foster care: who and why and how?

Have had some questions lately from fellow bloggers about foster care… how to get started, how to know what to look for, those types of things. My answer got pretty long-winded, so I’m writing a post. All opinions expressed are completely my own… every foster parent has a slightly (or sometimes, vastly) different experience!

Are there restrictions as to who can be a foster parent?

You do not have to be married, you do not have to live in a large house or in a suburb. You may have an infant in your room in a crib if she is less than 2 years old. You must have children of opposite sexes in separate sleeping spaces if they are older than 2 years old. You must be able to provide children older than two with a sleeping place that has a fire escape (window large enough to crawl through) and is at least 40 square feet (in my state). Each person living in the home over 2 years old must have 40 square feet of sleeping space. You must have smoke detectors in this room, as well as on each floor and in common living areas, as well as a CO2 detector. You must have two possible exits from the house in case of fire, like a front door and a back door. If you live on a lake or have a pool that cannot be fenced in and locked, you must have doorbell alarms on your doors. You must be 18 years of age, at least. You do not need prior parenting experience. You will be asked to give a detailed account of your life, your past, how you were raised, and how you will respond to certain challenges. They are only looking for insightful, thoughtful answers: there is no wrong answer. If you were in jail, or convicted of a crime, that does not mean you can’t foster. Experiences in the system, or with hardship, can help you be a better foster parent and they recognize that.

Can I foster only a certain age group? Or only with the intention to adopt? Or without the intention to adopt?

Yes, yes, and yes. You can choose the age group, right down to the month in the case of infants. You may still get called and asked to take other age groups, but you can and should say no to any placement that doesn’t sound like a good fit (for the record, I was never called and asked to take any child out of my age range). You can request by race and gender, and you can take only legal risk placements (those children already freed for adoption), or you can take children who, if their parental rights are terminated, will then be placed for adoption. You do not have to adopt, you can make a decision at that time, or you can help transition the child to their adoptive home. You can be open to sibling groups, or not. I wanted only one child at a time and due to the space in my home, I was limited to one child. Once I had a placement in my home, I was removed from the call list. But not all counties or agencies will do this… sometimes they get desperate and just call everyone they can. You can always say no, and should say no when it’s not a good fit.

What if we bond with the child/fall in love and want to adopt and a relative placement comes along and we lose the child?

Foster care workers are obligated to explore potential kinship placements from the start. They should call all aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, etc and explore the possibility of the child being moved to be with biological kin. This is their job, and they have a responsibility to both the child, the relatives, and the foster parent to make this happen as quickly as possible. If after five or six months no appropriate kinship placement has been found, usually none will be found or come forward. That being said, relatives do sometimes appear later in a case, and some case workers do drop the ball and not do a good job of getting this done in the beginning, so it is a gamble. In my state, after one year of placement, you as a foster parent have the same right to apply for potential adoptive placement as a non-parent relative. At this point, you could get your own lawyer to advocate for you as an invested and interested party.

Many parents, especially mothers, are given a much longer time to reunify with your children than you realize. Sometimes many, many years. Although the goal for each child is supposed to be permanency after 18 continuous months in foster care, if the parent is trying even just a tiny bit, they will usually keep trying to reunify. This is very frustrating as you’ve been raising this child, sometimes for years, and have become their acting parent. There’s no way around this: it’s heartbreaking, and maddening, in some cases. If you don’t think you could handle caring for a child that is reunified with biological parents, you should stick to legal risk placements. Their parents’ rights have already been terminated and kinship placement options have been ruled out, so you can be more sure of adoptive potential. If you want only legally free children as foster children, you should know that you will wait longer for a placement, sometimes a year or even longer.

Adoption is too expensive, how expensive is foster care?

Monetarily speaking, foster care does not cost money. It does, however, cost a ton of time (so does regular adoption). Just like in the straight adoption process, you are required to be interviewed many times, submit mountains of paperwork, and have your home inspected routinely. You also have to attend classes. Most classes are offered two to six times per year. Getting licensed is a lengthy process, taking 6-12 months or even longer. Once licensed, it depends on how strict you were about the types of children you will take as to how long it will be before they call you asking you to take a placement. For me, it was four months the first time, and three months the second. I only wanted infants, and infants with no siblings. Some foster families get called right away, and constantly. You can ask your agency or licenser how long they would predict you would wait for a certain demographic, but there is no guarantee. If you want teenage boys, however, you’ll probably have one in your house within a few days!

