Foster Parents: An Important Resource

By Chris Fischer
Posted 5/8/24

According to data from the South Dakota Department of Social Services, there are about 1,000 kids in foster care each month. State-wide, there are only about 800 licensed foster caregivers. …

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Foster Parents: An Important Resource


According to data from the South Dakota Department of Social Services, there are about 1,000 kids in foster care each month. State-wide, there are only about 800 licensed foster caregivers. Caregivers must be vetted, trained, and licensed by the state.
Saisha Sandoz was a foster caregiver for about 10 years. She said “I got started because at that time my (ex)husband and I were looking at adopting.” They had one biological son already.
She explained that the State wants to see parents in action. “To adopt through the State, they want you to become a foster parent, so that they can see how you are with kids, and make sure you’re a good match – so that you’re not just a name on a paper.”
Sandoz said that the pandemic changed some things. “Before Covid, you had to go in and have all these classes in a building together. We had like 6 weeks of classes that we took in Huron. Then they met with you a hundred times, with lots of questions. Because of Covid, they had to move it to online situation. It seems like that’s sort of stuck.”
The Department of Social Services looked into Sandoz’ life. “They’re going to check your background – make sure you don’t have any abuse charges or criminal history.” She explained that not all criminal history would bar someone from fostering. “If you have a parking ticket, or wrote a bed check, they’re not going to look at it – unless it looks like all you do is write bad checks.” she said.
Potential fosters must show that they are economically viable. “You have to be able to support a child, so they do go through your finances.” Sandoz stated. The state does give foster caregivers a stipend for expenses related to caring for a child. “When they first come, sometimes it can be a month before you’ll get that.” she said.
But the children would be there. “You need to be able to provide for them right away.” Sandoz said. “If they’re babies, you’ve got to buy diapers. Honestly, whatever age they were, they hardly ever came with anything. My basement used to have totes with various sizes of boys and girls clothes. I could just quickly grab whatever size was needed.” she said.
Sandoz could get as little as 45 minutes notice that a child was coming to her. “You don’t get a lot of notice, because they’re removing the kids. The only time you’d get notice would be if, say, it was a baby or a child that was in the hospital, so when they were coming out they would have a home.” She said that another instance that might involve more notice would be “if they’re moving from one situation to another. Sometimes foster parents aren’t a good fit.”
She spoke against the stereotype that foster kids must be “damaged.” She said “No, I wouldn’t say they’re damaged. But I will say 99% of them have trauma, and they all handle it differently. Even babies, who you wouldn’t think would remember it, even they have trauma.”
The foster caregiver has certain duties. Chief among them: supporting the children. Sandoz said “The best thing you can do is just love them and be there. You have to accept what it is and where they’re at, and move forward.”
Along with that, medical needs must be addressed. “In the first 30 days, you have to get them to the doctor and to the dentist. You’ve got to get them into school, and you need to set up counseling.” She stated that all but the youngest children were assigned a counselor. Counseling would help the kids with the transition and with the other things that they were dealing with.
Sandoz had a take-charge approach. She said “There are some foster parents who just wait and let their social worker set up those appointments. But before the end of like, the second day, I’d have all those appointments set up. You have your network, and you know ‘Okay, this is how it’s going to work.’”
The difference between fostering and adopting was stated. “The goal of foster care is always for the children to go back, for reunification. That is the first and foremost goal.” Sandoz said.
Sometimes, workers at DSS make the decision to terminate the parental rights of birth parents. It takes a while to get to this point. State agencies give many chances to birth parents who seem to be getting their acts together. The decision to terminate parental rights is not one that is taken lightly. Only when these rights are terminated are foster children up for adoption. Sandoz explained “Both parent’s rights have to be terminated. You can’t just terminate Mom’s rights and leave Dad. If they don’t know who Dad is, they have to be making a lot of effort to figure it out.”

