is wrong.  THERE are no good foods or bad foods in this conversation   It is all a window into their world.  And then - GO buy it.  Not all of it, you are still the one in charge, but make a real effort to make foods the kids like for at least the first few weeks.  Mac and Cheese for a month won't injure them - feeling like they aren't part of the family and have no say, that might.  Explain how bedtime and waking up works well before bedtime and then review as your tucking in.
    • Also during dinner and then again at bedtime, I say, "Tonight, we'll get you all comfy in bed, with a nightlight, blankets, pillows, everything and then it'll be bedtime. I will go into my room and dink around on my computer, but I'll come back and check on you in a few minutes and see if you need anything.  In the morning, you can play quietly in your room, but stay in your room until I get up and get you."  Then ask what they understood and correct anything they got wrong if it's an important detail.  Bedtime is hard no matter what that first night, but take away as much mystery as you can.
  11. Find something to do together, Wii, board game or just checking out the house.
  12. Hang out in their new room, help them make it feel like it is "theirs," even if its short term, move stuff around, put in the things they like (books, small toys), take out things that are too young or too old for them. Have them make their bed so it looks "just right" to them, get the books ready to read before bed, etc.
  13. Have THEM put on their PJ's.  If they are physically able, have them do it themselves, behind a closed bedroom door or in the bathroom - privacy IS SO SO SO important, especially when you are a total stranger and you have no idea what they have been through.  Most kids don't seem to care about the privacy thing, you need to.
  14. Brush teeth, wash face, go to the bathroom, etc.  It establishes that this is what we do here before bed, don't worry if they actually get clean teeth or hands or face that first night.
  15. Read some books with the grown-ups on the floor and the kids in a chair. Preferably in the room they'll be sleeping in so they can get used to it, but use wisdom if there is known abuse.  I always sit on the floor with the kids on something for a good long time, so there is a little distance, just in case.
  16. Read Maybe Days... at least I always do and answer any and all questions the kid can come up with as honestly and openly as you can.  It's a hard, emotional read that first night, but it always brings up a lot of, "I miss my Mom and Dad," "I'm sad," etc.  Let it.  Them saying those things is so, so good and healthy.  Let them.  Let them cry.  Let them know that you understand they miss their family and that it's okay to be sad.  They are feeling all of it anyway, I assure you - so good to get it out.
  17. Get kids in bed, tell them the bedtime and waking up plan again.  Then do it.  I say, "Alright kiddo,  now that you are in bed safe and sound, I am going to go into my room and work on the computer.  I will come back and check on you in 5 minutes to see how your doing.  Remember you can get out of bed if you need to go to the bathroom, but otherwise, I want you to try to stay in bed and wait for me okay?"  Answer questions about monsters, spiders, boogie men, what happens if they get thirsty, etc., quickly and let them know that your house is  100% monster, spider, boogie men free and that there is a special cup in the bathroom just for them if they get thirsty.  
  18. CHECK on them in 5 minutes.  And in 10.  And in 10.  And in 10.  Until they fall asleep let them know when you'll be back to check and then COME BACK TO CHECK.  The worst thing you can do at this point is to fail them.  Check on them.
  19. Prepare to not sleep a lot.  Taking forever to go to sleep, sleep terrors, crying and waking up multiple times, or really early in the morning is normal and expected.  (And really, I am always super alert the first few nights as well, its new for me too.)
  20. Wake up earlier than normal the next day yourself to see how the kids is doing - sleeping, great, let them sleep, awake and playing quietly in room (our rule) great, invite him/her out for an early cartoon session or breakfast, awake and helping themselves to the TV or fridge, remind them of the rules and escort them back to their room for 5 minutes... then invite for early breakfast or cartoons.
Tips from the trenches:
  • No way around it, the first night is hard.  Remember its okay to have rules, but be flexible and above all - be KIND. It is worth its weight in gold to start your relationship off on a good note.
  • Every question they ask is a good one.  I like to let them know if another kid I have had, had the same question.  It lets them know that other kids have lived here and moved on, it also lets them know they are not alone and not crazy for wondering about that thing.
  • Give choices whenever possible, ask if they want to see the upstairs or downstairs first, let them choose between two snacks or two pajamas, or should we watch some TV first or play this came first?  Kids catch on quick and ask for the choices.
  • Use your own name and the names of those who live in your house a lot at first.  They have met a lot of new faces today, you can't assume they remember your names.  Also, let them call you what they like.  Most of my foster kids have called me Alisa, some have called me Mom from day one.  I remind them we're not sure what the plan is (if I will be their Mom, most of the time that isn't the plan), but if that's what they want to do, that's okay.
  • Say, "What questions do you have,"  way more than you think necessary.  Cause they have a billion, but it'll take a while to get up the courage to ask you.
  • On food, always have peanut butter, bread & fruit in the house.  If a child doesn't like what you made or how you made it, let them know they can always make a sandwich for themselves or have fruit.  That way the alternative is a not very exciting, yet viable, nutritious option, without you becoming a short-order cook.

  • A commenter mentioned showing them how to work the remotes.  Yes, please do this!
  • Let them know about any security features on the house, motion detectors, door alarms, etc.  It would be SO scary for them to find out about those on accident when they got up to get a snack.
  • A few of you asked about bedbugs and lice and how to deal with them... I might do a separate post about this... but my short answer is, know at some point you might have to deal with both, but PLEASE DO NOT have kids undress in a garage or store their things outside because they are "dirty".  Put yourselves back into the shoes of the child and take a step back...   Use mattress protectors.  By the lice treatment, use it when you need to.  But establish TRUST first.

Foster Parenting Creates a Future, Without Erasing the Past: