Collage showing family photos on a wooden table surrounded by pet items.
Collage by Rachel Stern/Photos courtesy of Kelly Duer

When we were in our late 20s, my husband, Lee, and I fostered two orphaned preteen children from Colombia. Although we weren’t planning on having children anytime soon, we decided to foster the brother and sister because, in the words of my husband, “It’s just six weeks. We can do anything for a month and a half.”

The opportunity came through Kidsave International’s Summer Miracles Program, which brings children from several other countries who need families to the U.S. The kids are told they’re attending summer camp, but Kidsave works behind the scenes to find them adoptive families during their stay.

Kidsave’s family visit model uses short-term foster care, advocacy and mentoring to secure permanent placement and lifelong connections for a population that has traditionally been the most difficult to find placement for: older children. I’d been helping to coordinate the Washington, D.C., program for several years when Lee and I decided to sign up to be temporary foster parents. What I learned during this time became the basis for the work I do today in animal welfare. So, with my children’s permission, I’d love to share it with you.

During those six weeks, Lee and I took the kids to events where we met potential adopters and advocated for their adoption. We were limited in what we could tell potential adopters. In the human foster system, foster parents are legally required to respect a child’s right to privacy, and a child’s public adoption or foster profile contains only positive, descriptive information.

As a host family, we’d seen the kids’ public profiles before being matched with them. Afterward, we were privately counseled, learning a limited amount of information about their challenges, diagnoses and support needs. However, Kidsave’s public events weren’t an appropriate place to share this information. This would happen later in their adoption process through narratives and conversations.

At first, I wondered what we would talk about with potential adopters. How could we talk about the children while avoiding off-limits subjects? Luckily, it was easier than I’d thought. By getting to know the children ourselves, we could tell stories that revealed their personalities more vividly than their past ever could.

By getting to know the children ourselves, we could tell stories that revealed their personalities more vividly than their past ever could.

When we spoke with potential adopters, I would almost always share this story: Before the children arrived, we’d set up two bedrooms with an assortment of stuffed toys. On their first morning with us, I woke up early but let my husband sleep in a bit. Half an hour later, I opened the door to our bedroom and stopped in surprise. Lee was still asleep, but it was clear that the kids had crept into the room. The stuffed toys from their rooms were fanned out around him in the bed. Several had been tucked under the covers, their tiny, plush heads resting on the pillow next to his. Later, the kids told us they had placed them all around Lee “to keep him company” as he slept.

Take just a moment and consider what you’re feeling right now. Did you picture the toys tucked under the covers, and did this help you feel an emotional connection? I’ve told this story dozens of times, but even now I can’t think about it without getting teary.

By the end of the summer, the kids found an adoptive family: us! They also had a backup family and two backup families for the backup family. This would be remarkable if they were simply 11- and 12-year-old children who needed to be adopted together, but there were other serious barriers that each family had learned after meeting the children: severe trauma histories and test results which predicted that one of them would never be able to live as an independent adult.

All of this leads to five important lessons from the human foster care system that can be readily applied to animal welfare:

1. Complete transparency is critical—but so is its timing. In my children’s public biographies, nothing was noted about the trauma they’d experienced, which would affect every area of our lives with them. This information was shared with us privately at relevant points in the hosting and adoption process. But after we developed a connection with them, nothing could stop us from becoming their family.

Ideally, when you’re marketing pets to the public, include only positive, descriptive, factual information. At a minimum, put the good stuff first to make that connection as quickly as possible and motivate potential adopters to learn more. That said, transparency is crucial; create a standard process to ensure both fosters and adopters eventually receive all the information you have on an animal, preferably through one-on-one conversations so you can discuss the information in context.

What might have happened if my children’s negative experiences, diagnoses, etc., were detailed in the adoption profiles we read before we were matched? We may have chosen not to host them. And we would have missed out on two of the most fulfilling, life-changing relationships of our lives.

What might have happened if my children’s negative experiences, diagnoses, etc., were detailed in the adoption profiles we read before we were matched? We may have chosen not to host them. And we would have missed out on two of the most fulfilling, life-changing relationships of our lives.

2. When you test under stress, the results may be unreliable. The results of my daughter’s cognitive skills test had more to do with her fear of being alone in a room with a strange man than her actual intellect.

It turned out that she has a learning disability, not an intellectual impairment. Now in her 20s, she’s worked for several years as a veterinary assistant at a practice that also serves as the city’s animal shelter. (When research came out questioning the ability of in-shelter behavior assessments to predict a dog’s future behavior, she might have had a bit of a soapbox moment.)

While one-time behavior evaluation tests in a shelter may provide some meaningful information, they’re only part of the picture and may only tell you how the animal acts while under stress. A holistic behavior assessment includes not just how a dog or cat behaves in the shelter but their history in previous homes, including foster homes.

3. Short-term foster care is one of your best tools to help those who are “harder to place.” If a pair of preteens can find four separate families who want to adopt them when there are test results saying one will never be able to live independently, you can find a home for that fearful kitty who has feline leukemia virus, too!

But if you don’t have an emotional connection with someone, it can be hard for you to help others make one. Enabling people to foster for a day, a week, a month, or whatever time they have lowers the bar for entry to fostering and allows them to create emotional connections free from the pressure of having to commit. Consider placing pets with long shelter stays into temporary foster homes to learn more about them. The connections made often lead foster parents to become advocates for the pet they’re hosting, opening doors to permanent placement.

4. Stories create emotional connections. Research shows that listening to stories engages many areas of the brain and strongly influences our behavior. As a pet foster parent, I found that telling stories about the pets and how they interact with the people in their lives is just as much a tool for creating emotional connections as it is with humans. And where’s the perfect place to gather stories about pets who need people? In a foster home, where a pet’s less stressed and their natural personality can shine.

5. Emotional connections can motivate us to do things we thought we couldn’t and challenge us to grow in ways we never expected. Always remember that our most basic goal when looking for adopters and fosters for pets is to create an emotional connection.

If I’d never met my children, would I have considered adopting two preteens with trauma histories before I’d even hit my 30s? Um, no. But after we connected on an emotional level and my heart got involved, I’d never wanted anything so badly in my entire life. Sixteen years later, my husband and I agree that it was one of the best decisions we ever made.

About the Author

Kelly Duer

As Foster Care Specialist for Maddie’s Fund, Kelly's focus is on helping shelters and rescue organizations increase lifesaving through the implementation of robust foster care programs. Her role includes creating and providing training for organizations and their foster coordinators, writing, assisting with research on foster care and consulting with shelters. Kelly’s work with foster care and social media has been featured in many national publications, websites and networks, including Animal Sheltering magazine, the Huffington Post, Best Friends magazine, BarkPost, iheartdogs.com, HuffPost Live and Fox News.

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