Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Good touch/ bad touch limits in foster care

My organization is very specific about rules regarding touching and modesty. I've mentioned it before, but every time a kid is placed with us everyone in the household has to sign a document called, "The LastName Family Safety Plan."

Most of it is pre-written: no one outside of their bedroom or the bathroom in naked or in just their underwear; the boys are to wear at least a tank top at all time; if more than one person is in the bathroom the door must remain open; no tickling. back rubs, or "play fights."

You are allowed to modify it. When we signed it for the first time Brian was just barely 6 and we wrote that Dad was allowed to be in the bathroom with the door shut when Brian needed help washing his hair. (Of course Brian immediately decided that he did not need help). We told them that wrestling with Dad was something that the boys really enjoyed and we did not want to give it up so they allowed us to add, "wrestling will be allowed only when everyone agrees and Dad is involved."

There is a place where the social worker helps the kids to list the sorts of touch they feel safe with. That's where we find out if the kids likes to be hugged and if so whether it is only one or two arms.

The rules sort of slide into the background for after a while. For instance we are not supposed to be in a bedroom with the kid and the door shut. Sometimes though the conversation is private and I tell them I think we should talk in a bedroom (mine or theirs -- their choice). I then sit away from the door (so that they are closer to it) and tell them that they are in charge of where the door is. The agency would probably advise against it because I put myself at risk for false accusations, but I will take the risk when it is necessary to protect the privacy of the kid.

Given that I have birth kids and bio kids in the house I do also get careless about other rules. If Brian were to lay down with his head in my lap I would almost certainly start scratching and rubbing his back without thinking about it. If Andrew were sitting at the table getting anxious about life (again) I would probably give him a quick shoulder rub. Come to think of it, last month he had a pulled muscle in his back and I put him in a chair in front of mine in the living room and massaged the painful area for a long time two nights in a row.

Would I do all these things with a foster kid? Well, it would be against the rules, but I might. I would certainly ask them first. (When Andrew was dragging himself around and whining I did not ask. I think my exact words were, "Okay...that's enough. Get into this chair so I can rub the ointment into it. Tell me if it makes it hurt worse." If it were Evan I would definitely ASK.)

The agency makes it clear that these rules are not about protecting the kids from dangerous behavior. It's not like they think that if we tickle a child or rub a their sore shoulders that we will loose control and start touching them in bad ways. It is that they want the kids to FEEL safe. They also tell us that they are interested in protecting us against false allegations. They tell us stories about kids who were sexually abused who seemed to need to sub-consciously "test" the adults. You've heard them, "The girl seemed to crave physical contact and initiated cuddling. She and the father started making a habit of watching TV together. She would snuggle under his arm and he put it around her shoulders. One day, having a cramp in his arm, he stretched and let his arm relax, and his arm slid down from her shoulder to her elbow. The next day she called the social worker and said that he had hit on her."

So our agency has very clear guidelines, designed to make the kids feel safe and protect the parents from false allegations. Given that this is an agency that rarely takes anyone under the age of 12, they rules mostly seem reasonable.

But I was wondering what the rest of you think. What would you tell new foster parents about touching? How do you decide when it is safe to cuddle and tickle?


  1. Heh. Well, in my case with "Jenny", which seems to have made a couple of people nervous, the tickling is 100% initiated by her, and stops when she says it does. I'm hypersensitive about where I tickle her, both on her body and in the house. I'll never tickle her in an inappropriate body part (mostly the tummy or bottoms of her feet) and I'll never tickle her in an enclosed room. So far it's all been either in the kitchen or in the living room, and always when someone else is in the house and usually in the same room. I've had to tell her no a few times because *I* wasn't comfortable with the situation.

    I don't even know if there are rules against this sort of thing with our agency (I can't remember it coming up in training) and I really don't care all that much. I'm trusting my own judgement on what's appropriate and following my own rules religiously. The Wife hasn't had a problem with it so far, and I'll be responsive if she objects.

    We're in danger every day of false allegations every day we have kids in the house. We've spoken with people who have lived through them. Our eyes are wide open on that score, and we knew the risk going in. If it happens, it happens. I just don't feel like I can let that get in the way of giving these kids as much of what they need as I can, as well as enjoying the whole fostering experience.


  2. Well, we had only very brief comments about this in our training, and the only thing we sign is a policy statement about no physical punishment or spanking. We've been fortunate in that the oldest child we've cared for was 4. He needed a father figure too - he trusted Michael more than me - the women in his life had let him down (and Michael, being brown, looked more like him). They cuddled and tickled, and Michael helped with bathroom time. I think there we just went with what "felt" best for the child.

    Now, our biggest concern is that we are co-sleepers with the baby, and we take baths with her now that she is too big for a tub in the sink. Our baths together are a marvelous bonding time - and baby has no awareness of anything other than skin and soap and water. But I do worry. I do not share that with social workers who, I suspect, might disapprove - even though my pediatrician says it's the safest way to bathe her - and the best for bonding. Geez. The stuff we have to worry about.

    These are excellent questions, and yes, we've worried. Cookie is only 9 months old, and Michael already asks if it's still okay if he changes his clothes in front of her. Obviously, that will change one day, but it's all part of the awareness.

  3. It is so funny because I've had different experiences with this.

    As a camp councelor we had a 1/2 day training on how and how not to touch. Side to side hugging, only in open spaces, etc.. As a 16 year old from a tactile family this was very odd but I took the warnings seriously.

    As for the bathing that Tamara was talking about. Our social worker told us to bathe Baby R that way. She said it was safer for the Baby and really good for bonding. We thought she was joking but she reiterated it again and convinced us. We love being able to watch him play in the water and it is much safer for catching a climbing, slippery baby.

    I like the way you handle it. Tailoring it to each situation.

  4. hmmm....

    Our agency mostly focuses on the men protecting themselves (its first mission is to place teenaged girls who have worked their way through the treatment center).

    We are physically affectionate - back rubs, hair brushing, hugs, and cuddles. But it is always initiated by the kids after they watch our other kids be affectionate.

  5. Just wanted to pop by again - I emailed my SW and baby's SW, and *sadly* they have NEVER been asked that before - both said it was great to bathe with the baby for bonding, etc. At least now I have documentation. Documentation rocks.


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