In the U.S. nearly 300,000 children have been placed in the foster care system due to neglect or abuse. They need stable families who can provide temporary homes and safe, loving environments while their biological families work to become better parents.
Unfortunately, there are more foster children than foster parents and 58,000 kids will be placed in group homes and other state institutions rather than in a family. Oftentimes, suitable adults are misinformed about the foster care system and don’t realize how they could play a part in the life of a young person needing their support. Sharon Pierce is the president and CEO of The Villages, a local foster care agency, Gale Bellamy is an Indianapolis-based therapeutic foster care supervisor with Bethany Christian Services and Keyonna Farris is a licensing specialist with Benchmark Family Services. Together, they discuss the issues commonly misunderstood about foster care.
It’s actually not that complicated
The overall functions of the foster care system are pretty simple. Most children are referred to Child Protective Services for neglect or abuse. The state then evaluates the family situation and will decide whether or not to put the child in foster care. When it comes to the nitty-gritty details like legal questions and family placement, the foster care agency helps you as the foster family work through these issues. They provide the training and license you must obtain, perform extensive background checks and then choose a child they think would be a good match for you or your family. “It takes commitment and a willingness to be open and honest throughout the process,” Farris Stated.
After deciding to become a foster parent, the process only takes about three to six months, and the agency won’t leave you high and dry. Most agencies offer support and advice throughout the entire training process as well as after a foster child is placed in your home.
“Licensed child placing agencies have 24-hour on call crisis management support, dedicated case managers who help families daily with issues as they arise, continued ongoing specialized training and administrative support when needed,” Farris added.
The money issue is a moot point
“I think one of the grave public misconceptions is that people do this for the money, and that just breaks my heart,” says Pierce, “The foster parents I know really feel called to care for a vulnerable child.” Pierce also points out that while parents do receive payment during training and then per diem after a child is placed in their home, reimbursement rates have been steadily reduced over the last eight years in Indiana.
You don’t have to be a perfect parent
Or a parent at all, for that matter. Foster agencies are not looking for the Brady Bunch, and they welcome people from many different homes and lifestyles. During training, you do have to prove that you are financially stable and can provide a safe environment, but otherwise you can be a 21-year-old who lives in an apartment alone, parents with kids of your own or 65-year-old empty nesters. Most agencies don’t discriminate against marital status or sexual orientation. Pierce explains that “in Indiana there are over 12,000 children who are abused or neglected and needing residential foster care, so you can imagine the unique differences that each of those children bring. We want a cadre, if you will, of foster families that reflect that diversity of child need.”
You are not adopting these children
“What I normally tell new foster parents is that for the majority of children, their permanency plan is reunification with their parents,” says Bellamy. There are times that the biological family is not going to be a placement option, and then the court will offer permanency. But those are extreme cases, and still, less than 15% of foster care children are adopted by foster families. In fact, you will often work with the biological family as they learn how to make choices that will provide a safe, nurturing environment for their kids. It is important to remember that foster care is not a roundabout path to adoption.
None of this means that foster care is easy
“Kids that come into foster care are in foster care for a reason. Many of them have been traumatized,” explains Bellamy. Although you will receive training and advice on how to care for children who have suffered trauma, it is often an uphill battle.
Bellamy believes that the most important element to being a successful foster parent is flexibility. “Foster children have a difficult time at changing,” she explains, “When kids are coming into your home, as the foster parents you have to do most of the changing: changing your parenting style and changing how you address their issues to be able to meet that child’s needs.”
More foster families are desperately needed
Perhaps the greatest misperception is that there will be someone else to care for these children. “There’s definitely a great need here in Indiana for foster parents,” says Bellamy, “Whether you have your own birth children or you’re empty nesters that don’t have kids, you can serve a child in some type of capacity by being a foster parent.”