In the meantime, children in foster care are growing. They are in need of parenting. Foster parents fill this need while the families are in limbo. If rights are terminated, foster caregivers can apply to adopt.
Wanting to adopt was what got Sandoz started in foster care. She explained that at first, it was hard to give foster children back when it was time to. She remembered “They weren’t ours to keep. I think when you first start out, you’re very naive. I really did think ‘Oh, these first ones, they’re going to be mine. I get to keep them forever.’ Then you realize, no.”
DSS has made some changes to rules in foster care. Sandoz said “When I first started, there was almost no contact between the parent and the foster parents. We were pretty much kept separate. The very few times you would see them would be like at a doctor’s appointment.” She said that if parents had visitation, they’d meet at Safe Harbor in Aberdeen or in Huron. “The parents would have to arrive first, and be there for a few minutes before the child could show up.” She explained that this was a safety measure, and meant to avoid any disagreements in the parking lot.
Sandoz went on “They did change that to where they did offer more times when you would be around them and get to know them. If it was safe, you could maybe try to have a meeting where you would talk about the kids and they could tell you ‘Well, this is their favorite this or that,’.”
Sandoz thought that more openness was a positive thing – though not without awkwardness. “It’s always awkward. But I think the benefit is that when they meet you and they realize that you’re on their team, they’re a lot more comfortable with you.”
She continued “They understand that it’s not a contest. Just because I may take better care of them right now does not mean that I get to keep them. Once foster kids went back home, it was up to the birth parents whether to stay in contact with the foster parent.
The longest amount of time that Sandoz had a child was about 2 years. The shortest time was a weekend. She took in children as old as 16 and as young as 7 weeks. Sandoz said that in a certain case, “When we hit that year mark, Mom still wasn’t back, but the state didn’t feel like her rights should be terminated. There was still some work to be done.” That child was eventually reunited with his birth mother.
At times, Sandoz would care for a child with extra needs, such as medical care. She was not completely alone. Home health care was involved. She also had the case worker, as well as medical and other professionals
Sandoz found the experience of foster parenting to be an enriching one. She stopped fostering after about 10 years because she ended up adopting children. “They needed my attention.” she said. She ended up adopting 5 children – as a single parent. She stated that the adoptees were all siblings, so she wanted to take them all.
She said “It has always been my – I don’t want to say ‘goal,’ -- but that had always been what I wanted to do was adopt. I have 1 biological son, and I never wanted him to be an only child.” She said that because she had started fostering when her biological son was very young, he was used to having other kids around. However, she said “I did always make sure to listen to him, and if he said ‘Mom, I need a little break,’ we’d take a break.”
Eventually, though, he started to miss having other kids around. The number of children in the house varied. Sandoz said that at first, she was given 1 or 2 children to foster. Toward the end of her fostering years, she had “as many as 7 or 8 kids at one time.”
Sandoz said that foster children would receive all the love a parent would give. “I think you do give love right from the get-go. You may not love the behaviors. But the kids don’t come into foster care for anything they did. It’s by no means their fault. They need to know that they’re loved and that it’s okay. You want to give them a sense of normalcy as soon as possible.” She emphasized that stability was very important for foster kids. Exactly how that stability is brought about is dependent upon individual parenting styles. She said “If you ask my kids, they’ll tell you I was harder on the older ones, and now with the younger ones, I’m a lot easier on them.” One factor in this was oversight. Sandoz said “I try to remind them that until the older ones were older, they were in the foster system, so it wasn’t just me – I had to report back to the state.”
There used to be a rule that foster caregivers could not show their foster children on social media. Nowadays, according to Sandoz, pictures of foster children are allowed. But no mention of them being in foster care can be posted. “If people know you well enough, they’re going to know this is what you do.” she said. Foster caregivers have to mind privacy rules. “You aren’t allowed to talk about what brought them into foster care, or where they’re from.”
