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Wisconsin Foster Parents Had No Idea

When we got our foster care license, we felt prepared and ready as we would be. We had a great team walk us through all the foster care steps, home visits, and foster parent training. We asked many questions along the way and learned a lot about what it would be like to foster kids with trauma. Then came Stacey, Anna, and other foster kids who struggled with one common theme. A terrible battle we had heard about but could not understand until we faced it firsthand.

New Wisconsin foster parents will need help understanding this.

We covered so many topics in our foster parent training, that I'll admit it was a lot of information to digest. My husband and I would talk about things afterward and reread our training binder to ensure we understood things. We learned in our training that the majority of kids in foster care struggle with food. Food insecurity develops when food is unavailable, withheld, or used as a punishment or discipline tool. I only partially understood that children who have not been fed regularly or consistently often develop a survival mentality toward food. 

The preoccupation with food was a theme my husband and I saw repeatedly with nearly every child that came into our home. They obsessed over food. They questioned if they would eat again and begged us not to take away food because they were "bad." It was heart-wrenching, and if I'm honest, it was also frustrating. Food insecurities are real with foster kids, and patience and understanding are required.Pieper Dog

Foster parents must pay attention to the little things.

Stacey was our first placement, a 14-year-old beautiful girl with a horrifying past. She had been in multiple foster homes before coming to our home. She had many behaviors and coping skills, but one thing, in particular, would be our challenge. Stacey checked the refrigerator's contents and scanned the pantry shelves every time she passed through the kitchen. It was a ritual. I wonder if she was aware of how often she did it.
At a glance, I knew how quickly snacks disappeared, which snacks were the favorites, and which ones the kids rejected. With two other kids in the house, I knew my kitchen and other kids' habits, and something wasn't right.
Within the first two weeks of Stacey joining our family, I began to notice food was disappearing much faster than what was expected in a home of five. Snacks went missing within hours of a grocery run. The other kids were complaining that they didn't get their share of a favorite snack. At first, I looked to my boys as possible bandits. With swift denial from both, I turned my suspicions to Stacey.

It broke my heart, and I had no idea the depth of what I discovered.

I can't remember exactly how the conversation went, only that Stacey denied knowing anything about the wrappers in the washing machine. Upon setting her clean laundry on her bed, I noticed something unusual with the mattress that led me to a quick sweep; I was shocked at my discovery.
I found over a dozen hidden snacks in between the mattresses. I remember thinking, why would she steal food? Why would she stockpile granola bars? We ate three meals a day; there was plenty for everyone. Then I remembered a video we watched in our foster parent training. It was happening in my house. A child who did not trust that food would be provided. A child with food insecurities.

As her foster parent, a message of love and promise was all I could provide her.

The conversations seemed repetitive over the weeks, but we saw small progress. Reassurance and a consistent message of love and promise were all we could offer her. Eventually, we devised creative tricks and solutions to help her trust, feel safe, and believe that she didn't have to sneak or hide food to protect herself or cope.
Allowing her to be part of the creative process towards her healing was also important. She scaled back hoarding food in her bedroom by relying on some of the new tools she learned to feel safe and to trust. Occasionally, a wrapper or snack would turn up in a shoe or coat pocket, but we let those instances go without mention. She had come so far in her healing.

Understanding the reasons why foster children struggle with food.

"Are we eating today?" We heard that question 10-15 times daily for weeks on end from 6-year-old Anna. She and her non-verbal 8-year-old sister Maria joined our family shortly after Stacey was reunited with her mother. No matter how often I reassured Anna that the next meal would be coming, she doubted me. I encouraged her to watch or help me prepare a meal, and she doubted me. We counted granola bars and apples to help her understand there were enough for everyone, and she doubted me.
We learned that the sisters lived in an apartment littered with garbage, soiled furniture, spoiled food, and rats. There was not a table or chairs. The refrigerator was not working, which made sense of the fact that the girls didn't like cold food and preferred room-temperature drinks. Anna spoke for Maria and told me what she liked and didn't like. Sometimes, she told me Maria didn't like something so she would be assured of not having it herself. That became her running routine, and I fell for it every time in the beginning.
Baby steps meant serving food on paper plates and allowing them to share food with each other. It meant buying chicken nuggets while I gently introduced fresh meats. Applesauce was as close to a piece of fruit as we got for a long while.

Patience would prove to be our friend.

The girls sat together at the kitchen island, and my husband and I sat at the table with the other kids. They weren't ready for the stimulation of eating as a family, and we didn't push it. The noises, conversation, and food passing were too much for them. They were happy to be together at the island, eating a meal promised to them.
"Are we eating today?" continued for about six weeks. Anna would sit on her stool and watch me cook but still wasn't trusting that the food would be shared with her and Maria. I would emphasize that I was cooking dinner for everyone to enjoy, and she would bounce back with, "I know, but are we eating it today?".

I never dismissed her or requested she stop asking; eventually, she just did. Finally, the girls accepted my invitation to help with meal preparation. They searched the pantry for items needed, stirred pasta sauce, and setting out the silverware and napkins became our routine. Then, one day, the table was set for two more. Anna and Maria were ready.Cookies2

I remember that I didn't say a word about it. I just smiled and thought about the hundreds of baby steps it took to get that table set for the entire family. I'm not sure what finally triggered the move to the table, but we were thrilled they decided to join us on their terms when they were ready. 
Are you interested in caring for children like Stacey and Anna? Do you think you might be ready to help a child heal? Learn how to qualify.
Call us anytime: 800-799-0450 
This story came to us by a retired foster parent and friend of CCR.
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