The First Night in Foster Care: What Foster Parents Need to Know

Today we will talk about how to make a foster child feel at home and how to be prepared for your first foster care placement.

Picture this, a school-age child is dropped off at your home by a social worker. They have just been removed from their parents. They are scared and confused. The worker leaves and you are face to face, alone with this child. Now what?

What’s next?

First of all, say hello to the child, introduce yourself briefly, show them in.  

Talk to the police officer or social worker, briefly, briefly – tell them to email or call later with any sensitive or graphic information.  Then most of the time, they leave rather quickly.

Give the child the tour of your house, make sure to show the child the bathroom and where they will be sleeping right away.  Let them open whatever cupboards they like and play with any and all toys (within reason).

Find something for them to do – age-appropriate toys, tv shows, etc.  If they have a backpack or jacket,  let them keep it with them or put it in their room, it is 100% up to them.  I had a girl keep her jacket and winter hat on for the first hour she was here once.  She got to choose when she took it off, I let her know she could take it off but didn’t try to help or worse, make her.  There is very, very, very little they are in control of at this point, let them control their stuff.

LET them be for a minute with you in the same room but not talking to them – they need to BE in the space before they can process you as another adult.

Get them a snack with something to drink.  It’s OK if they don’t eat it, provide it.  Let them be again.

Once they start to look at you, look curious, etc.  I ask, “Okay, so what did the officer/social worker tell you about me and this place?”  Generally, I get a shrug.  

“Well, my name is Alisa (I don’t assume they remember) and I live here with Sweetie.  We are the only ones who live here, I am not married and right now there are no other kids.  It’s my job to keep kids safe while the other grownups are figuring out what the plan is for you and your family”.  

If I know what’s next (court, weekend, visits, no visits, etc), I tell them.  Kids need to know what is going on and they deserve to.  “What questions do you have?”  Most likely other shrug but I assure you, it’s all going in.

Tell them why your house is awesome (“I have a Wii and lots of board games and I love to do art.”), and the try to get to know them.  Ask about school, what subjects they like, what they like to do, etc.  Be interested and remember they had a whole life before coming to you and its okay to be curious.  In that same breath, be sensitive and if they clam up about something or if you know a certain area or person is sensitive, be quick to jump to an easy subject – favorite TV show, etc.

Find something they like for dinner/snacks and make it for them.  

While they are eating dinner:

Ask what types of food they like and make it a point to get those foods the next day.

I say, “I was wondering what types of foods you like because we are just getting to know each other and everyone likes different things.  Since you’ll be staying here for a while, at least for the night, I want to get food that you like too, so let’s make a list.  What is one thing that you like to eat?”  Then I write it down.  Whatever it is.

Even if the entire list is chips and ice cream I write it down, commenting whenever it’s true that I like that food.  I really do like chips and ice cream.  However, since I also like real food, I am sure to ask what fruits and veggies they like.  

If they are really stuck, I ask what they like to eat for dinner with their Mom or Dad.  If they say they eat Mac and Cheese, then I’ll say, “Great, that’s yummy.  When you have Mac and Cheese, what else is on your plate?”  Gets the juices flowing.  

The important thing to remember here is NOTHING they like or don’t like is wrong.  THERE are no good foods or bad foods in this conversation   It is all a window into their world.  And then – GO buy it.  

Not all of it, you are still the one in charge, but make a real effort to make foods the kids like for at least the first few weeks.  Mac and Cheese for a month won’t injure them – feeling like they aren’t part of the family and have no say, that might.  Explain how bedtime and waking up works well before bedtime and then review as your tucking in.

Also during dinner and then again at bedtime, I say, “Tonight, we’ll get you all comfy in bed, with a nightlight, blankets, pillows, everything and then it’ll be bedtime. I will go into my room and dink around on my computer, but I’ll come back and check on you in a few minutes and see if you need anything.  In the morning, you can play quietly in your room, but stay in your room until I get up and get you.”  Then ask what they understood and correct anything they got wrong if it’s an important detail.  Bedtime is hard no matter what that first night, but take away as much mystery as you can.

Find something to do together, Wii, board game or just checking out the house. Show them how to work the TV remote.