Once a child is in your home, you begin to earn a stipend. Each child is graded by their level of needs. M was a level I because she was healthy and had no behavioral issues. I received $470 roughly a month for her care. This was not enough to cover daycare, but certainly it would’ve helped had I needed daycare. Foster children are eligible for WIC, which was a huge help with a formula-fed baby, it’s really expensive! Foster children also have medicaid, so you do not need to pay their healthcare expenses. Some states also pay for child care at state-licensed child-care institutions, but my state didn’t. You also can get a clothes stipend if the children come with very little. At Christmas, foster children get many gifts, and older children make out a list of what they want, so that’s some cost relief.

For my first placement I received about $900 per month, because he was the highest level as a medically fragile infant. I transported him 50 miles each way to his many eye and doctor appointments, and 20 miles each way to his visits and developmental check ups. The gas was a factor. Because he was medically fragile, he could not be placed in daycare, so I had to hire a private babysitter. She had to be approved by the agency, and the $900 per month did not cover the complete cost of his child care.

So no, I have never made money in foster care. I’ve never even come out even. In the adoption process, I only paid about $220 for licensing fees and birth certificates. Compared to straight domestic adoption, however, this is practically free. Domestic adoption can cost up to $80,000. Many of those parents have to take out a second mortgage. Adoption through foster care is affordable enough for anyone, no need for loans. You just need to be able to afford the basics for the child (out of pocket), especially if you’re going to use the stipend for childcare.

Where do I start?

If you’re in the US every county has a department of human services (DHS) through which you can become a licensed foster home. Some people have good experiences doing it directly through the county, and many do not. The other option is looking for private agencies that place children into foster homes. Some counties have one, some have several. I went to both private agencies that operate in my county, and chose the one that seemed the most organized, thorough, and prompt in their responses. You want to feel that as a prospective foster parent, you are treated respectfully, given a good introduction to their program either by talking to the licenser or attending an information session, and get your questions answered in a timely and thorough manner. Once you’ve decided who to go through, the county or an agency, just inform them (whoever you spoke to) that you would like to be licensed, and the licenser there will tell you when the classes are being offered, how many you need to take, and then you will receive your paper home study questionnaires in the mail. Many of your questions about the process should be answered in your first classes, and you should receive handbooks and materials about your orientation and program. You should be able to reach the licenser by phone or email for additional questions.

Once you have received your license, and your licenser knows what type of placement you are open for, you just sit back and wait, wait, wait for that phone to ring! Oh, and do other fun stuff like obtain infant or child items, decorate bedrooms, get carseats, etc!

Final Words

I had a good foster care experience with both of my placements. My foster son was reunited with his birth parents and that all went quite smoothly. My daughter was adopted by me without contest. I got lucky, both times. Many foster parents endure years of ups and downs with birth parents, uncertainty about permanency, issues with biological families and case workers and judges, not to mention some of the trauma the children are going through! Even so, I believe you won’t find a single foster parent who says they regret doing it or didn’t find it fulfilling in some way. A lot of foster parents stop fostering after a few placements, or so many years, because it is tiring, and frustrating, and not easy. That does not mean it isn’t worth it!

Every single method of becoming a parent is a gamble. Pregnancy can end in miscarriage or stillbirth. Living children die, suddenly and unexpectedly. Adoptions fall through, birth parents change their mind. Foster children are reunified after a long placement, or relatives step in. Anytime you love a child, give your heart to them, it is easy to feel anxious that something will take them away from you. But if you’re on the path to parenthood, you choose to do it anyway.

And it’s worth it.

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Categories: adoption, foster care

3 Comments »

  1. This is a really good synopsis of foster care, and I get asked this stuff all the time too. I will add that the monthly stipend varies widely by state and sometimes by county. Some states, it’s as high as $1200/mo for a standard placement. And as low as $380/mo. Also, many states continue to provide the monthly stipend even AFTER adoption, up until age 18, as an adoption incentive.

    The term “legal risk”, I believe, means that the child is not legally free and there is “risk” to the foster parent of the child being reunified. I have heard case workers use the term “legal risk” as both “working to reunify” and “looking for an adoptive home”. It’s so annoying that there isn’t a strong consensus about the definition, but I do think they are not legally free. At my agency they say a child has “low legal risk” – meaning, there is a very low chance that their parents will get them back and they are looking for a pre-adoptive home.

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