In the area of foster care concerning children and youth with special needs due to disability or medical fragility, there is a paucity of knowledge and research. In Germany, these groups in foster care who have high special needs are an invisible and neglected population at risk. These children and youth are mostly cared for in residential homes. However, some are living in foster families and benefit from a familial setting.
A study was done to understand how foster parents manage their lives with a child or youth who has special needs and how they meet the challenges that arise. Results showed that foster parents dealt with this new and often unpredictable situation by applying one of three patterns of strategies — action-, resource-, or reflection-oriented — based on their personal experiences and worldview. It could be shown that these patterns were not based on the specific form nor the severity of disability or medical fragility.
In this pattern, a high rate of activity is prominent, as are limited reflexivity, concerted attempts to create certainty and to avoid vagueness and chaos, a very limited use of resources and reliance on trial and error. These kinds of views of the world have a binary quality, which reduces complexity, facilitating orientation to new and complex situations, underlying a normative understanding of normalcy.
The coping strategy of trial and error involves actions undertaken without a coherent plan. These may include: endeavors to gain preventive control of situations by, for example, talking to the store manager before visiting the store; avoidance of occasions such as visiting restaurants, stores, or medical facilities with the foster child; confrontation with political institutions like local municipal authorities; demands that workers like the speech therapist or the schoolteacher put efforts toward “making her foster son more normal”; and delegation of responsibilities like afternoon activities, homework, and hobbies to other institutions. Attempts to improve the situation by getting support or influencing institutions are undirected and unsuccessful (Föltz, 2017, p. 177).
These foster parents require administrative and supportive entities to give extensive support, encouragement, and training to enable the family to get the needed assistance from third parties.
Characteristics of this pattern are medium levels of both reflexivity and creating certainty. Uncertainty for these foster parents is inherent in the process of their child’s development (e.g., challenges with attachment of the child, or developmental issues), or in their own learning processes (e.g., handling the medical system, or dealing with administrative agencies, schools, or kindergartens): they know that those processes take time and are not fully predictable. Most of all this pattern is notable for high use of resources and external help. Prominent is a large network of different resources to draw on for support, one that foster parents have searched, developed, shaped, and fostered. In their referential understanding of normalcy, resources constitute a bridge between the normal world and the previously unknown one of disability, in which they often reach the limits of their means and require help (Föltz, 2017, pp. 272, 280–281).
Foster parents using this resource-oriented pattern of strategies need conversations and discussions to consider and weigh the options. They need recognition and appreciation of their engagement and endeavors to support the child or youth in their care.
This pattern is characterized by a high level of reflexivity, a low level of needing to create certainty, a directed or focused use of resources and external help, and flexible coping strategies. This makes for a high level of effectiveness and flexibility in acting and reacting. This pattern shows multifaceted options to identify and handle the even more complex structural, ethical, and philosophical frames of reality. The reflexivity in this pattern is especially prominent in its perspective on the structure of services, relationships, and administrative bodies, in its ethical view of life, and in its engagement with philosophical and political issues relating to foster care, the experience of being a foster parent of a child with a disability and heightened mindfulness of the child’s personality, needs, and rights. Challenges can be tolerated and endured because of a divergent, more tolerant, understanding of normalcy (Föltz, 2017, pp. 273–274, 281).
Foster parents who use this pattern of coping require recognition of their efforts and a few hints and tips when needed. Mostly these families are left alone because they seem to do so well on their own. Nevertheless they need some professional attention once in a while.
Understanding these behavioral patterns gives administrative and supportive entities like child welfare systems and agencies like schools and kindergartens a unique and tailored approach to recruit, retain, train, and counsel foster families adequately, and to strengthen their well-being and their ability to perform well for themselves and their children and youth.
For an extended content see: https://journals.uvic.ca/index.php/ijcyfs/article/view/19942
(Creating Normalcy: Foster Care for Children and Youth with Disabilities and Medical Fragility in Germany. International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies (2020) 11(4.1): 132–151 DOI: 10.18357/ijcyfs114202019942)
Föltz, F. (2017). Herstellung von Normalität – Mikrostudien zur Situation von Pflegemüttern und -vätern im Umgang mit besonderen Bedürfnissen von Kindern und Jugendlichen mit Behinderung [Creating normalcy: Microstudies on the situation of foster mothers and fathers in dealing with the special needs of children and youth with disabilities; doctoral dissertation]. Otto-von-Guericke-Universität Magdeburg.