Sandoz wanted to make known a couple of things: First: “I think people assume, especially with older kids, that they’re there because it’s their fault. They’ve done something.” She said that’s not true. “If a child has to be removed for their behaviors, they’re going to go into another place. They’re not going to go to a foster home.” Also, she said that kids have a tendency to feel like it’s their fault that they’re in foster care.
The other thing: “The goal of foster care is reunification.” Sandoz said “A lot of new caregivers go in, like I did, very naive. You look down on the parents, like ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe they would ever do that.’ – but you don’t necessarily know what led them down that path.” She emphasized that one shouldn’t judge.
Sometimes, children are reunited with their families. Sometimes, they remain in foster care. Some end up being adopted. In Sandoz’ experience, “I’ve had both cases, where the parents have kind of seen the error of their ways and worked really hard to get their kids back. And I’ve seen those cases where they haven’t.”
She saw a team effort. “I think if you look at it as you’re a team and you’re helping, doing whatever you can, that’s the best thing to do. It takes a village.”
Sandoz said that, at least for the most part, birth parents “don’t want to give up their child.” She shared a story about one family: “I had 4 kids come to be under horrific circumstances. At first, it didn’t look like Mom was willing to understand what had happened, why the children were taken away, and to work on it. And then something turned.” Sandoz said that she tried to help how she could, and would try to keep the mom involved by sending her pictures of the kids.
This mom ended up regaining custody of her children. Sandoz said “When we went to court on the day that they were returned, she was so grateful and she gave me a hug. It kind of came out of the blue. It really did surprise me that she thanked me for it and thanked me for taking care of her kids.”
Sandoz had some thoughts on what it takes to be a good foster caregiver. Flexibility was big. “It’s going to sound kind of silly, but you need to be flexible, but you also need to be rigid or scheduled as well. A lot of times, these kids are coming from chaos.” She also noted that plans could change suddenly. Unexpected things could come up.
Empathy was also big. She explained that one has to be empathetic, not just toward the children, but “toward the whole situation.” She noted that caseworkers have a lot of cases, and put in a lot of effort. Empathy would be extended to them, as well as to parents.
Sandoz added “I think one of the things that you have to be, which it’s really tough to be at times, is a co-parent with biological parents.” Because their parental rights have not been terminated, parents have a say in things like medications. Cutting hair requires permission, especially for Native American foster children. (There are some extra rules regarding Native American foster children, who are disproportionately represented in foster care in SD. One rule is that Native American foster parents are preferred.)
Sandoz said she’s a big-hearted person. That helped her in being a foster parent. She said “The kids need the love. They need the warmth and support, and all the good stuff.” When it comes down to it, foster parenting is the same work as parenting. Sandoz said “If you don’t like being a mom, you’re not going to like fostering.” She said that sometimes, because they’ve been through trauma, foster children may have some unlovable behaviors. “You have to remember that it’s not their fault – it’s the trauma.” She emphasized the importance of supporting the children. “They do need that love, and they need to know that no matter what, somebody’s got their back.”
Sandoz encouraged more people to become foster parents – but – “It’s not for everybody. It’s not easy. It’s also hard because you get attached to the kids, and you don’t always have that contact after they go back.” Contact would be at the discretion of the parent. Adult former fosters could decide for themselves whether or not to be in touch with former foster families. Sandoz said that she wonders about all the old foster kids that she doesn’t have contact with.
In regard to separation, she said “With the younger ones, it’s a lot tougher because you are bonding with them, and they don’t really know better.” Younger foster children get more visitation times with their parents.
While having to give children back could be difficult, she found the team mindset to be helpful. “If you go into it with the mindset that you’re a team, and the team’s goal is to get those kids back, it helps. You think, yes, it would be ‘Yay!’ if I could adopt them – but it would be even more ‘Yay!’ if they get to be with their family and they will do better. They will thrive if the family is healthy.” she said.
She said that things can be tricky for foster kids. Being in care could mean going to a new school, and having to make new friends. In regard to misconceptions, Sandoz said “It doesn’t lead to adoption as much as people think it does.”
