Becoming a foster parent is not a decision to take lightly. Some people choose to do it to build their family, to open up their home to a child who needs one, or because they’re family to a child that is in need. Whatever the reason, there is a lot to consider and things you need to do to prepare to become a foster parent. I have interviewed several foster parents and foster/adoption professionals who have provided helpful tips below.
The Main Goal of Foster Care Is Reunification with Parents
In most situations, the reason that children enter the system is that their current home is unfit for them. Though that may be, situations change, and the child has a social worker, but so does a parent (or parents), who is likely taking steps to be able to have those children back in their care. Though we all know people who have adopted while they are fostering, we also know that some people have had children leave their home to return back to their family. This is typically the goal and hope for these families. Though this isn’t always the case, more often than not, it is.
Aly, who is not only a foster parent, but let me know that the current term that they use is “resource parent,” agrees. “Our home is a safe place for our placements. The main goal is reunification with the parents.”
Some foster parents have explained that it was extremely difficult for them when children left to return to their parents, and you need to be realistic about this when considering if this is right for you.
One foster mother notes that she started fostering with the goal in mind to adopt.
“As we went through the preservice training, the woman teaching was very real with us. She specifically said, 90% of foster children get reunified BUT we need foster parents to help, AND we also want to know that if we place a child with you and they cannot reunify, that you will adopt.”
This can be difficult for individuals seeking to adopt, but it’s not an uncommon situation.
“Having been a foster parent, adoptive parent, and even kinship parent, I can understand. The legal ramifications are that the biological parents have parental rights until they are terminated, voluntarily or through legal action by the children’s services. The county agency has to do everything in its power to help a parent or approved kin reunify, but if they don’t, the process of terminating parental rights can be questioned and easily overturned on simple technicalities.”
Those who foster note that this can be very difficult for them and their families, particularly if they are hoping for an adoption placement, but realistically, this is the goal of foster care—not necessarily adoption.
“For every child that you think is meant to be in your family, someone else feels that way about him/her too, and you both can’t be right,” says former foster mother, Jenny Tilley.
Every foster family I spoke to explained that there is really no way to prepare yourself for reunification. Though you’re excited for the child, you’ll also likely grieve your own loss.
Notes one foster mother, “One way I handle this is to remember that they needed you, your house, and your family for the amount of time that they were at your house. We try to work with the families and build relationships with them so that we can continue our relationship with the child after they are reunified. This doesn’t always work out, but staying connected helps.”
Read this article that explains the bittersweet process that reunification is.
Understand and Know Why You Are Fostering
If you truly understand foster care and that you may not be able to adopt these children, it’s critical for you to understand why you’re deciding to foster. Vanessa Garcia, who has worked in foster care notes that “people can prepare by truly understanding their task, responsibilities, and reasoning for being foster parents.”
By considering that you may not be a permanent parent to the child that comes into your home, but that you are providing a safe and loving environment, it might be easier for you should that child return to his or her parents.
“I believe that understanding what the expectations are and that you’re being realistic about whether it’s doable for you is the best way to prepare [to foster],” Vanessa explains.
As you’re figuring out your “why,” this is a great time to meet with foster and adoption professionals, understand the needs in your community, and begin to search for local support groups that can help you along the way.
Additionally, learn some of the reasons that children enter the foster care system.
Attend All of the Classes and Support Groups That You Can and Get All of the Information That You Can
In my conversations with those who have been a resource or foster parent, all of them have said how important it is to attend classes. And, in order to get your license to foster in most places, you do need to attend a certain number of classes.
However, all of the individuals that I spoke to also noted the reality that you have to prepare for these classes. Though they are all helpful and informative, Aly explains that they can be far from home, and some don’t have childcare options. She notes that in her situation, if she has a current placement, only one parent can go or they have to find a resource parent or other approved babysitter by the caseworker and potentially even approved by the family. This takes a lot of preparation, as it is important that all individuals get their hours in for their foster licenses to remain current.
Aly’s advice? “Make sure to allow plenty of time to plan, and always have a plan B. Before getting a placement, make sure to scout out the different services around the area as well.” This helps you when you’re looking into emotional, occupational, and support therapies.
