By Emily Westbrooks
When I became a foster parent, I had no idea there was a whole litany of words that I’d be using to talk about specific cases, or that I would often have to ask someone to define words and/or translate phrases because, well, I had no idea what anyone was talking about. Foster care has a steep, unforgiving learning curve, and there are words you only know if you’re a foster parent.
Thankfully, learning those words can help you climb that curve much faster.
Not all of the following words or acronyms are things you’d only understand if you were a foster parent, but they are all words that get thrown around by caseworkers and lawyers and supervisors on a daily basis when you’re fostering children. It’s like a special language and it can make foster care seem a little scary to think about having to learn a whole new set of vocabulary words just to understand what’s going on. I actually found it fascinating to get a look into a window I had never peeked before, though, and while learning a bunch of new law-related words did make me wonder if I should have been a lawyer, it also made me grateful for the whole bunch of people who were working behind the scenes. No foster case is perfect, but it’s certainly a world worth knowing and trying to improve and help.
If you are thinking of becoming a foster parent or even wondering how to help a foster parent you know, think of this list as your intro to the secret language of foster care.
My partner and I still get permanency hearing announcements in the mail every few months for our former foster baby. We’re notified as the former foster parents each time the court reviews a potentially permanent situation for the child. Permanency is just such a weird version of the word permanent that you don’t hear all the time, but it’s the critical end goal for the foster child.
A court-appointed special advocate (or CASA) is a volunteer whose role it is to look at a foster case and make recommendations in court, to the ad litems, and to the child protective services workers. CASA is a national program that trains volunteers to be advocates of children who have been abused or neglected. CASA volunteers go through 30 hours of training and then spend about 10 hours a month on a single case with a single child, or sibling group, for the duration of that case.
If you aren’t in a position to foster but want to help the foster care system function better, this might be a volunteer opportunity you could try.
Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) is program offered in most states that is for infants up to 3-year-olds with potential learning or developmental disabilities, or circumstances that warrant a closer look by professionals to ensure they are developing as well as they can be.
Kinship is the word most child and family services departments use to describe a family or friend as a foster parent. But believe it or not, it can describe someone who was a voluntary foster parent just days before child and family services took custody of the child, like my partner and I were for one of our foster children. We had known her five days when the caseworker said she was coming to do the kinship placement. It technically means the child isn’t being placed with an absolute stranger, but it typically means the child is with someone he or she knew previously.
TPR stands for termination of parental rights, which happens in a court and can either be voluntary or involuntary. My adopted kids’ parents relinquished their rights to their children at birth, and our adoption agency then filed paperwork to have their rights terminated before the adoption was finalized. However, if you’re a foster parent, sometimes TPR is the result of a court battle, and the biological parents are not voluntarily allowing their rights to be terminated.
I think in most circumstances, TPR is a tragedy no matter how you look at it and even if it’s absolutely the right decision for the child. Someone is still losing their mom and someone is still losing their kid, and that’s sad even if it’s the right decision in the long and short run.
Adoptive parents go through home studies as well, but foster parents have to have them in order to be licensed foster homes. Once you’re a foster parent there are also routine inspections, home visits with case workers, and sometimes therapists, and various visits from a whole lot of other agency workers. When my partner and I were fostering with the state program, we couldn’t believe all the people involved in one child’s case.
Reunification is when a foster child is reunited with one or both of their birth parents. It’s almost always the first goal of a foster case, but sometimes birth parents who’ve had their rights terminated previously have their children go straight to a different permanency goal, such as adoption by a family member or even a non-family member.
A guardian ad litem (we always called them the ad litem for short) is the lawyer who is appointed by the state to represent a child who is considered unable to speak for themselves. Our daughter actually had an ad litem (whom we met the week before her adoption finalized) even though her case was never in foster care. This individual’s job is to speak on behalf of the child after looking at the case from all sides and working with the caseworkers. Most ad litems are involved in any foster cases that have court hearings, which are most of them.
Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is a nationwide program that helps women, infants and children (duh, right?) by providing nutrition education and breastfeeding support, as well as formula and help with food expenses. It’s for parents and guardians who are in a certain low-income bracket. If your foster kid is on medicaid, they automatically qualify for WIC support, but you have to sign them up if they aren’t already.
Trauma-versary isn’t a word that’s only associated with foster care. In fact, it can be associated with any kind of trauma. But, it’s especially important with foster kids because it can explain odd or disruptive behavior around a particular time each year.
My partner and I knew a foster family whose kids were removed from the home around Halloween each year, and when Halloween decorations start coming out, their kids start responding emotionally even though they can’t explain why. It helps foster families to understand the dates and triggers for trauma in order to spot when a trauma-versary might be causing behavior problems or when a kid just needs a little extra support.