What Bolsters Resiliency? Foster Parenting During the Pandemic

Dr. Elizabeth Schofield ’02 Sharda, LMSW

Think back to 2020, when COVID-19 was turning the world upside down. If there are kids in your household, what’s your take: Was that time stressful?

As a broad-reaching shutdown took effect, Dr. Elizabeth Schofield ’02 Sharda, LMSW, assistant professor of social work, quickly grasped how complicated life was about to get. As a social worker and as an experienced foster parent, she also realized that the shutdown’s impact would be even more pronounced for foster families.

And she recognized an unexpected opportunity to research what helps foster parents bear up under stress — in this case, what was helpful and stabilizing for them as they cared for foster children during what may have been the hardest time ever to shoulder that task.

Her purpose: to document for the first time what kinds of social support really help. After she completes her data analysis this summer, she’ll share the study’s findings with child welfare agencies in the hope that they will increase their focus on supporting foster families in the ways her study found are fruitful.

Resilience — “the ability to withstand and to have our well-being preserved in the midst of challenging, stressful, even traumatic circumstances,” as Sharda defines it — has been the focus of her research since she left clinical social work for academia in 2017. She’s especially interested in how social supports contribute to foster parents’ resiliency, as one of a number of factors.

Even in normal times, Sharda says, foster parenting is “uniquely stressful.” Foster parents have limited authority. Everyone knows the relationship is temporary. They care for kids who’ve been traumatized both before and by their removal from their homes, and who are more likely than the general population to have heightened behavioral health, educational and medical needs.

“Different types of social support act as a buffer against the stress of the role,” she explains. “Fostering can be really confusing and isolating and challenging. Those who have friends, neighbors, religious community around them aren’t as impacted by the hard stuff.”

Training child welfare professionals and foster and adoptive families before she joined the Hope faculty, she’d observed that some foster parents cared effectively for child after child, but “some crashed and burned after one child or one group of siblings living with them. So, I was curious.”

As the pandemic persisted, Sharda proposed qualitative research to capture the “essence” of foster parents’ experiences — what social scientists call a “phenomenological” study. She wanted to hear from foster parents, one-on-one, about the stress they experienced — and the support.

Much existing research in the field looks at what can go wrong, Sharda says, like foster parent burn-out.

“I was interested in the flip side. What enables us to keep going? Anybody in a helping profession — how do we do it without it taking us under? How do we continue doing work that we love, that is fulfilling — but that is also complicated and draining and sometimes even traumatizing — and remain healthy ourselves?”

Collaborating with student researcher Carlie McNiff ’22, Sharda networked with several Michigan organizations and recruited 16 foster parents for the study. Sharda interviewed each one in summer 2021. The following spring, McNiff presented the team’s initial findings at Hope’s Celebration of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity. Their project received the college’s 2022 Social Sciences Young Investigators Award. McNiff is now studying for her MSW at the University of Michigan.

This summer, Sharda and social work major Rebekah Yurschak ’24 will conduct thematic analysis of the interviews with foster parents and draft a manuscript for submission to an academic journal. To share with stakeholders such as foster parents and child welfare practitioners, they’ll also highlight the study’s implications for policy and practice. The summer phase of the project is made possible by the Wichers Fund for Faculty Development, through Hope’s Nyenhuis Faculty Development Grant program.

Here’s a small sampling of what Sharda and her research assistants learned about the unprecedented pressures foster parents weathered during the COVID shutdown. Some study participants were frustrated when agency offices closed and regular home visits were not occurring. Suspension of court operations created even more uncertainty than usual about how long a foster child would stay. Some felt uncomfortable monitoring children’s Zoom meetings with parents or providing hands-on help with, say, occupational therapy during children’s online sessions with specialists. They missed support groups. Some who isolated from their own nearby parents to keep them safe missed the help they’d previously provided. Some felt their agency didn’t care enough about their family’s safety.

Infusing all that were experiences foster parents shared with parents more broadly: the sudden addition of new, unwelcome tasks that felt overwhelming.

“I’m Lysoling my cereal boxes, for heaven’s sake,” one foster parent told Sharda. “I don’t need added stress on top of it. Like, what more do you want us to do?”

But some foster parents also saw a silver lining. “A hopeful, positive piece is that many families mentioned actually enjoying the shrinking of their worlds. They were able to bond and get to know their kids in a different, accelerated way, because they were forced to. All the services that weren’t happening, plus all the additional stuff that kids in foster care have — all that evaporated for a while. Families mentioned that that was really sweet time — not always, but often.”

Perhaps most important to Sharda’s purpose in this research, she found that study participants drew strength from fairly simple things, like an online support group, a church providing dinner once a week, or friends alongside them in a “COVID bubble.”

Sharda and her husband have fostered nine children since becoming licensed in 2009, so she could relate to what she heard.

“We need people to talk to, bring us meals, pick our kids up at school — to send a complaining text to in the middle of the night,” Sharda says. When caring for a foster child, she and her husband lean on friends who “get it in ways that other friends don’t. We’ve got a really good village around us. That’s something that I want everybody to experience if they want to do this work.”

“Fostering can be really confusing and isolating and challenging. Those who have friends, neighbors, religious community around them aren’t as impacted by the hard stuff.”

Dr. Elizabeth Schofield ’02 Sharda, LMSW