A foster mother in Ohio explains that while the training can be totally exhausting, there are many situations where “you don’t know what you need until you need it.”
“One thing they train you on is being an advocate,” she says. “Many times, you are an advocate at school, day care, with family, but also you have to advocate to the agency for services. Our county agency, due to its location, has very few resources at their fingertips. If we want a trauma-informed counselor that will also accept Medicaid, we need to call an office outside of our county and also wait months for an initial appointment.”
Ensuring that you know what to do to help a child that has possibly had some trauma, may need counseling, or that has special needs, is important. Attend all of the trainings that you’re able to and ask questions. Take notes and do your own research when you have the time!
Ask Questions. Any and All of Them. You Need As Much Information As You Can Get.
The child that comes to you has had a whole life before walking in your door. To better help that child adapt, you need all of the information that you can get. Ask the caseworker any and all questions you can think of, and if something comes up along the way, don’t be afraid to reach out. Being equipped with the right information can help you be a better support and to parent the children in your care.
One of the foster mothers I talked to said that she’s created a checklist that she asks each time she has a placement so that she has all of the information that she needs to ensure a smooth transition for the child and that she has what she needs to advocate for that child.
One foster mother notes that you need to consider everything before a placement.
“Ask every single question that you can ask and ask it multiple times to multiple people. Each time you might get a little more information. I have a checklist of questions for the initial placement call. Age, gender, current sleeping arrangements, food allergies, reason for removal, visitation expectations, school info, doctor/medical records including shot list (which is super important for setting up day care). Some of these questions might be harder if the case is new and an emergency removal, but many times, children’s services have been involved and have most of this information in their records.”
What questions to ask will come as you have placements, so make a note of what you might need so that you are prepared.
There Are Highs and Lows
Again, every foster or resource parent that I talked to said the experience is rewarding, but it also comes with some tough situations. You’re making a difference in the life of a child, but the toll fostering can take on you and your family is very real.
Though Jenny, notes that fostering is rewarding, she also explains that it is also traumatic for everyone involved. “You’ll feel the best and the worst you have ever felt in your life,” she says. “Sometimes both at the same time!”
Be prepared for this as best you can. Many of the individuals I spoke to noted that they utilized the services offered to them at their local agency and many still saw therapists and attended counseling sessions to talk through their own emotions. Remember, you’re mental and physical health is as important as the child’s that you’re working with, so make time to take care of yourself and be your own advocate.
Be Aware of Your Limits
Another suggestion by those who are in the adoption and foster field is that you need to be aware of your limits and abilities. What children are you able to take in your home? Are you prepared for an infant placement or would you prefer an older child?
Also, though you may be eager to have a child in your home, the second your license comes in the mail, Aly notes that you should wait for a placement that is a good fit for your family. “Being resource parents can take a toll on the relationships within the home,” she says.
Know Yourself: This Isn’t for Everyone
It is important to know if this is something that you can reasonably and emotionally handle. As we have all probably asked a resource parent, Aly says that she frequently is asked how she can do this.
“Our answer is that we go into it knowing that the end goal is to get them back to their parents,” she says. “Yes, it can be tough, the house is more quiet, and having free time seems weird, but in our experience, we think of them, hope they are well, and wait for our next call.”
For Aly and her wife, this is a journey that they’re happy to be a part of. “Kids can be exhausting, gross, messy and time-consuming, but that first moment you lay eyes on them, they have your heart willing to go to lengths to keep them safe,” she says.
“Even when they’re a part of your family for a short time, know that you have been able to offer them something that seems so simple is worth every minute. These children are worth it.”
If you know of a family who is fostering, here are 8 ways you can support them.
You’ve Got This…
If you’ve opted to foster, you’re not alone, and you can do this. Though you may not find you’re happy TV ending, you may find something else. (Although many of the parents I spoke to mentioned that the movie, Instant Family was actually pretty close to the truth, no two stories are identical!) Above all, you have the opportunity to change the life of a child who needs you—no matter how long that may be.