Hang out in their new room, help them make it feel like it is “theirs,” even if its short term, move stuff around, put in the things they like (books, small toys), take out things that are too young or too old for them. Have them make their bed so it looks “just right” to them, get the books ready to read before bed, etc.

Have THEM put on their PJ’s.  If they are physically able, have them do it themselves, behind a closed bedroom door or in the bathroom – privacy IS SO SO SO important, especially when you are a total stranger and you have no idea what they have been through.  Most kids don’t seem to care about the privacy thing, but you need to.

Brush teeth, wash face, go to the bathroom, etc.  It establishes that this is what we do here before bed, don’t worry if they actually get clean teeth or hands or face that first night, and don’t fight it if its not happening.

Read some books with the grown-ups on the floor and the kids in a chair. Preferably in the room they’ll be sleeping in so they can get used to it, but use wisdom if there is known abuse.  I always sit on the floor with the kids on something for a good long time, so there is a little distance, just in case.

Read Maybe Days… at least I always do and answer any and all questions the kid can come up with as honestly and openly as you can.  It’s a hard, emotional read that first night, but it always brings up a lot of, “I miss my Mom and Dad,” “I’m sad,” etc.  Let it.  Them saying those things is so, so good and healthy.  Let them.  Let them cry.  Let them know that you understand they miss their family and that it’s okay to be sad.  They are feeling all of it anyway, I assure you – so good to get it out.

Get kids in bed, tell them the bedtime and waking up plan again.  Then do it.  I say, “Alright kiddo,  now that you are in bed safe and sound, I am going to go into my room and work on the computer.  I will come back and check on you in 5 minutes to see how your doing.  Remember you can get out of bed if you need to go to the bathroom, but otherwise, I want you to try to stay in bed and wait for me okay?”

Answer questions about monsters, spiders, boogie men, what happens if they get thirsty, etc., Let them know that your house is 100% monster, spider, boogie men free and that there is a special cup in the bathroom just for them if they get thirsty.

CHECK on them in 5 minutes.  And in 10.  And in 10.  And in 10.  Until they fall asleep let them know when you’ll be back to check and then COME BACK TO CHECK.  The worst thing you can do at this point is to fail them.  Check on them.

Prepare to not sleep a lot.  Taking forever to go to sleep, sleep terrors, crying and waking up multiple times, or really early in the morning is normal and expected.  (And really, I am always super alert the first few nights as well, its new for me too.)

Wake up earlier than normal the next day yourself to see how the kids is doing – sleeping, great, let them sleep, awake and playing quietly in room (our rule) great, invite him/her out for an early cartoon session or breakfast, awake and helping themselves to the TV or fridge, remind them of the rules and escort them back to their room for 5 minutes… then invite for early breakfast or cartoons.

Tips from the trenches

No way around it, the first night in foster care is hard. Remember it is okay to have rules, but be flexible and above all – be KIND. It is worth its weight in gold to start your relationship off on a good note.

Every question they ask is a good one.  I like to let them know if another kid I have had, had the same question.  It lets them know that other kids have lived here and moved on, it also lets them know they are not alone and not crazy for wondering about that thing.

Give choices whenever possible, ask if they want to see the upstairs or downstairs first, let them choose between two snacks or two pajamas, or should we watch some TV first or play this came first?  Kids catch on quick and ask for the choices.

Use your own name and the names of those who live in your house a lot at first.  They have met a lot of new faces today, you can’t assume they remember your names.  Also, let them call you what they like.  

Most of my foster kids have called me Alisa, some have called me Mom from day one.  I remind them we’re not sure what the plan is (if I will be their Mom, most of the time that isn’t the plan), but if that’s what they want to do, that’s okay.

When getting to know a new foster kiddo say, “What questions do you have,” way more than you think necessary. Cause they have a billion of questions, but it’ll take a while to get up the courage to ask you.

On food, always have peanut butter, bread & fruit in the house.  If a child doesn’t like what you made or how you made it, let them know they can always make a sandwich for themselves or have fruit.  That way the alternative is a not very exciting, yet a viable, nutritious option, without you becoming a short-order cook.

Let them know about any security features on the house, motion detectors, door alarms, etc.  It would be SO scary for them to find out about those on accident when they got up to get a snack.

A few of you asked about bedbugs and lice and how to deal with them… I might do a separate post about this… but my short answer is, know at some point you might have to deal with both, but..

