Most foster parents I know become educators about the reality of foster care, just by virtue of being involved in the system. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and often, media portrayal of foster parents, the children in their care, and the entire system is inaccurate.

Foster care differs from state to state, county to county, and agency to agency, and individual experiences with this process can be widespread, too.

With that in mind, here are a few things that may surprise you about foster care.

I see and talk to my foster children’s parents on a regular basis.

I think the relationship between foster and biological parents is pretty important, so I work hard to build healthy ones. But even if I didn’t place so much importance on this, I would still see my foster children’s parents regularly – when I pick them up or drop them off for family visits, at court hearings, or at other meetings about the children. These interactions can be intimidating at first, and sometimes awkward and uncomfortable, but the benefit to having a solid relationship is worth the work involved.

Of course, not every foster parent will interact with their foster children’s parents. Some biological parents are not involved in their children’s lives, or visits may only occur sporadically and someone else may handle transportation. In some rare cases, the biological parents might be too angry and combative, and even brief interactions with foster parents may not be safe or healthy. Still, on average, I still see my foster children’s parents more often than most non-foster parents would expect.

I never really know what’s going to happen next.

Foster parents must learn to live with a certain amount of ambiguity. There are general progressions and paths to most cases, but each case is as unique as the people involved in it, and at the heart of each case are families that have typically experienced quite a bit on instability. This may be mental, emotional, or financial, but the result of that instability is that we can never be quite certain about what is going to happen until it does.

One of the most common questions I get after a new placement is, “Will you have them for a while?” And while I may be able to make an educated guess, the reality is that I never know for sure. I’m used to that, and if I’m talking to a fellow foster parent or someone else involved in the system, they know that, too. However, sometimes I forget when talking to non-foster parents that they might not know that my guesses are really just that.

The drug problem in my community is more widespread, and has a deeper impact, than you can imagine.

Before I started working with foster children, first as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) and then as a foster parent, my understanding of the breadth of the drug problem in my community was limited to statistics reported in the newspaper. But foster parenting can be a crash course on the impact of drug abuse and addiction – not just how widespread it is, but the significant and long-term effects it has on the families and children involved. Not every case involving a foster child in my home is related to drug use, but it has played a role in the majority of them.

For those of you involved in foster care, either as foster parents or in another role, what surprised you?