Becoming a foster parent can be one of the most rewarding and loving acts of your life, but it is not an easy decision. Nor should it be.
It takes extensive training, flexibility, commitment, hard work, and a willingness to provide a safe and stable temporary home for children who have been removed from their birth parents’ care by the court until family problems are resolved.
More than 397,000 children across the nation are in foster care on any given day, and almost half are placed with foster families who are not relatives, according to the federal Children's Bureau. The majority of these kids stay in a foster care home from between one month and 17 months.
Whether single or married, foster parents need to be licensed or approved, with criteria ranging from state to state, including criminal background checks, residential visits as part of a home study, and pre-care training. The approval process can take several months at least.
Here's what experts, including National Foster Parent Association president Irene Clements, who fostered children for 27 years, say are the best ways to know you’re ready to be a foster parent.
You Know Foster Kids Aren't a Get-Rich-Quick Scheme
Being financially stable already is incredibly important, because foster parenting is not about making money. Though foster parents receive state and federal subsidies to care for a child, they may not be reimbursed for all expenses. You need to have a big enough home for that child to have his or her own bed, and you will likely have to supplement costs for things such as winter clothes and extracurricular activity fees. You don’t need to be rich or own your own home to foster a child, but you should be financially secure, according to the National Foster Parent Association and other foster care organizations.
You're Ready to Deal With Birth Parents
Foster care homes are designed to be substitute living situations, not permanent ones. More than half of foster kids are reunited with their birth parents or primary caretakers after those people have received the treatment or rehabilitation they need. Always keep that in mind, and that contact between birth parents and foster parents depends on the court. A judge can court order visits with a birth parent as often as every day or much less frequently, depending on the situation. More frequent visits are considered better for building positive emotional bonds and paving a path to children being reunited with their birth parents. The Child Welfare Information Gateway lists resources on working with birth parents.
You're Realistic About Foster Kids Being "Damaged"
One myth of foster children is that they’re so damaged and flawed as a result of their family's misfortune that they are too difficult to care for. According to AdoptUSKids, many children in foster care are regular kids who had to be removed from their families owing to abuse or neglect. Still, coming from an unstable home means that emotional and behavioral issues are a potential reality not to be brushed off. Those issues can range depending on the age of the child, the type of trauma he or she has been through, and how often.
A new feature film, Know How, delves into foster care life from the perspective of teens; it was written and acted by youths in foster care. (Full disclosure: The film's director, Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza, works here at Participant Media, just down the hall from TakePart. He worked on the independent venture outside of work.) The movie premiered at Cinequest this weekend and has garnered honors from the Canada International Film Festival and the Madrid International Film Festival. Here's a peek.
AdoptUSKids also has videos on YouTube to showcase foster care successes and struggles. Pre-care training both preps and weeds out people who aren’t ready to take on the emotional responsibility necessary to foster a kid.
You Know You Can't Do It Alone
Foster care experts such as Clements say that being a foster parent is like living in a glass house. You have to be able to work with others toward caring for your foster child, and know that people will constantly keep an eye on you, from case workers and therapists to teachers and neighbors. A stable outside network is necessary. If you want to take in a young kid, is there a day care center near your work? If you’re a single person and you have a job that has varied hours, or you get sick and need to be in the hospital, do you have someone who can both care for the child on short notice and pass a criminal background check?
You Know You'll Be Able to Let Go When It's Time
Foster care is not adoption. Preparing for the grief that can follow a child's reunion with his or her family is part of the deal. If the court decides not to reunite a child with his or her birth parent, hopefully you’ll be in line to adopt that child, if you choose to. Either way, as Clements says, children have to leave foster care at some point, and you may not hear from that child or learn his or her whereabouts afterward.
“I know foster parents who say, ‘My heart is a patchwork quilt,’ ” says Clements. “You become aware you’re a much stronger person than you thought you were, and you also get your heart broken. When they leave, you have to let go.”