If you are asking this question, there’s a good chance that you’re a planner. You see, so many of the folks who have the fortitude to complete the mountains of paperwork, notarization, and training hours required to become foster parents are planners. Otherwise we’d never make it through the process!

And so, if you are a planner (and even if you are not), here’s the short answer to the question. How does foster care work? It works unpredictably.

I am a planner too. I worked methodically through the checklist provided in the binder at my foster care classes. I did everything by the book. I filled out all of the surveys indicating the type of placements I would prefer.

Then I got licensed. And I realized (in about a day) that just about nothing in foster care can be planned. Children come into care at all hours of the day and night. Sometimes this is expected. Often it is not.

Odds are, you will get calls for placements that are out of your comfort zone. And your social worker will need an answer. Now. There is no planning for these moments. Sometimes the placement that is out of your comfort zone will turn out to be an amazing fit. Sometimes it will turn out to be the biggest challenge of your life. Sometimes you will say no and wonder where that child ended up. All of this is OK. This is how foster care works.

Especially if they are coming from another foster home, your child may come with a complete wardrobe and some level of emotional preparedness for the move. Don’t let anyone tell you that this doesn’t happen. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Often, your foster child will arrive on your doorstep with just the clothes on their back and a heart wrenching story (which they may or may not want to share). I have foster parent friends who deal with this uncertainty by keeping outfits in all different sizes on hand. This is too emotionally hard for me. And also, I live in a condo. Yes, I may end up at Target at midnight on Christmas Eve. I am ok with that. This is how foster care works.

Most likely, your foster child will come to your home with a goal of reunification. This means you will have no idea how long they will stay with you. If they are just coming into care, they will usually have a court date within about a day, and sometimes they will be placed with relatives at that time. Other times, you may have foster children in your home for weeks, months or even years before they are reunified. Sometimes, the plan is changed to adoption along the way. Often it is not. The uncertainty is hard for everyone. But being a safe place for a child matters. This is how foster care works.

If you are a planner, you will likely fight hard for the children in your care. You will advocate for them harder and louder until they get the services that they need. You will call and e-mail and show up in people’s offices pleading for the best interest of children over whom you have no legal rights. This is as it should be. This is exactly why we need you, the planner, involved in foster care. This is how foster care works.

Sometimes the story will have a happy ending. You will be convinced that good decisions have been made. You will hug your foster child good-bye with tears of hope. Or you will watch a judge bang a gavel as they become part of a forever family. Sometimes you will not be so sure. You will wonder. You will cry your eyes out. All of this is ok. It means you are doing it right. You are, in a very real way, changing the world. This is how foster care works.