PLEASE DO NOT have foster kids undress in a garage or store their things outside because they are “dirty”.  Put yourselves back into the shoes of the child and take a step back.

Use mattress protectors.  By the lice treatment, use it when you need to.  But establish TRUST first.

IF you appreciated this article, please share with your networks!

I just read an article called, “The First Night in Foster Care: What Foster Parents Need to Know” and really liked it. Check it out!

46 thoughts on “The First Night in Foster Care: What Foster Parents Need to Know

  1. So many useful tips and ideas. Thank you for sharing what works for you as you begin the first day with a new foster child. As we prepare to be foster parents, I am sure that this post will be revisited!


  2. Wonderfully written post! All the advice is spot on.I might add that I encourage the child(ren) to express the emotion they are feeling. I also try to validate their feelings!We had two girls dropped off on Friday evening. They had been taken straight from school. I literally heard a social worker tell them not to cry. This (idiot) person was trying to tell these girls how awesome our house was and how happy they should be. As soon as I got that (moron) social worker out of my home I made sure to tell the girls, in a much calmer fashion, many of the things you mention above. Then, as one of the girls started to cry, I told her it was OK to cry and then I completely validated her emotions. I told her that it was scary here and that she didn't have to try and be brave or anything. I just told her over and over (and over and over) that she was safe now.I've been surprised by the number of \”professionals\” that totally don't understand the trauma of removal and placement and then tell kids that they should just be thrilled to be in the new foster home.


  3. Oops…just to clarify….these girls were dropped off on \”A\” Friday evening. NOT yesterday. 🙂 They stayed with us two years ago for a couple months. (I did not just get a new placement. LOL)


  4. Thank you for writing this up so well. 🙂 As we wait for our first placement, this is a great outline on how to tackle that first day (and days) to help make the kids (and us) feel more comfortable.


  5. Totally agree about letting kids be – sad, mad, angry and to let it show in appropriate ways. Professionals are sometimes anything but. Good thing we have good foster parents out there who know their stuff.


  6. This is excellent! Thank you for writing out such helpful and clearly thought – out suggestions for making these kiddos feel safe during such a scary time.


  7. I'm a former foster kid and this sounds great. That first day or two is rough. If I could get abused by my parents then what would stop anyone else. Being in a new home that you don't feel comfortable in with someone one you don't know if you can trust is like no other feeling. Well written and thought out. Great job and thank you for your work!


  8. Thank you for writing this post! We've fostered before – both placements were quite young: 16 months and 2 months. We're getting ready to reopen our home next month and we'll accept placements for school age kids this time so it was a timely reminder to read through these suggestions. I'll probably read this again when I'm in a frenzy to get ready some night.


  9. I would like to link to this post from my blog as a resource for foster parents. Please let me know if you are okay with that 🙂 Thank you so much, it is a great post.


  10. Thanks so much for this post! We're new to fostering (license coming in the mail sometime this month) and have been trying to think through things like this! We will only be doing respite for a while (due with biological baby #1 in June) but I'm so glad to have seen this for when we start taking placements ourselves! Is there anything you would recommend for first days with kids younger than school age? What is your general schedule for that first full day?


  11. This list is seriously awesome. I would love to be a foster parent eventually, but I'm still in college now….My parents were foster parents when I was in elementary school though, and we mostly just had babies and toddlers. Our first kiddo was 3 months old when he came to us, and our second was almost 2. Our third though, he was 7, the same age as my little brother, and I was 9. The first few days were really tough, partially because he didn't know our routine and we didn't know his. We got home from school and were told we had a new brother! I didn't know what I was and wasn't allowed to talk about with him, and looking back it seemed like he wasn't used to a schedule like ours. Eventually it all worked out, but this list would have made it so much smoother!And if you have biological kiddos, especially around the same age as your foster kiddos, please remember that its a hard transition for them too, and they probably have questions about their new potential sibling!


  12. thank you so much for your info. i only had one placement so far. it is so nice to know that there are others our there experiencing the same thing. thanks again for your thoughts and sharing your approach.


