Advice for Foster Parents: From Someone With Lived Experience
Last updated: March 2, 2022, at 11:14 a.m. PT
Originally published: December 6, 2021, at 10:20 a.m. PT
Jamerika Haynes-Lewis is an overcomer; she spent 13 years of her life in Washington’s child welfare system. She experienced foster care, a foster-to-adopt placement, kinship care, and other types of out-of-home placements within the vast system. Jamerika went on to put herself through college, graduating from Washington State University with a B.A. in communication. As a journalist and motivational speaker, Jamerika openly shares her lived experience within foster care, and hopes to help others who may be facing difficulties and a stigma of living or having lived in care systems.
This past July, she was crowned USA Ambassador Ms. 2021 and dedicated her platform toward ‘A Chance to Succeed: Empowering Youth in Foster Care.’ By sharing her story, she hopes to eliminate the stigma of being in foster care, which is often a barrier to connection for children and families. The Y recently took some time to speak with Jamerika about what she wants foster parents to know as they raise children in their care.
The Y: Are there any examples you can share about how a foster parent supported you during your time in care?
Jamerika: When I first went into care, understandably I was frightened. I was in a new environment with strangers. I know it can be hard for foster parents to see themselves as a “stranger,” but it’s important to remember when children first meet you, they don’t know you. It’s good to take things slow and focus on relationship building. I keenly remember my foster parents, the [Elmer and Willie Mae] Johnsons, feeding and giving me a bath on my first day in their home. Over time, they got to know me by spending time with me and letting me get used to being in their home.
What did they do well that others could learn from?
One thing they did well is they didn’t judge me. They respected my privacy by not sharing the details of my case with their friends. Being able to hold a child’s confidence (when appropriate) is imperative in establishing trust and safety for that child. This protects the child and makes them feel loved. I feel this is a lesson everyone should learn and uphold.
Where could foster parents do better?
Give yourself grace. No one is perfect. Be patient with yourself and take breaks. Fostering is a vocation and journey. Allow yourself to be present and enjoy this work. Most importantly, don’t try to do this on your own. Reach out to fellow foster parents and other community supports. There’s no shame in asking for help.
Is there anything that you look back on fondly with a foster family?
Yes! The Johnsons were very family-oriented. I loved being able to go on trips, even if it was to the commissary on base. We did everything together as family — opening presents at Christmas, going to church, playing sports and even watching tv together. Some of the best memories of my life.
What piece of advice would you give to someone who was considering becoming a foster parent?
Timing is everything. You should be in a good spot emotionally before fostering. It can be hard, but you have to be honest with yourself. Fostering can “magnify” any lingering issues or feelings you may have, especially if you’ve experienced trauma yourself. Don’t be afraid to speak with a professional. They can help you and it will benefit the kids you would care for.
What is the most important thing you could tell a new foster parent about caring for kids impacted by trauma?
Educate yourself as much as possible. Trauma can be particularly devastating for children as they are still in their development. However, it’s not a “life-sentence.” With the right support, children can heal and thrive. This is where it’s important to use those community supports like counseling and extracurricular activities. These supports give kids a chance to process their trauma while at the same time, nurturing their talents and gifts.
What is the most important thing for new foster parents to understand about caring for a child from a different culture than their own?
Culture is more than skin color or traditions; in our society, it’s important to understand how racism, sexism, and other “isms”, have affected how some groups have been portrayed and treated in society, sometimes negatively. The best thing you can do is learn and educate a child about their culture. Join them in these activities, don’t just drop them off. By virtue of being this child’s parent, you’re now a multicultural family. Embrace that. Educate yourself on discrimination and speak up when you see it. Your child(ren) need to know you’re their advocate. In return, they’ll learn to advocate for themselves.
What do you see as the benefits to youth of color in foster care to have caregivers of color?
The opportunity to see someone who looks like them on a regular basis. Having a parent who has lived experience as a person of color in our society. It’s not always easy but there’s joy to be had in one’s lifetime: connections, being able to build a life, and ultimately healing. For youth of color, they need to know they have the right to be safe and not harmed because they come from a different culture. Caregivers of color can provide that validation because of their similar background.
Learn more about fostering at the Y.