The Journey of Foster Parenting, VT

Man and woman smiling.Nicole sits in her living room, her young daughter playing happily in the background. The brief reprieve allows the young mother and foster parent a chance to reflect on her role as a community partner and caregiver. Nicole understands and is easily able to articulate her role as one of support for parents and families. She recognizes the myriad challenges birth parents face that create a need for people like Nicole and her husband, Travis, to step forward as care providers.

"When my daughter was about 2, we decided to apply to become foster parents. We wanted to give back to our community. I was home with my daughter, we had the extra space, and so, we thought, ‘let’s try this.’ Nicole explains that she and her husband feel drawn to helping kids and, by extension, they are helping their families and the community.

"It takes a village. That’s our mentality," She explains. "It’s a grander thought than the actual experience because I know it’s more difficult. Fostering is easier on paper for sure," she laughs. "The classes, training, all of it. But once you’re doing it, it’s another ballgame. It’s parenting—the hardest job you’ll ever have but you love it.”

Nicole and Travis have been fostering for 4 years. Last year, they saw the reunification of a child with the child's birth mother. The child had been with them for 2 years. "We had another successful reunification on Memorial Day," Nicole exclaimed. "It’s great to see!"

Still, Nicole explained that it was emotional for her family to see the child return to his birth mother. "My heart wasn’t quite ready, but I knew it was time. I’m glad to see that they are successful and doing well."

“And,” she chimes in cheerfully, "We have a play date!"

Nicole recalls their very first placement. "The mother was doing well," she said, "and yet, we were fostering her child. So, on that first Mother’s Day, I had taken some photos and put them in a frame for her. She was so emotional, and I felt good about helping her make that connection."

Her empathy is evident, and her bond, not only with her foster child but with the birth parent, shines through. Nicole explains the birth mother's reaction to coming to terms with having her child in foster care. "She said she was so worried about how her child was going to be taken care of and told us, ’I can see now, you love my baby, too.’"

For Nicole and Travis, fostering gives birth parents the time to focus on themselves and not have to worry about caring for a child. "They’re safe and cared for. You can get your baby back. That’s all we want to do."

She likens it to a journey and says, "From the outside looking in, it’s glamorized. Foster parents are “saintly”. Everybody likes to be complimented, but that’s not the reality of the situation."

Nicole is philosophical about her role as a foster parent. To her, it's about keeping a balance and always advocating for the child to go home if it's to a safe place. Working with DCF's Caseworker and Resource Coordinator, NFI, and the child's guardian ad litem, Nicole explains that it’s always been a team effort.

"I love the team at DCF! I can't say enough good things about them. Sarah, our Resource Coordinator is awesome! She must work 24/7. She knows everything or will find someone who does, and," Nicole says, "She is probably one of the main reasons why we've stuck it out. Sarah is always there to tell us we're doing a good job. She's been there all along!"

Nicole goes on to explain, "The people I’ve had the pleasure of working with, they’re so busy, there’s so much of this work. Caseworkers have more cases every day, needing donations, if people want to help but are not able to foster, there is always a need for respite providers, drivers, donations of all kinds like diapers, etc."

She speaks of what it is that creates a feeling of success. That foster care is about being able to help someone as being so much more valuable than the fear of getting started. "It’s fearful," she admits, "but there are people everywhere you can reach out to for help and support. Don’t let fear hold you back from changing lives. Changing your own life, not just the child’s. I’ll cherish that forever."

More than anything, Nicole is sensitive to the feelings of the birth family. As a mother herself she explains, "I always worry that biological parents think I’m trying to take their child. That’s hard to come to terms with. I’ve had children with me during their mother’s first Mother’s Day and it breaks my heart. We LOVE these children, like our own." She is a huge supporter of reunification and says, "We want them to be successful and be able to be a safe and happy family together. I don’t want to take that child away from you. I want to help you so you can provide that yourself."

Still, this experienced foster parent understands that reunification is not always possible. "Sometimes reunification isn’t always the best plan," she explains, "but I’m just here to love the child and take care of them for as long as I’m needed and to advocate for them and try to be as objective as I can be. You do fall in love with them. How can you not?!"

Nicole’s awareness of the complications of reunification is a result of learning about the opioid epidemic in Franklin County, VT. She is aware of how that has played out in increasing the need for foster care.

This is what I need to be doing," she says in closing, clearly emotional about the thoughts and memories of children in her care. "I’ll try not to cry."

Nicole urges those who foster in the St. Albans District to participate in the foster parent support group Fostering Better Tomorrows.

Nicole is a foster parent with the Vermont Department for Children and Families (VDCF). To learn more about becoming a foster parent with VDCF, visit its website.