Since I can remember, I have always had a special place in my heart for working with children. This led me to pursue a nursing degree, specializing in pediatrics. My experience includes both critical and chronic care. I consider it a great privilege to have met so many beautiful and diverse families along the way who have taught me lifelong lessons about love. In particular, I would like to share about children who have chronic healthcare needs who are in the foster care system.
According to the University of Massachusetts Medical School, between 72 and 90 percent of children in foster care have at least one chronic health condition. Between 25 and 40 percent of children in foster care have three or more chronic health conditions. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children with a chronic health care condition are defined as "those who have or are at risk for chronic physical, developmental, behavioral, or emotional conditions and who also require health and related services of a type or amount beyond that required by children generally."
All foster families need the support of those around them, and this includes families who have welcomed a child with a special healthcare need into their home. It is important for families to be educated about how their lives will change when they make this decision, so that it is not made lightly. It is also vital for that family to have an active support system in place to help carry them. Families cannot be expected to embark on this journey alone. Studies show time and again that if families are not supported adequately, they will face discouragement and burn out that is otherwise avoidable. Discouragement is a part of the journey regardless, but we should not stand by and let that continue at a level that is defeating. With support, families are better able to feel hopeful and to enjoy the blessings of their decision to love and welcome this child.
This support system will partly consist of state agencies and case workers. Ideally, it will also include a Court-Appointed Special Advocate for each child. Additionally, no matter where our legislators align politically, services such as Medicaid are absolutely vital in adequately loving children with chronic health conditions. Support will also hopefully include foster families networking with and encouraging one another. It is so comforting to know you are not alone and there are people who are going through a very similar journey.
Furthermore, families who foster absolutely need people who have not fostered or adopted to be involved. Often, I have found, both personally and professionally, that people who feel they are not in a place to foster or adopt feel guilty about that, or perhaps at a loss for how to help. I am here to tell you that, although each of us would do well to be perpetually in prayer and open to God’s leading, the reality is that He does not ask each of us to answer His call to care for the vulnerable in exactly the same way. The call is there, and so to not answer it at all is to be disobedient. But please know that families who foster children, including those with special healthcare needs, absolutely need the rest of us to rally around them in ways that other foster families cannot, because they are in the trenches themselves.
So, do you know a family who is fostering a child with a special health care need? Reach out to them regularly. Drop off a meal for their freezer on a regular basis. Provide for needs such as clothing or supplies. Offer to mow their lawn. Learn the specifics about their child’s health care need(s). Use that knowledge and offer to babysit so that mom and dad can have time for rest and connecting. The laws about this will vary by state. Some states require special training for respite care. Other states have loosened their laws and allow the foster parents to choose whichever babysitters they wish, as long as it is for no longer than one night. Learn the laws in your state.
Alternatively, do you know a parent who has temporarily lost parental rights and is trying to earn them back? Because the goal of foster care is to reunite children with their biological parents when possible, this is an area that is vital. However, unfortunately it often gets overlooked by those outside the system. If you know someone in that situation, an amazing way to show love is to come alongside and mentor that parent. For parents in this situation whose child has one or more special healthcare needs, the overwhelmed feeling can seem insurmountable. Love them, encourage them, pray for their healing, guide them in decision-making, remain hopeful with them.
Children with special health conditions who are in the foster system need us to advocate for them. This takes tremendous team effort, from people of all walks of life.
Together, let’s keep learning to love them better. Together, this is an opportunity to change the world.
Michelle Copple is a Board Member for Mid-Atlantic Orphan Care Coalition. She and her husband have 2 daughters and live in Townsend, Delaware.