So you've decided you've got the passion and resources to give foster kids the stable, loving home they desperately need. Now it's time to find out if you (as well as your family) meet both the state-specific and universal requirements for taking these little ones into your care.
Here's a rundown of what's involved — and what to do if you haven't yet made the cut.
The details of being approved as a foster parent vary by state, but certain requirements are widespread. According to AdoptUSKids, to give foster kids what they need, you should have a stable, mature, and accommodating personality, as well as a flexible lifestyle that leaves time for caring and advocating on behalf of the child.
After contacting a local foster-care agency and attending an orientation, you'll have to fill out an application, providing references and details about your age and finances. At this point, it's important to be clear about the kinds of cases you're willing to take on -- perhaps you feel equipped to foster kids who've experienced neglect, for example, but not physical abuse.
"Be honest," advises 52-year-old Janet Kerin, who has served as a foster parent in Castle Rock, Colorado, for five years. "Don't just go in with a big heart and then take more on than you can handle."
At this stage, it's also crucial to develop a positive, team-oriented relationship with the social worker guiding you through the process. You'll need this person to help you deal with any fostering challenges that come up later on.
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Each state has its own rules determining which applicants will be approved for foster care. Many states have minimum age requirements (generally 19 to 21) and distinct conditions for criminal background checks. Some require federal background checks, for instance, while others don't; and in a handful of states, all members of the foster household must undergo background checks.
All states require pre-service training, which informs you of foster kids' backgrounds and needs, but the schedule and content of the prep sessions vary widely from state to state, says Kathy Ledesma, National Project Manager for AdoptUSKids. You also may have to complete a home study, in which a social worker will evaluate your house and lifestyle as an environment for foster kids.
In some states, receiving approval to foster children can also serve as the go-ahead to adopt from foster care too. To find state-specific information on becoming a foster parent, start with the resource map at AdoptUSKids here.
Before becoming a foster parent, you'll need some education — and you'll want it, since it's designed to help you understand the kids' needs and help integrate them into your family. The training, which typically takes 24 to 30 hours, allows you to hone important skills, including how to be culturally sensitive, how to cope with behavioral problems, how to help kids maintain relationships with biological parents and siblings, and learning to work as a team with your social worker and others at the foster-care agency.
Some states use pre-packaged programs, such as the PRIDE program (Parent Resources for Information, Development, and Education) and PATH (Parents as Tender Healers). "The training helps you think about what a child who ends up in the foster-care system might have experienced, and it prepares the foster parent to deal with issues like separation, anger, and depression," says Roxana Torrico Meruvia, Senior Practice Associate at the National Association of Social Workers.
In many states, fewer than half of prospective foster-parent applicants get very far beyond the training, according to a study by Harvard Kennedy School's Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy. This is frequently because they decide they're not equipped to meet foster kids' special needs. After becoming fully aware of the commitment needed, you'll be able to consider both the rewards and the challenges and decide if foster care is the right path for you.
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After you complete the pre-service training and your foster-care application, it's time to have your house examined so authorities can approve it for foster care. The agency you're working with will send a social worker and other professionals to evaluate your home and family life and determine whether it's a positive, safe environment for foster kids -- a process that takes three to six months, according to AdoptUSKids.
They'll make sure that your house is up to code, clean, and in good repair. Some states have specific requirements for fire extinguishers and smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. The evaluators will also look at the size of your home (Is it big enough to accommodate foster kids?), with some states mandating number of bedrooms, sleeping arrangements, and even square feet per foster child.
"The home study gets you to think about your house from a different perspective," Meruvia explains. "For example, if you were to take a baby into your care, is there enough room for a play yard [such as a Pack 'n Play] in your living room?" If you want more information on your state's requirements, this guide from the Child Welfare Information Gateway is a great place to start.
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If you're still working on the requirements to become a foster parent, there are many ways to help foster children in the meantime. Some potential foster parents volunteer as court-appointed special advocates who gather information about a foster child's life and present it in court to help judges make sound decisions for the child's future care. Becoming a volunteer requires only a background check and 30 hours of training.
You could also mentor foster children through a program such as Foster to Success, which helps kids overcome disadvantages to reach their academic and professional goals. Contact your local foster-care agency for leads on other volunteer opportunities.
"Work closely with your social worker, and have open dialogue about what you need to do to be approved as a foster parent," Meruvia suggests. Once your house and family life are ready, you can resume your approval process or, if necessary, reapply.