Why Become a Foster Parent?

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The caseworker's car pulled up to the curb in front of the crisis shelter. Ten-year-old Shane in the back seat gazed fearfully at the shabby brick building with the dirty windows and crumbling concrete steps. Was this his new home? What would his life be like in this run-down place full of kids like him who had been taken from their parents? He stared at the shelter, trying not to blink as his eyes filled with tears.

According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, an estimated 879,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect in 2000. Of these, nearly 176,000 were removed from their birthfamilies by child protection agencies. In 1997, more than 547,000 children were living in out-of-home care, according to CWLA's National Data Analysis System.

The number of children removed from their homes is increasing, while the number of licensed foster families needed to care for these children is decreasing. That's why children like Shane may end up in crisis shelters, orphanages, or group homes. In all of these living situations, children are denied the benefits of the loving environment that foster families offer. When physically and emotionally abused children are placed in institutional "homes," they miss out on the nurturing they desperately need.

Foster Parents' Frustrations

Why are we unable to offer foster care to so many abused and neglected children? The answer is as complex as the agencies that oversee foster care in each state. A report by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cites that foster families "are weary from navigating a foster care system that is difficult and inoperable." Specific concerns include having no decisionmaking power about the children they foster, unexpected costs not reimbursed, being falsely accused of child abuse, and the inability to find respite or backup care for foster children when foster parents need a break or vacation.

As a foster parent for more than five years, I can empathize with these complaints. Foster parents have very little say over the fate of children in foster care, even though foster parents may know these children better than do the caseworkers, lawyers, and judges who decide their fate. Ultimately, court judges make these decisions. Most of them listen to the recommendations of caseworkers. But even caseworkers--many of them overloaded with cases--don't always act in the best interests of their young clients.

We had a 7-month-old infant who was placed in foster care because his mom left him home alone overnight with his 7-year-old brother. Even though this mother had no job, had a mental illness, and did not feed the baby enough to maintain his growth, the judge ruled he could go home. We felt powerless and concerned that this baby was returning to a neglectful parent, but there was nothing we could do to keep him in our care.

The costs of caring for a foster child can be prohibitive. Children's clothing costs a lot of money, and a growing baby may need a new set of clothes every three months. Older kids need school supplies, and foster parents must pay for extra curricular activities, school fees, books, sports equipment, and similar needs.

False allegations of child abuse, though they don't happen often, can affect a family for life. The family may have difficulty getting referrals, or experience negative treatment from the child welfare agency, not to mention the effect on their reputation in their community.

Providing foster care can be stressful for families, and many require a break. Respite care for foster parents is in short supply, and only other licensed foster families can take care of children in foster care. Some foster families don't like to care for additional children because it's too disrupting to their own families. Many foster parents take breaks between placements to prevent burnout, adding to the shortage of foster homes.

The Positives Outweigh the Negatives

Given these negative aspects, it's clear why so many foster families pack it in and choose not to renew their licenses. It's my experience, however, that the positive side of foster parenting far outweighs the negative--this is what we need to showcase to the American public.

They need to hear about the babies and children who grace our homes and bring us joy, fun, and fulfillment; how exciting it is to watch the growing bond of love between a child and her foster parents. Words can't describe the first time a child in placement really looks at you with love and trust. Many of these children experience healthy nurturing for the first time in their foster homes. That's an awesome gift to give a child.

The only way to experience the joy of foster parenting is to become one--but getting a foster license is not an easy task. Because of the requirements, which vary from state to state, only the committed and dedicated need apply. But the good news is that fostering is not limited to married couples. Some states will license single men and women and gay couples.

You begin by filling out many forms documenting your criminal-free past, the kind of home you are offering a child, and your philosophy of parenting. Then you receive several hours of training to prepare you for most, but not all, situations in fostering. Like most jobs involving children, however, the best training is hands-on experience.

Despite all the training and preparation, there is no way to predict what life will be like with your foster child. The only guarantee is that you are giving this child an opportunity to be loved, trusted, and guided into adulthood. What he gives back to you depends on many factors--and sometimes a child's history of abuse precludes successful bonding. Those foster parents who keep their expectations low and commitment high, however, discover that they do make a difference in the lives of these children.

Becoming a foster parent is one of the most important commitments I have made, along with saying "I do" to my husband and parenting three children of my own. There have been times when I wanted to run screaming from the house because a toddler had devastated the kitchen or a caseworker hadn't returned my calls. But when I hold my foster children and see them smile into my eyes, or watch one of my babies attain another developmental milestone, the hardships dissolve and I thank God for the blessings of these children.

