Foster Care 101
“The greatest challenge of foster parenting is managing expectations. The children live with uncertainty every minute of every day, and a lot of our work as foster parents is helping them find the certainty in their lives and using that as a landing pad when other things change.“ — Karin Dula
Foster parenting comes naturally for Karin and Randy Dula of Rochester. Karin’s parents adopted her younger brother after a ten-month foster placement in their home, and Randy was adopted from foster care when he was seven years old. He recalls, “I felt disoriented most of the time. I was in two foster placements before the family that eventually adopted me, and I remember thinking ‘I don’t know how to feel about anyone.’ When you’re a kid it’s natural to feel liking or love toward people who feed you, and read books to you, and play with you, but I always knew the people who were taking care of me today could be gone tomorrow, so I was afraid to get attached. I didn’t know how to make my feelings temporary, so I didn’t let myself feel much of anything.”
What is foster care?
Children are placed in foster care when a crisis renders their original family or home either unsafe or inadequate for their care. In some cases, the parent or parents make the decision themselves to place their child because of parental illness, financial burden, or addiction. Other times children are removed from their original home by legal authority for reasons of abuse, neglect, or other unsafe circumstances. In any case, foster care is intended to be a temporary placement undertaken for the protection of the child.
As of September 2007 (the most recent data available) there were almost 500,000 children in foster care in the United States.1The goal of foster care is to provide safety, emotional support and physical care for the child while the original home situation is evaluated. In order for the child to return home, the parents must work with a caseworker to develop a specific treatment plan to resolve the crisis and commit to long-term stability in the home. In cases like this, the parents may be granted supervised or unsupervised visits with the child, as long as they maintain the terms of the treatment plan.
“My brother’s birth mother was an addict, and she had to stay in treatment if she wanted to have visits with him”, said Karin. “Well, it was nothing but a roller coaster for all of us. She would do really well for a while, and he was happy to see her, then suddenly she would just drop off the face of the earth. She stopped going to her program, no one could get a hold of her… and my brother didn’t understand why she didn’t want to see him. He cried a lot, and it broke my heart. I used to wish she would just relinquish her rights and let him get on with his life.” Eventually, she did. If the parents decide they are unable to raise the child, they may legally relinquish their parental rights, and the child becomes available for adoption. Once adopted, the child is a permanent member of the adopting family, and the birth parents no longer have any legal right to see the child.
Some foster children cling to a sense of loyalty to their parents, even when their relationship is extremely dysfunctional. Foster parents do well to understand that children often see things in their parents that don’t make sense to adults. “Our oldest son was very attached to his birth mother”, recalls Karin. “She neglected him terribly, but to him, that was his home and his mother. We saw a filthy apartment, no food, open drug use in the home, strangers in and out all the time… but that was what he knew. Even after she lost her parental rights and we adopted him, he kept thinking of us as temporary. It took him a long time to let go of that life and let himself live fully with us.”
Foster care resources
In many communities, the local Department of Health and Human Services is the largest provider of foster care services. Many DHHS also provide training and certification for prospective foster parents, as well as financial and casework support for children placed in foster homes.
Children Awaiting Parents, Inc. (CAP) is a national, not-for-profit organization whose mission is to recruit foster and adoptive families across the United States for children who have been waiting the longest for a family. CAP’s waiting children are often older, minorities, sibling groups who wish to be placed together, or children with emotional, mental and/or physical disabilities - children who are typically categorized as “special needs” or “hardest to place”.
The Orphan Foundation of America (OFA) was founded in 1981, specifically to serve the needs of foster teens across the United States. Each year as many as 25,000 young people “age out” of the foster care system, and the OFA offers ongoing support beyond the age of majority. From providing college scholarships, connecting them with mentors and internships, sending them care packages, or testifying before Congress, OFA is committed to helping foster teens become tomorrow's productive good citizens. “We're working to maximize support for their post-secondary education goals and mobilize the community at large to assist them.”
Who can be a foster parent?
Anyone who is open to the joys and challenges of foster parenting may become a foster parent. Families are needed to foster infants, preschoolers, school-age children, adolescents and teens, sibling groups, pregnant and parenting teens, as well as special needs children (e.g. medically frail children). As some foster children become available for adoption, foster parents are often given the opportunity to adopt. Except for personal legal fees, the adoption entails no costs.
The criteria for becoming a foster parent varies by state. Prospective foster parents may be required to:
Be at least 21 years of age
Have a stable income of their own
Be free of communicable illness, and have been deemed healthy by their doctor to care for foster children, physically and emotionally
Be fingerprinted for a criminal record check
Receive a State Central Registry check to assure no one has been found guilty of child abuse or neglect provide proof of adequate space and safety requirements to accommodate a foster child in the home
Foster parents typically receive a daily board rate (based on the age and needs of the child), a semi-annual clothing allowance, and Medicaid coverage for each child. Medicaid will cover all the child’s medical care, as well as counseling services, as necessary. In addition, foster parents receive casework support from the child’s foster care caseworker.
“I think if more people understood foster parenting, more people would be open to it,” said Randy. “It’s an incredible opportunity to help a child during a very difficult time in their lives. It’s difficult and challenging, but all parenting is. When it feels like the risks outweigh the benefits I remember how I felt as a kid, and I think I would do almost anything to be able to bring some peace and sense of security to a child’s life. There’s really nothing like it.”
1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of Genesee Valley Parent magazine. Copyright 2009 Sally Bacchetta. All rights reserved.