Comforting a crying child. Making time to play pretend. Listening to a story. Cooking a great grilled cheese together. These unsung parts of parenthood may seem mundane, but for children in the midst of a family upheaval, these small acts provide the stability, normalcy and love they often desperately crave.
There are currently more than 20,000 Child in Need of Services, or CHINS, in Indiana, who are unable to stay with their biological families because of abuse, neglect or other circumstances. That number is up more than 7,000 from this time a year ago, an unsettling spike that officials blame on the recent drug addiction epidemic, leaving social service agencies scrambling to find more qualified foster families.
“There is an unprecedented need for foster families like never before in our state,” says Sharon E. Pierce, President and CEO of The Villages, the state’s largest nonprofit child and family services agency. “We need individuals who have a sense of calling and the patience and understanding to provide stability for these children, often for the first time in their lives.”
Although some families do eventually have the opportunity to adopt the children they foster, the primary goal of foster care is to provide a temporary, safe, nurturing and stable environment until a child can be safely reunited with their families, which typically takes an average of seven months in Indiana.
If you have ever considered the idea of fostering a child, here are the requirements as dictated by the state as well as the important personal characteristics that are attributed to successful foster families.
In Indiana, foster parents must be licensed by the Department of Child Services (DCS). Basic requirements include being at least 21 years old, passing a criminal history and background check, having all family members checked out by a physician, providing personal references and having a home visit from a licensing specialist.
Parents must also complete extensive training, including Resource and Adoptive Parent Training, or RAPT, which focuses on topics including child development, the effect of trauma, child sexual abuse and helping a child manage emotions and behavior. First Aid, CPR and Universal Precautions training are also required, along with continued training once a family has become licensed.
It’s important to note that foster families come in all shapes and sizes. Parents do not need to be married; they can be single or cohabitating as long as live-in relationships with a significant other or same-sex partner are established for at least a year to demonstrate stability, according to DCS.
“We have some empty nesters [and] we have families who have their own birth children but are wanting to grow their families through adoption by fostering,” says Gale Bellamy, Therapeutic Foster Care Supervisor with Bethany Christian Services of Central Indiana, a faith-based family services organization. “If you have the desire to want to support a child and you want to do that through foster care, probably nine out of ten times, you’re a good fit.”
Prospective foster parents are required to rent or own a home or apartment that meets physical safety standards, such as having fire extinguishers, and has space for a child or children, although they do not need their own individual bedrooms. Families must also demonstrate that they can provide reliable transportation.
The state requires that foster families demonstrate financial stability, meaning they can support themselves and the child. Foster families do receive a stipend while a child lives with them, but it only covers the child’s daily expenses. “Anyone who thinks they’re going to make money from becoming a foster parent, that’s just misguided, and it’s not what this is about,” Pierce stresses.
Medical expenses for children in the foster system are covered by Medicaid.
Besides meeting regulations set by the state, good foster parents possess a variety of personal traits and skills that make the fostering experience positive for both them and the child in their care.
As any parent knows, the ability to adjust and change course at a moment’s notice is a valuable asset in parenting. Adults who can be flexible – from not knowing how long a child will be in their care to attending weekly appointments to handling unforeseen circumstances – will be better equipped to handle the ups and downs of fostering.
“The kids who are in foster care, they’ve been traumatized. They need someone who can adjust to them instead of someone they have to adjust to,” Bellamy says. “The parents also need to be open to multiple service providers coming in and out of their home, which can take some flexibility.”
Compassion and understanding
For any child dealing with big emotions, one of the most important things a parent can do is just be there, offering time and undivided attention. “Just as with our own children, if they’re going through a difficult time, they need us to be present,” Pierce says. “To a child, the parent or the dedicated adult is the safety net, and if we’re not there or not present, the safety net has a lot of holes in it, and a child can get hurt.”
While fostering may seem like an overwhelming responsibility, pre-placement training helps prepare families for these challenges, and support is available from the foster care agency and other foster parents.
Prospective foster families should have a strong support network already in place before they take a child into their home. From biological children to grandparents, extended family and close friends, the more people to welcome a child the better.
“We hear foster parents say all the time that they threw their foster child a birthday party, and it was the first birthday cake the child ever had,” Pierce says. “Being in this supportive environment really helps these children see a different lens of what a family can be.”
For families who are religious, their church family can be another source of support and assistance. Bellamy, of Bethany Christian Services, says, “Because we’re a faith-based organization, we believe a strong faith in God, along with a strong support network, are a very important part of this process.”
Many agencies also provide peer support groups among foster parents, along with respite care opportunities to give parents a break from time to time.
“This work is very relational. You have to be a person who understands that building a relationship is difficult, and there’s not often an immediate return on investment,” Pierce says. “It’s like planting seeds, and you fertilize them with love, patience and accountability.”
A foster child may not even realize the impact of the stability you’re providing until much later. Being patient with the child, and the process, is key to a positive long term outcome.
For families who are interested in learning more about foster care, advocates suggest researching local agencies and calling or setting up in-person appointments to ask any questions before starting the process. Connecting with foster families in your area can also provide valuable insight for what to expect. Advocates stress that even if a prospective foster parent starts the training, they can still decide at any point that the commitment or timing simply isn’t right for them. There are also other ways to help. Consider mentoring a child in need, or becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, to speak for the best interests of children in the court system (Find more information at www.casaforchildren.org.) Also, simply reaching out to a foster family you know and asking how you might offer them support can be very helpful and appreciated.
“There is nothing more impactful than investing in a child who is in a state of crisis, and not through any fault of their own,” Pierce says. “We want to focus not on their past but on their future.”
More information about Indiana’s foster care rules and regulations can be found on the Indiana Department of Child Services website at www.in.gov/dcs/2984.htm