  13. Wow! Thank you very much for posting this. We just finished our certification and are now just waiting for THE CALL. These tips are wonderful and just what I was in search of. 🙂


  14. My husband and I are going into foster care with the intention of adopting. These are all good points, however I do take issue with how you and some commentors are referring to social workers. My husband is a children's therapist who has worked in foster care previously. I know I can't make the broad, sweeping statement that all social workers are angels on earth. But that also means that others can't make broad, sweeping statements that they are all clueless idiots. My husband was incredibly overloaded and stretched to the maximum while working in foster care. And the things he witnessed were gut wrenching. There were times when he would come home, hug our kids and spend the rest of the evening in silence – his way of coping due to what he had witnessed that day. Other days, he would have to strip down in the garage and sprint to the shower because he had done a long home visit or therapy session in a pest infested home. They can't talk about what they see and deal with, due to privacy issues. They are grossly overworked and incredibly underpaid. But they are doing their best to make a difference. I am going to be relying heavily on my husband's expertise in this experience. Hopefully when we get \”the call\”, we'll remember some of these tips now that we are on the other side as foster parents.


  15. Kodie – thanks for your comment and thank you to your husband for being a strong advocate for children. Social work is HARD! I work with social workers all day long who rock and are amazingly smart, kind and dedicated people. And working with countless social workers (child protection, therapists, foster care workers, adoption workers, etc) throughout my time as a foster/adoptive parent. Many were amazing and but some weren't. I think its in kids best interest that we all become the very best advocates that we can be, support and work well together as all of the various adults involved in their life. Let me know if your husband would ever want to write a guest post as a former foster care social worker – I am sure he has stories to tell, its thankless work, but I thank him. And bravo by now stepping into the world of foster care as foster parents.


  16. Hi. We're getting our first placement today, and I'm really nervous. Can I share my feelings with the child or is that crossing the line?


  17. We have just finished our classes and had our final home inspection, Now just waiting for licensing to be finalized. This is a wonderful article. There are so many questions. We've bought books and stuffed animals for all the beds. Just trying to think of ice breakers to help the children feel comfortable. Will definitely be following.


  18. ask can foster home have pets I have 6 really small dogs. Alot kids love animals guess say me to cause when i was taken from my mother age 4yrs old felt good to pick up small dog and hold it and hug it. And helped me to hug that animal and animal would follow me around. Just animals like attention like kids do, and just saying it helped me. Yes thought about foster kids and I have son going to turn 18yrs old and he's going to college soon. Just I don't know how to let go but I know he has his life. And I had 3 boys rasing alone after there dad dyed it was hard but my little pets helped them get throw the lost of there dad. But I miss having house full of kids and thought about my 4 bedrooms house. about sharing it with children needs place to live. Just been thanking about being a foster mom.


  19. I would add that I don't always make them put on pj's that first night if they are distressed and if they want to sleep on the couch they can. I had one little guy take 6 months of falling asleep on the couch and being carried to bed before we finally got him to go to bed in his bed. You just never know what they have been through or how they have been living. We have been doing foster care for 5 years now and have had 39 kids come through our home either for respite or as placement. My advice to other foster parents is to expect the unexpected because you can never be sure how things turn out.


  20. Wow. That's rude. I'm sure the social worker was intending to do his or her best. Perhaps if there's a problem with a \”professional\”, you ladies could be professional enough to pull them aside or contact them later to explain why it was a problem rather than publicly berating people who are attempting to help and failing.Calling people idiots and morons isn't really attractive.


  21. Speaking as a 'former foster kid' as well (not sure if you ever outgrow that label internally, though) I agree that this is a good list. I was in six placements by the time I aged out. The best thing any of them could of done for me (and only one did) is let me know they were there and to LET ME BE. If the foster child is not causing harm to his/herself, you, your family, or your possessions, PLEASE let them be. The control thing is very important. No matter how abusive and terrible the home of origin might have been, it is the only thing he/she has known. There is NOTHING familiar in your home or about you. Foster care is basically taking scared, frightened, traumatized children whose have already learned that the adults in their life are not to be trusted and putting them in with an adult/adults who are 'strangers in a strange land' and being told to trust them! It is nothing personal–life is not a sitcom where 'if you only love them enough' then everything will work out. Leave them be.


  22. This is really great advice! I love your blog. Would you mind if I post your blogs occasionally on my company's Facebook page? I work for Family Care Network, a foster and adoption agency also providing many other services to prevent kids from being placed in a higher level of care. ( I would want to give you appropriate credit, so having your name and any other info you'd like to share would be nice. Please email me at Thanks! -Jessica


  23. Please dont make it about your feelings, because this will have to be about theirs! Just be kind and a good listener. Maybe later on you can share.


