5 Critical Lessons I Learned From Saying “No” to a Foster Placement

Whenever you say “yes” to one thing, you’re saying “no” to something else.

It was early in the morning, two days after we’d gotten our first placement call, when my phone rang again. Through bleary, half-opened eyes, I saw our family resource worker’s name on the screen and was instantly wide awake!

The call we’d gotten a couple days ago had been about a healthy newborn boy whose case was most likely going to go to adoption. And as we were hoping to adopt, I desperately wanted him to be placed with us. 

Thinking this call must be about him (I’ll call him William), I took a quick swig of water, cleared my throat, and answered the phone.   

“Hey Sarah,” our worker began, “We’re still not sure what’s going to happen with William.” 

My heart sank. 

“But we just had a removal of another newborn last night…”

The details followed fast as our worker speed-talked her way through them. 

This baby was a girl. A preemie. Had some substances in her system. The hospital was going to monitor her for a week or so before releasing her to DCF custody. Mom had declined interest. Dad was unknown. Would we want to take her instead?

“I’d love to get you in touch with the hospital as soon as possible so you could start visiting her. Right now, physical touch is so important, and she doesn’t have anyone to hold her other than the nursing staff when they have time.”

I felt like my groggy mind was running 50 feet behind our worker, trying to catch up. Clouded with sleep and disappointment that this call wasn’t about the little guy I’d spent the last 48 hours hoping for and dreaming of.

But now there was this little girl… 

She was in worse shape than William, for sure.

And because of that, I knew they’d have a tougher time placing her.

I also knew that most infants entering the foster system have suffered prenatal substance exposure

So, when we’d agreed to take infants, we’d known we were most likely agreeing to deal with withdrawal or NAS (Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome) at some point.

And the thought of this little girl, alone in the NICU, broke my heart.

“I’ll have to talk to Micah, but I think we’d be willing to take her,” I found myself saying.

“Great! I’ll let my director know,” our resource worker sounded relieved. “And I’ll call if I get more info. Like I said hopefully, you guys can start visiting her as soon as we sort out the paperwork.”

She hung up, and I slid into one of our kitchen chairs, trying to wrap my brain around what had just happened…

Fast forward one week, and this little girl (Micah and I nicknamed her Pepper) ended up being the first foster placement we’d say “no” to.

The decision was heartbreaking.

And pretty frustrating for our DCF worker since we were basically changing our minds.

But it was one that I learned a tremendous amount from.


  1. Slow Down

    Placement calls are a whirlwind! With the story coming at you fast and heavy. Followed by the question – will you give this child a home?

    It’s so easy to get swept up in the emotions the case elicits and the need that’s being presented to you.

    But it’s important to slow down.

    To take a deep breath.

    Acknowledge the emotions you’re feeling. Call them out if you have to. And then step outside them and try to look at the situation objectively.

    A tool I use to disconnect from the emotions is to pretend I’m my own best friend. It’s so much easier to stay objective when looking at someone else’s life instead of your own. So, I use that! As I listen to the case details, I try to pretend that this child might be placed with my best friend, and I assess the situation as if I’m going to be giving her advice.

  1. Ask Questions and Wait for Answers

    After you slow yourself down, the second thing to do is to ask questions and wait for answers.

    If you’re anything like me, after preparing for and anticipating a placement, I just wanted the waiting to be over and the uncertainty to end. I wanted to know what the next weeks, months, or even years of my life might look like. Whether this child was the one I was suddenly going to be responsible for loving and caring for.

    But here’s the reality: we’ve received 3 initial placement calls during our first year as foster parents, and each one only contained a fraction of the information we ended up getting about the case.

    This is why it’s so important to slow down, ask questions, and let your resource worker take the time they need to try to find the answers.

    Now, I want to be clear, not all questions can be answered.

    There are a lot of details about cases that may never be known.

    But by asking questions and waiting for answers, you not only buy yourself time to consider whether this case is a good fit for you and your family, but you also give yourself a better chance of making a more informed decision.

    Here’s the list of questions I now ask whenever we get that first placement call.

  1. Don’t commit too soon!

    The BIGGEST mistake I made in Pepper’s case was saying in that first phone call that I thought we’d be willing to take her. In department speak, that’s essentially saying “yes.”

    I should have said something like, “Micah and I are definitely willing to consider her case. Let me take a minute to discuss it with him, and in the meantime, it’d be really helpful if we could know x, y, and z. Do you know any of those details, or could you try to find them out for us?”

    I didn’t say any of that. Instead, I basically said, “yes.” Which meant DCF stopped looking for another home for Pepper and began planning to place her with us.

    However, over the next 36 hours, we received a lot more information about the reality of her condition. Answers to questions I should have asked in that first phone call and other details that became clearer as time went on.

    Within a few days, her case looked completely different from the case I’d thought I was agreeing to.

    It was heartbreaking. Pepper had the whole cocktail in her system. She was tiny, withdrawing, struggling to breathe, and unable to keep food down. She wouldn’t be able to be released from the hospital for the foreseeable future. She was now considered “failing to thrive”…

    And I, through my ignorance, had unintentionally committed to the care of a child we were not prepared for.

  1. Decide ahead of time what your family can say “yes” too

    Placements can present in a thousand different ways, and it’s impossible to have considered every possible scenario ahead of time.

    That being said, predetermining which cases would definitely not be a good fit for your family and sticking to your guns on those deal-breakers is so important.

    Here are a few factors to consider:

    • If you have other children, are you open to a placement that’s the same age as one of your kids or would alter your family’s birth order?

    • Are you open to children with behavioral issues, and how might those behaviors affect the safety of any other children in your home?

