Foster parents deserve greater level of appreciation

emma margraf I’ve been thinking a lot about mass production. There are different kinds, right? One kind is effective and human, the other is mechanized and empty.

I used to be a really good barista at a resort town coffee shop and I’d line up 10 cups in a row and drop shots of espresso, milk, foam, and chocolate in various of the cups, then call out the names of the people who ordered them in rapid fire succession. I knew the customers at that store well.

The mass production I learned there was an effective strategy mixing time management techniques with individual attention. I learned to steam large quantities of milk and pull espresso shots quickly and in the ways customers liked most. I had a lot of incentive – it made for big tips.

Years later, I have two jobs. At one of them I’ve not gotten a raise in the five years despite the fact that everyone agrees I do it well. It’s also a job where I’m under constant scrutiny – there are binders full of regulations to abide by under threat of discipline. There are four to 10 professionals I’m responsible to at any given moment, and those people change regularly and ask to be caught up to speed on everything I’ve done in the past five years immediately. The better you do at the job, the less support you are offered.

This is foster parenting.

One of those professionals was at my house recently inviting me to their foster parent appreciation party – it’s a luau. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I asked her if there were presents involved. No, she said, “but there’s punch!”

Western Washington is thousands of foster placements short of fulfilling its need. There is a particular need for foster parents to raise teenagers in care, who get sent to group homes in Idaho and Spokane with regularity because of a lack of options.

According to OSPI, foster children drop out of high school at a higher rate than any other category. The kids in care are on a mass production line with little room for individual or outside of the box thinking – so they drop out.

Every day I hear negative words about foster care, and that’s fair. There are a lot of foster parents who are in over their heads, underqualified, and stressed out – and that leads to mistakes. Not enough educated people with resources sign up to be foster parents.

But I can’t help but wonder what would happen if this work were incentivized and attracted professional people who could line up all the children and give them exactly what is going to work for them.

At my other job, I am the development director for SideWalk, which has a growing number of clients who’ve moved from the streets to their own homes with our help. When they exit the program, I ask them why they were successful and they universally tell me that they are grateful to us; we treated them like people. We worked with them in a way that was relevant to who they were.

For some of them, that’s the first time they’ve felt this way in years. SideWalk operates on a simple truth, that housing ends homelessness. SideWalk is a bunch of people finding housing, together.

Foster parenting could be simple as well. If the job of being a foster parent were treated like the valuable and high stakes job that it is, more people would sign on. If the job of a foster parent were treated like the valuable and high stakes job that it is and more people were directly asked to do it, foster children would be safe, happy and graduating from high school.

Mass production. At any given time there are between 300 and 400 foster children in Thurston County. In a town our size, we should have plenty of room for them. You ask everyone, and you create a production line that leaves room for people. When you ask everyone, the expectations in these children’s lives will raise.

It’s foster parent appreciation month, which I guess is why I’m being invited to ice cream socials and luaus with punch. For a group of people raising the most traumatized children in our community, this level of appreciation seems like a drop of water in the desert.