It’s Mother’s Day. My eldest woke me up at 6:38 to ask if he could give me his gift yet. I said “A gift would be leaving me alone and letting me sleep in.” He asked, “Why isn’t there a Children’s Day? Can’t I just go downstairs and get your present? Are you ready to get up yet? Okay, I’ll wait until 7:00.”
He will be ten in twelve days, but I met him two days after his birth when he became my “foster son.” A couple years later, he became my son and I was a mother for the first time! May is National Foster Care Month; a time to raise awareness about foster children and their need to be loved and cared for in their moments of transition.
Foster children range in age from newborn to the late teen years. They may stay in a placement for one day or for a couple years. They are like every other kid. They play, eat and sleep. They have fears, hopes and dreams. And like any child, they need someone to love them, encourage them and guide them as they grow.
There are few things more challenging, and yet more rewarding, than being a foster parent. Almost anyone can become a foster parent. Foster parents can be single or married. They live in apartments, homes and town homes. They live in the city, suburbs and the country. They come from every walk of life and are alike solely in their desire to make a difference in the life of a child by providing a home of comfort and love.
And there are children right now hoping for a family, especially the older children (Check out the Foster Goodness project). If you’re ready to consider foster parenting, here’s how to start in five “easy” steps:
- Consider whether you’re ready and your network of family and friends is supporting you. According to one foster parent, “Adding a foster child to your family is like adding THREE new kids at once.” Generally you will be spending more one-on-one time with the foster child and juggling new schedules and new needs. Be ready to accept these new challenges.
Consider your physical and social-emotional health in terms of whether you’re able to meet the physical and developmental needs of a child. It helps to have a sense of humor, a willingness to be very flexible, and an ability to work well with others. You also need to know that you are able to “let go” of the children after their stay with you. They might stay two days or two years, but in general the goal will be to reunify the child with his/her biological family and you must be willing to help with that reunification.
It’s also important to make sure that your family is ready. If applicable, is your spouse or partner as eager and willing as you are? How is your family structured and will adding new children fit into your current life and daily routine?
Finally, strengthen your support group. Garner the support of any family around you. Find other foster parents to connect with, ask questions of and learn from them. Talk about your plans with your friends and ask them to support and help you.
- Evaluate and organize your house. Every foster family will have to pass a “home inspection” and have at least one empty bedroom for a foster child. In addition, the house must meet sanitary and safety standards, such as child-proofing, smoke alarms (which work!) and fire extinguishers. While many people might take the following items for granted, every foster home must have a toilet, running water, a working heating system, and a telephone.
- Choose a foster care agency and apply to become a foster parent. Every county in the state of Pennsylvania has its own Office of Children and Youth/Family (CYF) which manages the foster care system. In Allegheny County, the CYF office contracts with individual agencies to recruit, train and maintain foster families. When CYF needs to find a home for a child, they call one of the agencies and that agency then calls a potential foster family that they think would be a good fit for the child. (Click here for a list of agencies in Allegheny County.)
There are numerous agencies that recruit and maintain foster families. Each agency has a slightly different “flavor” in terms of its initial training of foster families and the amount of support provided along the way to foster families. It is generally recommended that interested individuals call at least three or four agencies and attend “open house” or orientation events to get a feeling of which agency might be a good match for them.
- Undergo training to become a foster parent. Usually each agency provides its own training and there can be a wide range of time commitment, typically between twelve and thirty hours. In addition to the training to become a “certified foster parent,” each year foster parents are required complete a certain number of “maintenance” training hours. Training covers such topics as expectations for foster parents, child development and discipline techniques, first aid and CPR training and much more.
- Keep your phone with you at all times in anticipation. You have absolutely no idea when it will ring with the question, “Hello. We have a ___ age little boy/girl. Would you be interested?”
The fact that the child can arrive within a 15-30 minute window, makes you want to have some essential items available. If you’ve decided to foster infants, having some diapers in various sizes, basic clothing, and bottles sitting around can be helpful. For preschool and school-age children, it helps to have a “welcome bag” for the child with some toys to engage them when they arrive. Have your family and support group on stand-by to jump in and help you the moment that you get a call.
Be ready to hurt. Be ready to cry. Be ready to love and to let go.
Be ready for intense joy and deep sorrow.
Be there for a child who needs you.
And, if you know foster parenting is not a commitment you can make, there are many other ways that you help. Consider supporting agencies that are doing the work by visiting their websites and making a donation or becoming a volunteer. You might also reach out to families in your community who are foster parenting. You can help by providing meals, offering to provide childcare or run kids to activities. Or consider becoming an advocate for foster children by becoming a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer.
It takes a village to raise up the next generation and there is a place in a child’s life for you.
- Pennsylvania Statewide Adoption & Permanency Network: http://www.adoptpakids.org
- Pennsylvania State Resource Family Association: http://www.psrfa.org
- Adopt US Kids: http://www.adoptuskids.org/for-families/state-adoption-and-foster-care-information/pennsylvania