    • Are you open to children that have health issues? From mental health, to permanent disabilities, to substance exposure, consider which types of medical challenges you feel equipped to deal with and to what extent?

    • Are you open to children who are flight risks?

    • What type of time commitment can you make? For example, if you’re a working parent, will you be able to help with transport to parent visits, activities, appointments, etc.? If so, how far are you able to travel? If not, you should make sure ahead of time that assistance can be provided in those areas.

    • Are you open to sibling sets, and if so how many, what age range, what genders, and what is your home licensed for?

      Whatever you choose to say “yes” to, know that that “yes” is inherently a “no” to something else: to a different placement, to personal freedom, to tranquility in your home, to extra time with your kids, to upcoming trips you may have been planning, to life as it was

      Be sure you’re ok with the “no”s that any “yes” you choose to say will create.

      Micah and my heart broke for Pepper. And a huge part of us wanted to say “YES!” to her and spend each day in the hospital, trying to help her pull through in any way we could.

      But we also knew that we were about to be first-time parents.

      We didn’t have any experience caring for a healthy newborn, not to mention one in Pepper’s condition.

      We’d been planning on using childcare to help cover our schedules, but in Pepper’s fragile situation, using a babysitter was more or less out of the question.

      And if things went really poorly, as we knew they very well could, we wondered if a “yes” to her might mean a “no” to our ability to foster in the future.

      And in the end, we decided that Pepper was more medically fragile than we were prepared to deal with at that time.

      Our worker supported us completely, but her team was also understandably frustrated, as they had to scramble suddenly to find another family that would commit to Pepper’s case.

      And for a long time, long after receiving our first placement about a week later and caring for her to the best of my ability, I felt a lot of guilt about saying “no” to Pepper’s placement.
  1. Letting Go

    Learning to let go is hard!

    And God knows, I’m not very good at it… yet.

    But here are the steps I’m learned to take to help me move on in freedom:

    1. Feel the feelings

      Acknowledge all the emotions you’re feeling and try to identify why you’re feeling them.

      After saying “no” to Pepper, I felt
      • Guilty because I felt like I’d selfishly put our needs before hers.
      • Frustrated with myself for initially indicating that we’d accept the placement.
      • Embarrassed that we’d had to go back on a commitment.
      • Scared that we’d made a mistake. What if she was the one we were meant to adopt…

    2. Become a spectator to your emotions/ your own best friend

      I talked about this already, but after acknowledging the feelings inside, I try to step outside them. Pretending that I’m analyzing a situation that a friend’s in really helps me gain separation and the perspective that that allows.

    3. Acknowledge the reality of the situation

      When looking at a situation as if it’s someone else’s, it’s much easier to call out my own bull shit.
      • I wasn’t the only person who could take care of Pepper. She didn’t need me to save her. Maybe the new family who was going to end up fostering and/or adopting her would actually be the perfect fit, the home she was truly meant to end up in.
      • Remember the word “yet” – 
        • Pepper didn’t have a family yet
        • She wasn’t thriving yet
        • And we still didn’t have a placement yet

          But both her story and ours were far from over. A whole world of possibilities still existed, and this change of plans might have ended up being the best thing for both of us.

    4. Give yourself grace

      I had said “no” to caring for a child in need.

      BUT I had also done my best to make the wisest decision for everyone involved.

      Not just for Micah and I, but also for Pepper, because being placed in a home that wasn’t prepared to care for her needs wouldn’t have been in her best interest either.
    5. Learn from mistakes

      I had a lot to learn. And I knew it.

      I took a lot of time journaling and verballing processing the things that I could have and should have done differently.

      And I created a plan to avoid those same mistakes in the future. (Little did I know I’d use it one week later to slowly and wisely say “yes” to our first placement. A little girl who’s still with us today!)

    6. Let go of other’s disappointment

      Beyond my feelings of guilt surrounding Pepper, I also felt guilty that I’d misled our case worker and had needed to go back on my (albeit unintentional) commitment.

      But here was the truth – sticking with an unwise placement because I didn’t want to disappoint people would have been throwing good money after bad.

      I couldn’t change the difficulties I’d created through poor communication, but I could apologize, learn from them, and show that I’d learned by conducting myself differently in the future.

      Those were the things I could control.

      The rest I needed to let go.

    7. Count the yes’ until you feel peace again

      Counting or listing things you’re grateful for has become incredibly popular lately, and for good reason!

      Counting brings attention to what we might otherwise overlook or take for granted.

      After saying “no” to Pepper, I listed all the “yes’” that that “no” had allowed. I listed them in the week that followed…
      • A spontaneous date night with Micah
      • A midday nap
      • Curling up by the fire with a good book

        And I listed them after we were placed with an 18-month-old one week later
      • Cuddling Scooter late at night, helping her settle in
      • Teaching Scooter to self-soothe with a binky
      • Her smile lighting up when I showed her a ball

        In time, I found that all the “yes’” that’d been enabled by that “no” amounted to so much that I was so grateful for. And though I couldn’t help but ask after Pepper a couple times, counting the “yes’” found a way of transforming my sadness and guilt into gratitude and peace.

I don’t think saying “no” to a placement will ever be easy. After all, each time I get a call, there’s a child on the other end of the line needing love and a place to call home. 

But I do think that next time we decide that a placement’s not the right fit for our family, we’ll be prepared, not only to make that decision, but to have peace about it afterwards.

I hope and pray that Pepper was placed in the perfect home to care for her, love her, and help her thrive! 

And I am incredibly grateful that that home was not ours. 

Because if it had been, I wouldn’t have had the last year with Scooter. And I wouldn’t trade that time with her for the world!

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