On our first day as foster parents, we had ice cream for dinner. My husband and I thought it’d be an afternoon comfort after the "new house" tour, but then the children fell asleep from exhaustion before the real dinnertime.

The two girls arrived at our door with 20 dresses – but no pajamas, no toothbrushes, just a few toys. Their emotional needs would prove overwhelming. We desperately needed time to get to know them, to listen, to play, to gain their trust, to determine their talents and hopes. We would have been overwhelmed had it not been for empathetic family and friends who lent practical help and encouragement.

Chances are you know a neighbour, co-worker, church member or relative who cares for foster children. As a foster parent, I know what a difference another’s kindness can make as foster families adjust to their new lives together.

Parent to parent

The first few weeks when a new child is placed in a home can be hectic and emotionally draining. At that time, foster families need the same kind of support that parents of newborns need. Consider preparing dinner for them, helping with kitchen cleanup or assessing other needs (e.g., errands, babysitting).

Children often arrive in their new home with little clothing or belongings. You can easily learn the child’s sizes and ask for outgrown clothing from other families who have children a size or two larger. When our first two foster daughters arrived, friends blessed us with bags of clothing. The girls loved trying on each item. A neighbour brought a "welcome home" cake. Another friend purchased toys at garage sales.

Even for foster-care veterans, babysitting is a refreshing gift. Give Mum an afternoon off by taking the kids to the park or teens to the mall. Provide transportation to school, youth group or other activities. Perhaps you are uniquely qualified to make a particular contribution: tutoring, music lessons, a bread-baking session or an introduction to scrapbook design, camping or fishing. Teaching a skill provides the extra attention these children crave.

One woman prayed about what she could do for a foster family with four children under the age of six and came up with this idea: Every week, she picked up all the laundry, took it to a laundromat and returned it clean and folded within three hours. The foster mum called her "the Laundry Angel."

Child to child

If you have kids who will be interacting with foster children, explain foster care in an age-appropriate way. For example, it’s best not to inform younger children of abusive situations or drug use, but older children may be more compassionate knowing this kind of detail.

Encourage your children to treat the newcomers with acceptance and understanding. Give them empathetic tools for relating to foster children, teaching phrases such as "That must have been hard," "I’m sorry that happened to you" and "I’m glad you’re here now." It can be painful for foster families when others shy away from allowing their kids to befriend the foster children.

Alleviate worries about a child being a bad influence or exhibiting disturbing behaviour by supervising the time they spend with your kids. Foster children may indeed use unacceptable language, take things or destroy things. If this happens, talk it over with the foster parents. They are getting to know this child, and behaviour is often different inside and outside the home. Your candid observations may provide a key to understanding and healing some behaviours the child has learned.

Do let the parents know your positive observations as well. If little Laura was polite and shared nicely, they’ll be glad to hear it!

Slow to judge

Be gracious. One mum stopped attending church on Wednesday evenings after her family grew by four more children. Her husband took them to youth activities while Mum enjoyed her only time alone all week. She desperately needed time off, but a church leader criticised her for missing church.

I once observed an entire women’s ministry in an uproar over a member who relinquished placement of a troubled foster teenager. The girl was an angel at church and just the opposite at home, to the point of threatening other children’s safety. An expert at manipulation, the teenager convinced many women of her supposed mistreatment in the foster home. The foster parents were in agony about their decision to have her moved to another home – even more so because others rejected them rather than choosing to understand the family’s struggles.

The most essential support you can offer is prayer. Pray for each child, for the birth family, for the family’s decisions, for healing and wholeness. These children will need prayer long after they’ve been adopted, moved to another placement or returned to their original families. Pray for, love and help foster families, and you can make a difference in a child’s future.

For much more information on supporting adoptive and foster families, visit Barnardos Australia

© 2007 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

Linda Riley

Linda Riley is a foster and adoptive parent.

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