Yes, it is difficult to say good-bye when they move on, but knowing in my heart that the journey with this child took both of us to a higher place overshadows my loss. It's like saying good-bye to an old friend--the sadness is diminished when I remember how this young person has touched my life.

We are losing foster families at a time when more and more children need foster care. If you are considering making the commitment to become a foster parent, contact your local child welfare agency or department of social services. If this isn't possible, consider supporting the foster families in your community by acknowledging their dedication; donating toys, clothes, and other items they may need; and making friends with their foster children. In the words of child advocate Rita Laws,

[F]oster parents are a priceless "natural resource," more important to the functioning of our society and to the welfare of our children than all of the gold and silver and platinum mines in the nation. The sad news is that the number of foster homes is declining every year while the number of children entering foster care goes up. We simply must find better ways to recruit and keep and support and cherish our foster families.*

Tina Albert is a foster parent and psychotherapist in Boulder, Colorado.

* Rita Laws (2001). "Parenting Children Across Racial and Cultural Lines." Online training course available at www.fosterparents.com.

Even if You Can't Become a Foster Parent, You Can...
Raise Public Awareness

* Distribute information about foster care needs in your community or compelling stories to newsletters, advocacy groups, bulletin boards, public service announcements, parent-teacher organizations, community centers, websites, and special-interest groups.

* Post information on your personal or organizational website.

* Distribute foster care fact sheets, bumper stickers, bookmarks and inserts, banners, and other materials with foster care information.

* Ask local grocery stores to print foster care messages on their bags.

* Tell a youth about Casey Family Programs and the Orphan Foundation of America's new scholarship program that awards foster youth up to $10,000 for postsecondary education. For more information, visit www.orphan.org.

Contact Elected Officials

* Ask your governor, state legislators, or mayor to proclaim May as Foster Care Month. Send them information about the foster care system in your community.

* Notify your U.S. Representative and Senators about activities.

Enlist Local Media

* Hold a press conference.

* Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.

* Meet with reporters and the editorial board of your newspaper and urge them to write positive stories about foster parents, recognizing the need for more foster parents and highlighting activities around Foster Care Month. Educate them about the challenges facing youth aging out of care.

Sponsor an Event

* Organize an event such as a dinner, coffee gathering, picnic, or auction. Invite foster families, community activists, elected officials, and friends.

Recruit Volunteers

* Recruit members of your organization, faith group, workplace, neighborhood, or community center to volunteer to support foster families or to become foster parents.

* Request the help of religious and business leaders in building Foster Care Month awareness in the community.

Ask Local Businesses to . . .

* Create displays in their shops that spotlight foster families.

* Offer special discounts or gifts to foster families.

* Sponsor a meal, party, or celebration for foster families in the community.

* Include articles in company newsletters encouraging employees to find out how they can become involved in the lives of children and young people in foster care.

* Sponsor a scholarship for a young person who is making the transition from foster care to self-sufficiency.

* Create a training program for a former foster youth.

* Sponsor a sibling group for a week at Camp To Belong, a national nonprofit that provides reuniting events for brothers and sisters placed in different foster homes. For more information, call 888/7-BELONG (toll-free) or 303/791-0915, or go online at www.camptobelong.org.

Adapted from "Things You Can Do During Foster Care Month." Available online from the National Center for Resource Family Support, Casey Family Programs, at www.casey.org/cnc/documents/fcm02_things_you_can_do.pdf.

Want to Know More?
To learn more about becoming a foster parent or how you can support foster parents in your community, contact:

National Center for Resource Family Support
Casey Family Programs
1808 Eye Street NW, Fifth Floor
Washington DC 20006-5427
888/295-6727 (toll-free)
202/467-4441
Fax 202/467-4499
cncinfo@casey.org
www.casey.org/cnc/foster_care_month

National Foster Parent Association
7512 Stanich Avenue, #6
Gig Harbor WA 98335
800/557-5238 (toll-free)
253/853-4000
Fax 253/853-4001
info@nfpainc.org
www.nfpainc.org

Child Welfare League of America
440 First Street NW, Third Floor
Washington DC 20001-2085
800/ASK-CWLA (toll-free)
202/638-CWLA
Fax 202/638-4004
fostercare@cwla.org
www.cwla.org/programs/fostercare

Children's Voice Article, May/June 2003

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