Confidentiality and Identity in Foster Care

*This is part two in a series discussing the importance of confidentiality in foster care. Click the following links to read more: Part One | Part Three | Part Four*

We had a sitter once who asked about a friend’s newly adopted child, not by the child’s name or status as a son or daughter, but by the child’s ethnicity. In that very moment, I realized that I needed to be much more confidential about the reasons our foster child was in our care. Because the reasons he came into care did not define him then, and they don’t define him now. Those obstacles are not his identity, nor is the fact that he was in foster care at all. His identity is found in Christ, and in Christ alone. Sometimes I wonder if by sharing details about our foster children, we are unknowingly allowing a large misunderstanding population to assign them a false identity that will follow them the rest of their lives, along with all the stereotypes that will jump on for the ride.

No, actually… I don’t wonder if that happens. I know that happens, because I’ve seen it happen. Before we were called to be foster parents for long term care and/or adoption, we were certified to do respite care with teenagers in the two group homes in our area. The weekends and holidays we spent with these kids are still some of my favorite memories, and we have remained in touch with several of these children who are now adults and out of the foster care system. I’m grateful for those experiences and I cherish these friends, but I can tell you without question: the stereotypes (no matter how deeply flawed, untrue, and fought against) associated with the events that brought them into and through foster care have followed these friends of mine and affected their lives in the long term.

As people entrusted with these children’s stories, lives, and sometimes futures, we must make their privacy and true identity a priority. Remember, we aren’t in foster care for ourselves, for pats on our backs, social media attention, or even as recruiters of more foster parents. We are in this because we have been called to love and care for these children. Period.

This has been a little foggy for me over the years… until six or so months into our first long term placement. Since then I’ve mentally compiled this list of reasons confidentiality matters so very much in foster care.

  • It matters because these children have identities past our homes.

    • ...and when we cover a small portion of their faces with small cutesy graphics, anyone who knows that child, will most certainly recognize that child. Let's not forget that children in foster care are no different than any other children. They have friends just like your children have friends. Through those relationships and the vastness of social media, we may unknowingly be sharing parts of our foster child’s face and story with people who know him or her. And friends, this is NOT ok... because if even just one of those people recognizes that child’s partially hidden face, confidentiality is broken. To many, he will be assigned a new and entirely false identity:  foster kid, screw up, dysfunctional, mentally ill, bad kid, juvenile delinquent, worthless. What was once a very private and intimate piece of that child's life has potential to become public knowledge saturating his identity in lies and stereotypes that will follow him for years to come. YOU know the truth about these children’s identities. Make it a priority that each of them knows the truth as well, and for that TRUTH to be what follows them the rest of their lives: loved, worthy of love, valued, cherished, fearfully and wonderfully made, sons and daughters of the King.

  • It matters because these parents have identities past foster care.

    • ...and please don't get me wrong, I know that some of these parents are evil to the core... but a vast amount of them are not. SO very many have deep love for their children just like we have for our children... they are fighting, struggling, sick, addicted, lost, hopeless, unsupported, devastated, living in poverty or completely homeless, torn up inside and drowning, seeking and needing the love and support you and your family must offer them... Y'all, these parents have identities past "he-lost-his-kid." These parents are trying to find jobs and housing, trying to get clean, trying to build new relationships with positive people, searching for stability... and again, the vastness of social media, and the smallness of the world puts their identity at risk when we share photos and information. We may unknowingly share a photo or information with a mutual friend (Yes, I have stories!) and suddenly the most sensitive part of these parent's lives has now been outed and they will be assigned a new identity saturated in lies and stereotypes: addict, failure, can't get straight, lazy, unwilling to change, worthless, doesn’t love her kids, selfish. Friends: You know those are lies... If you've seen the way they look at their children and weep at visits, then you know you have to protect them from those lies... even if it means sacrificing 'likes' on Facebook... you must protect them.

When I shared both of these photos of my then foster son on Facebook, I put both his and his mom's identity at risk. One of them is ok... the other one? Completely recognizable.. I shared too much.

When I shared both of these photos of my then foster son on Facebook, I put both his and his mom's identity at risk. One of them is ok... the other one? Completely recognizable.. I shared too much.

  • It matters because these children are not ours.
    • 'Birth parent' and 'bio-parent' aren't terms in the foster care dictionary. Parents and foster parents… that's all. A foster child’s parent remains that child’s parent until their rights are either surrendered or terminated in a court of law. And let me ask you a question: does the idea of strangers sharing photos of your children including details about their personal life with hundreds, sometimes thousands of strangers bother you? Friends, that is precisely what we are doing when we share these little ones with the world or even with our friends and family. There is not a single person in all of social media or in your entire personal circle who needs to know why or how your foster children came into care, what they or their parents are working on, their health concerns, their case plan, nothing….. These are not our children, and their stories are not ours to share.

  • It matters because these people have hearts.

    • ...and their hearts are breaking. Right. now. Right this minute, there is a father who is weeping because his brand new baby wasn't in the NICU when he came for his daily visit. There's a mother devastated over past decisions that led her to this place, checking into rehab, unsure of where her children are, or if she'll have the opportunity to make things right. There is an elementary school student who is confused and crying herself to sleep tonight, because the school bus didn't take her home today, but she was picked up by a social worker and dropped off at a stranger's house. She's scared, confused, and she misses her mama. There are brothers and sisters who are fighting to stay together, they have raised each other, they can't do life apart, they don't know these strangers they're supposed to live with and trust, but they do know they can't do it if they're not together. These are people, these are hearts... these are their stories, and only their stories. The fact that we get to be a character in these stories is a blessing and a privilege, but more so, it is an enormous responsibility. We are responsible for supporting these parents and children, for loving them at their worst, for committing to them no. matter. what. We are responsible for protecting them from a world that would misunderstand them and spread lies and stereotypes about who they are. We are responsible for earning their trust, and clenching it so tightly, that there are no amount of Facebook likes, retweets, Instagram followers or pats on the back that could ever ever cause us to loosen our grip on the gift of their trust. Foster parents, please hear me, the trust of someone who's child has been taken from them and the trust of a child who has been removed from their home is not easily earned. Do not take advantage of it. Do not break it. It is a precious gift. Protect this trust, these parents, these identities with your life.