There are currently over 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system and that number is only increasing. Yet, in some states there are fewer than 10,000 beds available for children in need of a safe, stable home.
African-American children and children over the age of 13 have an especially hard time being placed in foster homes and permanent care. Once a child is placed in the care of a foster parent, they may still face a host of issues like difficulty adjusting and recovering from their trauma, and in some unfortunate cases, continued abuse in their foster home.
Here’s what those interested need to know about becoming a foster parent.
“The role as a foster parent is temporarily caring for that child while their birth parents are doing what they need to do to help show that they can help that child stay safe.”
Foster care is temporary
The first thing potential foster parents must understand is that fostering is not a permanent solution.
“The role as a foster parent is temporarily caring for that child while their birth parents are doing what they need to do to help show that they can help that child stay safe,” said Jim Hatch, a board member of the National Foster Parents Association and the Council of State Affiliates chairman for the NFPA, who himself has been a foster parent of over 10 kids (and an adoptive parent of two) in Maine for over 20 years. “Even if I loved that child and did everything I would do for my own children, I kept it in my mind that that child was not going to stay with me forever unless I heard otherwise.”
Love them as if they were your own children
Hatch emphasized the need to treat foster children as if they are your birth children, adding, “Benefits, vacations, any way they can.”
“Don’t hold back. They desperately need to be yours, even if it’s for a short time. Know that it will break your heart, but do it anyway,” Lisa from Ohio, who’s been a foster parent turned adoptive parent for 13 years, told HuffPost via our Facebook community. “Good foster families can make all the difference.”
Be patient with the kids
As former foster parent Scott Gowans from Ohio told HuffPost, “Children spell love T-I-M-E.” So give your foster children as much time as they may need to adjust. Moving from their birth home where there may have been past trauma can be very difficult and it’s important for foster parents to allow time for their foster children to adjust.
“Trauma looks like a lot of other things and looking at behaviors, emotions and responses through a trauma informed lens is your best bet,” Staci Blalock, a Michigan-based foster parent for over five years, told HuffPost via our Facebook community. “Learn as much about trauma as you possibly can and don’t stop seeking out resources about trauma.”
“Give them as much of a routine as possible, they have so much instability that it causes anxiety,” Jaci DeRouen, who was a foster parent for four years in Louisiana, told HuffPost. “Ask them about their routines from home and try to do some things like their parents did.”
Brittany Gatheright, a foster parent from Florida, added these encouraging words: “There may be bad times, but remember they are not bad kids. If you put yourself in their shoes and consider what they’ve been through, you’ll understand.”
“Many parents were once foster children themselves. We must be a part of the solution to break the larger cycle.”
Be patient with caseworkers
Foster care and child welfare laws vary from state to state. All decisions, from why a child is put into foster care, to where a child is placed, to the necessities for that child’s well-being, to when a child can go back to their birth home are made by the agency, or the state or county’s office of child protective services, according to Hatch. While these social workers are responsible for children in foster care or state custody, sometimes high case loads, inadequate funding and poor communication between courts can make it difficult for caseworkers to do their jobs.
“Remember caseworkers are overworked and underpaid, they are human and will fail and disappoint you, so will judges, lawyers, etc. Give grace,” DeRouen told HuffPost.
Be patient with their birth parents
Since fostering is not a permanent solution for the child’s well-being, it’s important for the temporary parental figures to remember and focus on the reunification process, or reuniting the child with their birth parents.
“Keep the peace wherever you can,” added Laura Eory, a foster parent from New Jersey. “You like Huggies diapers but bio mom wants Pampers? Make the switch. If mom or dad buy a nice outfit, make sure the child is wearing that outfit for the next visit.”
“Their family members are NOT the enemy,” Stephanie Sandstrom, a former foster parent of eight kids in Michigan, told HuffPost through Facebook. “They love these kids the best way they know how. Get to know them, support them, and empathize with them. If you can’t do that early on, it will affect your relationship with that child forever. Remember: no matter what terrible thing you think this person has done, [the family] is that child’s safe person. And many of those parents were foster children themselves. We must be a part of the solution to break the larger cycle.”
Be patient with yourself
“You’ll feel overwhelmed and utterly stupid,” shared Gowans. “No amount of classroom learning, reading material, web advice, firsthand accounts from other foster parents or anything else imaginable will prepare you for this. Pat yourself on the back. You’re doing a wonderful thing, even if it doesn’t feel like it. You’ll have more than your share of shitty days. Take care of yourselves.”
“It gets better,” urged Blalock. “Kids adjust, you adjust, appointments dwindle, visit times for the children with their birth parents get more consistent, and it becomes your new normal. Hang in there and you’ll remember why you said ‘yes.’”
Be prepared for questions
It may be equally difficult for family and friends of foster parents to adjust to the new additions to their lives. To avoid confusion, it could be helpful to prepare the people closest to you in advance, particularly your own family.
“Make sure your family and friends know about your foster plans. Let them know ahead of time that changes are coming and to not ask uncomfortable questions when children are around,” shared Christina Pos, who’s fostered seven children in Washington.
Leanne Bentley, who’s been a foster parent for three years, reminds curious people why she decided to foster in the first place: “When people ask me how I will explain fostering to my kids, I say it will open their eyes to the real world, a world beyond the safety and comforts of their own home. It will open their hearts to those in need of love during a time of uncertainty. Most importantly, it will teach them to care for kids who are vulnerable and that there’s always room in their heart for love. I want my children to always show love first.”
Be prepared to let go
Foster parents need to be prepared to say goodbye to the children they may raise as their own.
“Watching a child make gains from when they first came in to live with them, just knowing that you had a positive impact on the child and you supported the child through the tough times, that’s one of the joys of being a foster parent,” Hatch shared. “When children do leave, you’re going to go through a grieving process, you loved that child as your own, you care for that child deeply, you’re concerned for where that child may be going and how they might be.”
“Don’t say yes to another placement until you have grieved the loss of the child that left. If you say yes too soon you are doing yourself and the next child a huge disservice,” added Blalock.
Find a support system
Of course, being a foster parent is not an easy job. Luckily, resources exist to help people through this experience of helping others.
Lindsay Hanks, a foster and adoptive parent from Texas, told HuffPost, “I wish I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I knew it would be hard, but I had no idea how hard. You need to have a strong support system of people.”
“Foster care is hard. It's so hard. But there’s also something so beautiful about allowing that kind of hurt to ... help you to become a better parent and help [the children] to become who they’re supposed to be.”
The foster care system isn’t perfect, but it is still necessary for so many children. While much needs to improve on the federal level, what the system needs most are foster parents willing to do a complex, yet essential job.
“Foster care is hard. It’s so hard,” said Hanks. “But there’s also something so beautiful about allowing that kind of hurt to grow you and shape you and help you to become a better parent and help [the children] to become who they’re supposed to be.”