An Almost Thankless Job
Very appropriately foster parents are sometimes referred to as “parents plus” because the emotional and sometimes even physical demands of foster parenting require very nearly super-human effort at times. Foster care is not intended to be a long-term situation, but rather a transitional, temporary setting for a child in distress, with the ultimate goal being reunion with the biological parent or primary caregiver. In itself the transitory and often times volatile nature of the entire situation can be a very daunting prospect for any person considering foster parenting. What seems to make it all worthwhile for many who take the foster parenting plunge is the realization that their positive involvement in a desperate child’s life may be all that is needed to make an impact that will affect that child for the rest of his or her life (Harris, 2004). That can be thanks enough.
The need for foster parents in the United State alone has grown dramatically over the past several years. In 2002 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that over a half-million children and adolescents were in foster care in the U.S. system and that number was a significant increase from figures reported over the previous two decades. What is even more disturbing is that according to the U.S. General Accounting Office foster children specifically, in comparison to children living in the poorest sections of inner cities or even homeless children, were on the average less healthy both physically and psychologically (Leslie, Kelleher, Burns, Landsverk, & Rolls, 2003). Further, recent studies indicate that the vast majority of children that are initially placed in foster care are often destined to experience the whole situation more than once; “re-placement” is a common occurrence (Noonan, 2000). There are a number of reasons for these statistics ranging from environmental to economic to even social disasters. When the flood waters recede, when the smoke clears, and the yelling stops all that’s left are the children … and those willing to care for them.
The Foster Care Team 101
Foster care in the United States functions on a local rather than national level. Most states follow the same general model although structure varies from one state to another. One of the most widely misunderstood facts regarding foster care is that although foster care facilities are regulated by a division of the state’s social service office, the vast majority of actual placement and monitoring of children is carried out by independent non-profit organizations who have obtained state licensing. The foster parent must be prepared to take his or her role as part of a team effort whose primary focus is the welfare of the child. The caseworker, the foster parent, the biological parents, the court, the child personally, and sometimes Special Advocates (court appointed child representatives) all have important responsibilities in the process (Harris, 2004).
Foster care is subdivided into a number of different categories, the most primary being traditional care, emergency foster homes, respite and relief foster homes, and group homes. The circumstance of the child’s individual situation determines which type of foster care scenario is the most appropriate. Whatever the situation for the child the basic set of steps for an individual considering becoming a foster parent are virtually the same with minor variations in eligibility requirements from state to state. Traditionally a two-fold process (eligibility and certification), most states share the following general eligibility requirements:
• Must be at least 21 years or older (some states set a limit at 65 years of age).
• Must have adequate living space for the child (amount of space varies by state).
• They must have the means to financially support the child.
• They must provide a home that adheres to certain safety standards.
• They must be in good physical and mental health.
If the prospective foster parent meets these basic criteria, the second part of the process (certification) can be embarked upon. Again, with minor variations in process according to state, the procedure is as follows:
• Call the state Division of Social Services and request the information packet on becoming a foster parent. The packet will contain an outline of what is expected of foster parents.
• Upon receiving the application the foster care facility will review it thoroughly and if satisfied that the applicant meets the specified criteria will begin a home study. The home study is quite extensive and includes several visits to the prospective home, criminal background checks, and fingerprinting of all individuals in the household over the age of 12. The process can be quite lengthy but is necessary for the protection of the child being placed in foster care.
• During the home study the prospective foster parent is also required to complete a training course on good parenting and dealing with children with special needs, which is provided by the foster care facility.
• Upon completion of the training course and a favorable home study, the prospective foster parent is considered certified to take in a child for care. The foster care facility will then begin the process of trying to place a child in the new foster parents’ home.
What Makes it All Worthwhile
Becoming a foster parent is a lot of hard work. Although foster parents are not legally accountable for the actions of the children placed in their care and can ask that the foster care agency remove them at any time there still exits a sobering amount of responsibility. And even though the child’s medical expenses are covered by Medicaid and the foster care service affords a minimal monthly sum to the foster family to help provide for the child’s room and board, there is a substantial emotional investment. No, the rewards for becoming a “parent plus” are not material, hardly even ever extrinsically motivated. What makes becoming a foster parent worthwhile is the true essence of the job and that is providing parental love to a child in desperate need (Harris, 2004).
Burns, B.J., Kelleher, K.J., Landsverk, J., Leslie, L.K. & Rolls, J.A. (2003) Foster care and Medicaid managed care. Child Welfare League of America. Retrieved 29 April 2010.
Harris, T. (2004) How foster care works. 29 June 2004. HowStuffWorks.com. http://people.howstuffworks.com/foster-care.htm. Retrieved 29 April 2010.
Noonan, K. (2000) An investigation of dependence on the foster care system. State University of New York at Stony Brook. Bell and Howell Information and Learning Company. Retrieved 29 April 2010.