Becoming a Foster Parent: Everything You Need to Know

Before embarking on the steps it takes to foster a child, learn what being a foster parent is all about, from the resources you'll need to what experiences to expect.
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There are over 430,000 foster children in the U.S., and 117,000 of them are waiting to be adopted, representing perhaps the greatest need for adoption today. These kids have difficult family backgrounds, so taking them in comes with important challenges and considerations. But hosting or adopting a foster child also offers big rewards.

"It makes you a lot more understanding of kids and gives you more appreciation of life and of the little things you take for granted," says Janet Kerin, a chiropractor in Castle Rock, Colorado, who has been fostering kids for five years. "A few years ago we all went to an amusement park, and one boy I was hosting at the time told me it was the best day of his life. He still sends me a card on Facebook for Mother's Day."

Whether you're considering becoming a foster parent or thinking of adopting a child from foster care, you'd be fulfilling a huge need and helping a kid who desperately needs a secure, loving home. Here's what you need to know.

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How to Process Works

Children are placed with foster parents through a public adoption agency to give birth parents a chance to improve their situations. You can find an appropriate public agency for your state by searching this list of contact information for Local and County Child Welfare Agencies provided by Child Welfare Information Gateway. In almost all states, the vast majority of children adopted from the public foster care system were adopted by their foster parents or by their relatives.

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After deciding you'd like to foster and attending an orientation meeting at a local agency, you must apply and complete required training. A caseworker will conduct a home study to determine whether you're ready to foster, evaluating factors such as your social life, daily routine, and living environment.

The state will perform a background check. A study from the Harvard Kennedy School's Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy found that, in many states, fewer than half of prospective foster parent applicants get as far as completing a home study — but that's not necessarily a bad thing, as it's important for foster parents to be 100 percent sure of their path.

"If the match is good from the beginning, it reduces the likelihood that the child will have to move again," says Kathy Ledesma, National Project Manager for AdoptUSKids, a foster care awareness and assistance program provided by the U.S. Children's Bureau.

Laws and procedures vary, and if you already have a relationship with the child you want to foster, the order of these steps may be different. For more information, check out the AdoptUSKids overview, and Families for All, a foster care advocacy program from the NCFA.

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What to Expect

The average age of children in foster care is 9 years old, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services, and there's a particularly big need to find permanent homes for teens. In a study by AdoptUSKids, 67 percent of staffers at foster-care agencies said their biggest challenge in making adoption matches was prospective parents' unrealistic expectations — parents want to adopt a young child without special needs.

"There's a big stigma out there about foster kids," says Janet Kerin, a 52-year-old chiropractor in Castle Rock, Colorado, who has been a foster parent for five years and who adopted three siblings at ages 5, 8, and 15. "One of the high school teachers wouldn't be helpful to my son because he was a foster kid. The attitude is that they're big troublemakers, but really they just need someone to show them boundaries and explain how life works."

Kerin's oldest, now 20, was recently deployed to Afghanistan, and he told her that he never could have accomplished it without her. The Dave Thomas Foundation offers a list of organizations that publish photo listings of waiting foster children on their websites.

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The Traits You'll Need

Being open-minded, flexible, patient, and good-humored helps ensure that the foster child's time in your home is positive (and that yours is a good experience too). The primary goal of foster parents and agencies is to maintain the child's connection with his or her biological family, because research shows that separation from parents and siblings increases trauma.

"Agencies ask the almost impossible of foster parents: 'This child was physically abused, and now I have to let the biological parents have visitation?'" says Ledesma. "No matter what heinous things the parents have done, the children probably still love them. You can't demonize."

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Maintaining a sense of normalcy in a foster child's life — his school, his Saturday tee-ball game — also helps create stability. And patience and humor come in handy when dealing with behavior such as rule-breaking and lying, which are the most common behavioral issues, according to AdopUSKids's report.

"With some things, if you don't laugh, you can't make it through," says Lana Freeman, president of the Foster Care Association of Oklahoma and foster parent to 200 to 300 kids over the past 29 years. Freeman, 58, has seen her share of public outbursts from children who don't know how to control their emotions. "Sometimes I have to go in my bedroom and scream in my pillow, but you pick yourself up and try again."

The Resources You'll Need

You don't have to be rich to be become a foster parent, but you do need a little extra space in your house and some wiggle room in the budget. Each state has its own rules regarding room and privacy For example, 15 states require a minimum number of square feet per foster child, and 18 states put a cap on the number of children per bedroom. Think about the foster children you can best accommodate.

"If you already have three teens in the house, and you're running around dropping them off at their activities or taking them on camping trips, then you may not want to care for an infant," says Roxana Torrico Meruvia, Senior Practice Associate at the National Association of Social Workers. Also consider how many foster children you can take at once; agencies often ask families to take sets of siblings in an effort to keep them together, which research shows significantly enhances their well-being.

All states provide foster families with stipends to cover foster kids' basic needs, such as food and clothing. The amount depends on your city's cost of living, the child's age, and other factors, but it's generally around $400 to $900 per month, according to a 2012 report from Child Trends, a nonprofit group that researches youth issues. Researchers also found that these stipends fall short of covering 100 percent of foster-care costs.

While additional public funds may be available for extras such as books and holidays, the reality is that foster parents often end up filling gaps with their own money. To find out about resources and requirements in your state, check out the map on AdoptUSKids here.

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The Support You'll Need

Since a stable and loving environment is so crucial for foster care, the most support you need to have at the start is from your immediate family. It's important to talk to all members of your household. "Make sure everyone is on board and in agreement about why you're doing it," Meruvia says.

It's also important to know you have family and friends to talk to and even fall back on if and when issues arise, says Ledesma. In the AdoptUSKids study, foster families reported high levels of stress when dealing with anger, defiance, impulsiveness, and other challenging attributes of special-needs foster kids. As with any difficulty in life, be sure you have a shoulder to lean on.

Also consider how accepting your social network will be of a child's ethnic background and sexual orientation. For the placement to be a success, the child must truly feel welcome.

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How to Prepare

To integrate a foster child into your home, make sure he has his own space and privacy, and plan time together, like family dinners or basketball in the driveway. Even if you're not adopting, foster kids become part of your family (the average time spent in foster care is two years, according to U.S. Health and Human Services).

"We always had family meetings where we let our kids make some of the decisions so they knew they had a part in them," Freeman says. AdoptUSKids offers a roundup of state services to help foster and adoptive families, as well as uplifting stories from parents and kids. The Dave Thomas Foundation also provides a running list of success stories.

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