  24. My husband and I are currently going through the process to become foster parents. This post had some amazing information in it! Thank you very much for sharing in your experiences! I am also starting a blog about our journey. It's rough but it's a start!


  25. Phenomenal post! How do you handle first night \”bug\” issues? Lice, bed bugs, to protect your home from infestation?


  26. I love your advice but usually I tell them how to operate the remote and tv fist thing after I introduce my self


  27. I can't WAIT until we're at that point!!! We are just starting the process next week!!! (Orientation and application!) We're doing foster to adopt, 2-3 kids between the ages of 3 and 10, preferably siblings. I've waited 20+years for kids, I'm 44, and feel like I can't wait even a second more!!! So, to pass time and calm my anxiousness, I'm reading everything I could get my fingers on about fostering/adoption. My best to you!!!


  28. I think if your first thought is \”infestation\”, it is within the realm of possibility that this might not be your calling. This did not even cross my mind at all. I guess… have you had the training and home visits and all of that? If you must, I would take whoever brought the child to your home. (Find out BEFORE what to do if this should happen to be an issue. I have never heard of that though!) If you are worried about your house, maybe you should do that. Re-do your kitchen or whatever – I am frankly horrified by this question. It looks like others may have been too as there was no response.Lice requires what, special shampoo and a comb? My gosh, this is not a feral dog we are talking about!


  29. There are mattress pad/covers that are bedbug and water proof that were recommended to us when we did respite for a consistent bedwetter. As for lice? Be prepared to treat when/if it comes up – kids share hats


  30. Sarah Kelly, asking about lice, etc is actually pretty standard. Kids of all backgrounds get it, and its best to treat it as quickly as possible before it spreads. Lice can definitely take more than shampoo and a comb to get out. The two times I had it as a kid my mom had to take 4 days off work to get it out, and it was a round the clock project to get them all out. To the original poster, I've read that it is good to have a few lice kits on hand, and unlike the post suggests, to put kids belongings in sealed plastic containers until everything can be sorted through and washed. I would also recommend that if you do find one of your family members has gotten lice to use baby oil and a plastic grocery bag around their hair for a few hours at a time. It suffocates the lice, and then you have to wash their hair and pick out any dead bugs or nits. I had really long hair the same color as the bugs, so we usually had to do the baby oil and picking routine 3-4 times. The special shampoos they sell never worked on my, or my cousins, hair.


  31. I actually think questioning about what to do regarding Lice, bed bugs etc is a very real question. I have done home care before and as much as I loved caring for these people, I sure didnt love their infested homes. I would undress in the garage at times, and bag my clothes before bringing in the basement. It takes months and the minimum $1000 to have someone get rid of bedbugs for you. Lice it takes weeks.


  32. I have the same question regarding bed bugs, as a future foster parent that just finished the classes and is almost finished with home studies. Mattress protectors are an obvious step, but what about other fabrics and furniture in the house? Is it inevitable that I should budget for treatment from time to time? It seems that asking children to store their belongings in sealed bins may make them uncomfortable, and unless the child changes clothes immediately when they entire the house or before (even more awkward for them) would it do any good? How many foster parents experience bed bugs? An occasional instance of bed bugs would be manageable, but dealing with it yearly or more often would be tough in my opinion. Please don't shame people for asking legitimate questions. Some people are cautious and plan ahead, others throw themselves in and ask questions later. I think there's room for both in fostering, and there certainly is a need for parents who will love and care for children. A bed bug infestation would be a hindrance to the overall goal of providing a safe, healthy, sanitary home to children in foster care. I wish our training had provided information on this topic.


  33. It can be really embarrassing for children with headlice, as well as uncomfortable, so i don't think it's a bad thing to prepare for. But it will be inevitable. Definitely don't try to make a big deal of it straight away, and if they show up, find a non-invasion treatment plan (like Caitlyn has suggested with the baby oil) and make sure to be utterly non-judgemental about it.In terms of leaving one item with the child, something with tightly woven or synthetic material, like jeans or a plasticy coat is the least likely to be infected and so a good choice to not quarantine


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