‘You got a man?” she said, sizing me up. The caseworker had just left and it was her first question for me as we stood in our apartment entryway.
“Yes,” I replied, surprised that was what was foremost on her mind. It was late afternoon and my husband hadn’t gotten home from work yet, so I had welcomed our first respite placement by myself.
Typically foster parents can’t just hire a babysitter to look after their foster children or drop them off at their friend’s house, as they might with their own children. While it varies from state to state, and sometimes even county to county, usually those caring for foster children have to go through some sort of vetting process to make sure they will provide safe, quality care. With close to a half million children in foster care, there’s a high demand for not only foster parents but also support for them.
Respite providers help fill this need, allowing foster parents to take a necessary break so they don’t get burned out (just as most parents need a weekend away or a date night), or travel (children in foster care are not always allowed to accompany their foster families on trips), or deal with emergencies that arise. It is a cross between foster-care lite and babysitting. You may have a child, or children, for just a night or a few weeks.
“Is he nice?” she asked cautiously. We had completed our respite-licensing process only the day before. After five months of classes, interviews, home inspections, background checks, and recommendation letters, the state had compiled a “thin,” two-inch-thick file on us and determined we were qualified respite providers. I was now face to face with a big set of brown eyes and a shy, front-toothless smile. Everything I knew about her could’ve fit in two sentences.
“Oh yes!” I answered quickly, trying to put her mind at ease.
“Will he be nice to me?” Why would that question cross her mind at five years old?
“He will be very nice to you — he is very excited to meet you,” I assured her. She contemplated this. After a few minutes of quietly staring at my husband when he got home, she latched onto him. If he left the apartment she would watch him from the window until he was out of sight and then ask me to set a timer until he returned. She was equal parts exhausting and adorable. Tantrums would suddenly turn into pleas to be held close.
In Wisconsin, where we were licensed, we had to go through the same training as treatment foster parents, which meant we would be qualified to take children with greater challenges. The licensing worker also gave us a list of behaviors and needs children might have and asked what we felt capable of, stressing we should be honest and that there was nothing wrong if we weren’t up for all or even most things on the list. It was still hard to say no to some of the categories, as we imagined precious children faced with each issue on the list, every one deserving of a loving home.
During our time as respite providers we had children as young as seven months and up to the cusp of seventeen. We snuggled (a lot), did school drop-offs, celebrated a sixth birthday, dried tears, and introduced a teenager to blue cheese (which disappointingly isn’t blue).
People have commented to us that respite sounds daunting. And it could be. There were unpredictable mood swings, fear that if we even left the room for a glass of water we would not come back — and the sadness we experienced when they left.
It was also a joy. There were eager hands messily “helping,” bathwater gleefully splashed to the ceiling, and the excitement of sharing new experiences — first hike, first Sprecher soda (Wisconsin’s finest!), first basketball game.
Your task as a respite provider is simply this: to keep these children safe and to love them for the few days they are with you. That is it. But that is enough. Maybe some of these children will have memories of staying with us — the time we celebrated a birthday and the little girl smeared frosting on the cake and declared with a happy sigh at the lopsided creation, “That’s a beautiful cake.” But we may just fade into the background. And I hope we do. I hope we were able to provide a secure and peaceful place for them and that their future is filled with too many happy memories to have any room for a couple of strangers who let them spend all day on the swings. We, though, we will remember them forever.