In the U.S. nearly 300,000 children have been placed in the foster care system due to neglect or abuse. They need stable families who can provide temporary homes and safe, loving environments while their biological families work to become better parents.
Unfortunately, there are more foster children than foster parents and 58,000 kids will be placed in group homes and other state institutions rather than in a family. Oftentimes, suitable adults are misinformed about the foster care system and don’t realize how they could play a part in the life of a young person needing their support. David Zidar, Program Director for local foster care agency CHOICES, Inc., discusses the issues commonly misunderstood about foster care.
It’s actually not that complicated
The overall functions of the foster care system are pretty simple. Most children are referred to Child Protective Services for neglect or abuse. The state then evaluates the family situation and will decide whether or not to put the child in foster care. When it comes to the nitty-gritty details like legal questions and family placement, the foster care agency helps you as the foster family work through these issues. They provide the training and license you must obtain, perform extensive background checks and then choose a child they think would be a good match for you or your family.
After deciding to become a foster parent, the process only takes about three to six months, and the agency won’t leave you high and dry. Most agencies offer support and advice throughout the entire training process as well as after a foster child is placed in your home.
The money issue is a moot point
Zidar has found that people often have two very different misconceptions about foster parenting: that it is either very expensive or very lucrative. First, foster parents don’t completely foot the bill. They do receive payment during training and then receive a per diem amount after a child is placed in their home. However, Zidar is quick to point out that you won’t make a lot of money as a foster parent.
“If this is your entrepreneurial endeavor,” he jokes, “surrender your entrepreneurial card. Caring for kids will cost money, especially if they’re teenagers, because they eat so much.”
You don’t have to be a perfect parent
Or a parent at all, for that matter. Foster agencies are not looking for the Brady Bunch, and they welcome people from many different homes and lifestyles. During training, you do have to prove that you are financially stable and can provide a safe environment, but otherwise you can be a 21-year-old who lives in an apartment alone, parents with kids of your own, or 65-year-old empty nesters. Most agencies don’t discriminate against marital status or sexual orientation. At CHOICES, Zidar says they only have one stipulation: “Adults who have a burden for kids can be foster parents.”
You are not adopting these children
“I don’t think [potential foster parents] understand that their goal is to get these kids back to their birth families,” Zidar says. There are times that the biological family is not going to be a placement option, and then the court will offer permanency. But those are extreme cases, and still, less than 15% of foster care children are adopted by foster families. In fact, you will often work with the biological family as they learn how to make choices that will provide a safe, nurturing environment for their kids. It is important to remember that foster care is not a roundabout path to adoption.
None of this means that foster care is easy
Simply providing a loving environment will not solve all of these kids’ problems. “Love is important; love is critical. But they also need treatment. The vast majority of our kids have suffered some sort of trauma,” explains Zidar. You will receive training and advice on how to care for these children, but it is often an uphill battle. Many kids do have behavioral issues that are not going to change overnight, and caring for them takes patience and perseverance.
You don’t have to become a foster parent to help foster kids
Perhaps the greatest misperception is that becoming a foster parent is the only way to help. For many people, becoming an actual foster parent is just not an option, but there are other ways to support these children. Many foster agencies accept monetary and in-kind donations, and you can mentor teens in foster care or organize toy drives during Christmas by volunteering with organizations like For Love of Children. If your heart aches for children in foster care, there is always a way to help.