Torn Hearts: When Foster Children Leave

By Gail Valence

My oldest son was three when my first two foster children, twin 1-year-old girls, were returned to their biological mother. They had lived with us for eight months, a substantial part of my son’s life. Their return home was sudden, as swift as a judge’s signature on a court order. I was notified at 11 am on the day they were to return home. I was told that social workers would come by 12:30 pm to pick up the girls. I remember wondering how I could possibly give them enough hugs and kisses to last a lifetime.

My husband was at work and the social workers did not even want to wait for his return home. I called him and asked him to come home immediately. My husband arrived just as the social workers were carrying our foster daughters out the door. I’ll never forget the looks in the girls’ eyes as they cried and held their arms out to us as virtual strangers took them to a car. My husband only had time for quick hugs and kisses. As we tearfully said our goodbyes, our son, bewildered, cried in response to his foster sisters’ cries. The pain for me is as fresh and raw today as it was 19 years ago.

This makes me wonder what effect it had on our son and what effect, if any, it had on his future relationships, with his unborn siblings. Although my son had been toilet trained for five months before the girls left, he reverted to wetting the bed at night and had to wear diapers for an additional six months. He walked around for weeks looking and calling for his foster sisters. He asked repeatedly if he were going to be taken away, too. He often awoke from nightmares, crying out in fear.

Even though we had always told him that the girls were our foster children and that they may not always live with us, this concept was too difficult and abstract for him to grasp. Psychologist Albert Goldstein writes that “Unlike adults, children have no psychological conception of blood-tie relationships until late in their development.” If this is true, how could he understand that the children living in our house were not his sisters, no matter what we say?

When our second son was born seven months later, our oldest son looked at him with little interest. The first thing he asked was, “How long are we going to keep this baby?” Even with our assurances I am not sure he was convinced.

According to Nancy Millichap Davies, “The experience of being taken away to a foster home is traumatic for any child. Children show signs of emotional stress during the early weeks and months of placement. These may include nightmares, trouble in sleeping, bedwetting and eating problems. Most such physical symptoms disappear after the first few weeks of placement, but the emotional problems continue.”

It is the last sentence that frightens me most. How long do the emotional problems continue? I’ve often read of the detrimental effect that repeated separation on the biological children in the foster home. The physical symptoms and emotional stress appear to be identical. Is the outcome also similar?

In my search for answers, one foster parent told me, “When a foster child returns home, my sons become very antagonistic toward each other for awhile. They don’t say so in so many words, but I wonder if they think the other is to blame for a child going home.” I wonder if she could be right. Children often blame themselves when parents divorce so it seems reasonable that they could blame their parents, or their siblings, when a foster child is taken away.

Another foster parent shared that her biological children seem to maintain an emotional distance from the foster children in her home. She thinks they do this as a form of self-protection, because it is painful for them when foster children leave their house.

According to psychologist Joseph Goldstein, continuity of relationship is essential for a child’s healthy development. Yet, we are taking the “continuity of relationships” away from biological children in foster homes whenever a foster child leaves. How does this affect the relationship between the siblings? Is their sense of trust or security compromised as a result? Did taking foster children into our home when my own children were young compromise the trust and security of their long-term relationships as siblings? Is it better to take in foster children when your own children are older?

The human spirit is remarkably strong. Just as some families appear easily to handle the issues of separation and loss as children enter and leave their home, so do some children, resilient by nature, cope better than others. This natural resiliency extends to all children, whether they are foster children or the biological children of the parents opening their home to foster children. However, we must work to understand the impact of separation and loss on the biological children in our own family and be prepared to deal with the after effect.

It would be so easy, God

To make the simple decisions

That convenience, the desire

To be like,

And momentary peace


And just as I withdraw the hand

Which offers pain, adversity,

And exhaustion, You remind me

That no one ever grows,

Never blooms when things are easy.

– Gordon MacDonald

Gail Valence is a teacher in Rochester, NY. Her master’s thesis on foster children was groundbreaking research questioning the effects that foster children have on families. Many foster care agencies are using her research. This article originally appeared in Fostering Families Today. It has also been reprinted in The Foster Parenting Toolbox




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