Early Education

OPINION: Employers must do more to support foster parents

Even in family-friendly workplaces, foster families don't get as much flexibility and understanding as biological families, to the detriment of kids in foster care

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Foster children face myriad challenges in school.

A tightly knit safety net between foster children’s home lives, their education and their future can help. However, educational efforts can falter if workplaces don’t provide the support that these children’s parents require.

I learned about this firsthand when my husband and I trained to become foster parents.

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I was unprepared for the treatment I received in my former workplace. Initially, I believed the institution I worked for at the time was supportive of parents.

One colleague regularly brought her infant to work. Other parents had flexible schedules that allowed them to work from home one day a week, or work flexible hours throughout the week to honor family commitments. My workplace seemed to back up its claim that we were a family with family-friendly policies.

But it turned out these privileges were enjoyed only by biological families. While new mothers with biological children were offered the option to work from home on Fridays, I was required to type up a work plan and present my case for the same schedule.

Related: Institutions for foster kids aren’t doing enough to educate them

Even though I wasn’t asking for maternity leave, I was met with suspicion and distrust about my ability to do my job while foster-parenting. As a result, I felt as if I should keep my experiences quiet and under the radar.

I felt unable to share my parenting joys or challenges with my colleagues, as I was treated differently than other parents caring for young children. My work suffered because I felt unsupported, and my loyalty was eroded because of the lack of trust I felt in my workplace. I have since left that employer.

It didn’t have to be this way. The office was already set up to be flexible for biological parents.

Working foster parents juggle many responsibilities, including court dates, home visits, and doctor and therapist appointments. Children in foster care often need additional support for their physical and mental well-being and healing. Even routine morning schedules can be challenging as a child adapts to a new environment. Offering flexible schedules or allowing telecommuting can help with this.

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Many states do not have enough foster homes to accommodate children needing home placements. So our employers must redefine how we support working families. Foster parents need the space to thrive at work while also supporting their foster kids at home.

The simplest way to do this is to begin by trusting employees. Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, experience less stress, and demonstrate greater engagement and energy at work, according to research by Paul J. Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies.

This is a solution that would benefit all working parents and employers, too. We already know that flexible schedules help companies retain women, improve productivity and job satisfaction, and increase women’s sense of work-life balance. If we want foster kids to thrive at school, home and later in the workplace, we need schools, homes and workplaces to start working together now to support all types of families.

Related: New report underscores education problems in institutions for troubled youth

Encouraging foster parents to share the joys — and challenges — of caring for children is also important.

My actual experience as a foster mom has far surpassed my hopes: Our first child, whom we brought home from the hospital, was a delightful little boy who’d often fall asleep in our arms with his head resting on his fist, like Rodin’s statue of The Thinker.

He now lives with his grandparents and sister in a loving family and community that treasure him.

The only thing that wasn’t positive about the entire experience was the response of my workplace.

Rather than perpetuating a culture of shame based on a hierarchy of the “right” kind of parenting, workplaces can focus on creating a culture of trust, empathy and kindness, which would benefit both parents and employers.

This story about educating foster children was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Laura Gronewold is Director of Education at Ben’s Bells Project in Tucson, Arizona, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

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Laura Gronewold

Laura Gronewold is Director of Education at Ben’s Bells Project in Tucson, Arizona, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. See Archive

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