In regard to fostering, she said “It’s a fine line, because the goal is reunification, and you want the kids to go back. But there comes a point in time when it’s ‘We can’t keep doing this.’ The care has to be what’s best for the children. I think that’s not always the case. They talk about how foster care is supposed to be what’s best for the children, but honestly, a lot of times it feels like it’s what’s best for parents.
It’s up to the parents to step up and do what the State asks of them in order to regain custody of their children. Sandoz said “Your job is the kids. You’re not in charge of making sure the parents do anything. You don’t necessarily get to know what they’re doing to correct it.”
She said that foster caregivers should be informed. “I’d always recommend that foster parents go to any and all court hearings. The attorneys are there… they will talk about what they’re doing.”
She added “When you have that connection to the parents, and you can see the growth, that helps. You’re not looking for the parents to be perfect.” Caregivers can’t be perfect either. But “there’s a lot of oversight.” she said. This oversight, done in the best interest of the foster children, can add pressure.
In some ways, life was less complicated with adopted children than with foster children. Sandoz said that adoptions were closed – but not sealed. Upon turning 18, foster kids could view their records. But, Sandoz said, “Honestly, with technology and social media today, that’s not going to stop things. They’re going to be able to find them sooner. You just have to have that open dialogue, and understand that your kids still have connections to their biological parents and biological family.
She noted that denying the connections could cause problems. “If you try to just cut everybody off, they’re just going to rebel.” She said that once an adopted child turns 18 and finds their birth family, things can get confusing for them. They may hear a different side of the story from biological family members.
Sandoz stayed busy as a single mom. When the kids were younger, she couldn’t work full-time. “I was very lucky with the jobs I was able to do, like substitute teaching, or I was a waitress. I could kind of pick up shifts here and there. They didn’t need me all the time.”
A disadvantage for adoptive parents is limited access to older medical records. Sandoz said “Prior to adoption, you get a day where you get to go in and look at their whole file from DSS. You can’t take anything with you. They can make some copies for you, but there are some things they can’t. You’re never going to get their medical history again. There’s trauma, and there’s mental health issues. Then you’re running into what is hereditary? What role do genes play?” This lack of knowledge could also affect future generations.
She had recent experience with this. “I took my boys in, and they were starting with a new doctor. She’s asking me all these questions, and I’m like ‘I don’t know.’” She continued “You would be surprised how often you’re asked ‘When was their first step?’ ‘When was their first word?’” She couldn’t say “I’ve got nothing for you – I don’t know. They came to me walking and talking.”
Another hard thing is that at the end of senior year in high school, there is often a video which includes current pictures as well as baby pictures. Adoptive parents don’t always have photos of children when they were babies.
Sandoz said that if someone wanted to adopt without first being a foster parent, “It’s going to be harder. Really, if you’re wanting to adopt without fostering, you need to go to private adoption. That’s going to cost money.” She said that a lot of countries wouldn’t let a single parent adopt a child.
Some people adopt because they do not have their own children. Others have children but want to add more. Sandoz said it’s important to treat biological and adoptive children the same. “You know, it’s gotta be all or nothing. You have to just love them and get whatever you get. You don’t know what you’re getting. Kids might seem okay right now, and then things come up later on. It’s true with biological children, spouses, everybody.”
On the day that Sandoz was scheduled to adopt her kids, there was suddenly a storm. She was determined that they would make it to Aberdeen for the appointment. They made it – but didn’t get much time to go out to celebrate.
She said that the kids knew they were going to be adopted. It was an adjustment.
Sandoz seems to like having a full house. She said “What ends up happening, honestly, is that you reach a point – probably between 3 and 4 kids – where you suddenly don’t even realize. You could add 12 kids on. It’s not going to matter. It is what it is.” However, absence can be felt. “If you take those children away, it changes the whole. You’re like ‘It’s quiet – who am I missing?’” she said. Sandoz got what she’d always wanted.