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We have a detailed course on the foster care process and if you’re interested in a more detailed rundown, please go here.
As you may know, children in the foster care system have been removed from their homes (for reasons you can see below) and the role of a foster parent is to protect, nurture and raise the child until a permanent, safe home can be found for them.
That more-permanent home may be with their birth parent(s) in what is known as “reunification”, it might be with a foster parent (in what is known as “foster-to-adoption”), the home of a relative or another avenue.
There is a misconception that the majority of children in foster care were abused by their parents. As you can see from the data above, in most circumstances, that's not the case. It's more likely that the child was removed due to instability in their home, often rooted in poverty and parental mental health challenges. Many times, the parents want to care for their children but may not have the personal resources to do that well at the time. In these cases, the goal is often to support the parents so that they can resume care of their own children.
Many people considering adopting a child also consider fostering a child: in both cases, you’d be helping to raise a child whom you didn’t deliver and who very much needs your love and support.
However, the reality is that many foster children have endured trauma, there is no guarantee you will become their permanent parent, and as a result, states often struggle to find a home for foster children.
As a result, it is faster, easier and less costly financially to welcome home a child as a foster parent than it is through domestic or international adoption, as you can see below.
The process of becoming a foster parent will differ state to state and sometimes county to county. At a high level, there are three major steps: training, screen and matching.
A major decision for prospective foster parents is how to think through which child to take in. A common misperception is that children in the foster care system are all older or just one race or gender.
First, as you can see in the data below published by the US Department of Health and Human Services, there are nearly as many infants entering the foster care system as children ages 11–18.
Next, Health and Human Services reports there are nearly an equal percentage of boys and girls, as you can see in the data below.
As for race and heritage, no one race dominates at a national level, as you can see in the data below. Furthermore, the racial make-up of children in the foster care system often varies region-to-region.
That said, these numbers likely won’t reflect the local population demographics. In many areas, families of some races are more likely to be involved in the foster care system, which may reflect an underlying bias of mandatory reporters, law enforcement, social workers and judges.
Just as foster care systems are made up of a variety of races, many foster parents won’t be the same race as their foster child. As we’ve shown in our adoption lesson, foster parents can practice approaches like “cultural socialization” and “preparation for bias” training to bridge gaps and bolster their child’s confidence.
Another factor to consider is whether you’re comfortable welcoming siblings into your home. While this may require more effort and resources than fostering a single child, there’s compelling data that foster children do better when living with a sibling.
Below is retrospective data on teacher perceptions of 1,700 foster children, divided between whether foster siblings were “split” (all lived separately), “splintered” (some siblings remained together) or “together” (all siblings lived together). Teachers were 40% more likely to have a positive perception of foster children who lived with their siblings than foster children separated from their siblings.
The same dataset showed that foster parents regard their foster children as “being more a part of this family” when siblings were kept together. A team from the University of Texas noticed a related phenomenon in their study of over 23,000 foster children: children separated from their siblings were nearly twice as likely to eventually be “displaced” or removed from their foster home.
As many foster parents will attest, raising a foster child is both spectacular and difficult. As some foster parents tell us, “In many ways, I am helping to save a life. Nothing is more meaningful.” Your home might be the one that delivers the love, nurturing, structure and support that reverses a painful trend of emotional or physical abuse to a defenseless child. When a foster child calls you “Mom” for the first time, you’ll feel compelled to do everything you can to protect them.
All the same, most foster children have endured trauma (often at rates seen only amongst war veterans) at a pivotal stage and earning their trust, adapting to their habits and weathering their frustration is hard.
Many foster parents stick with it, but some don’t, and there is a tight correlation between how often foster children are abandoned by their foster families and the odds they’ll transition from the foster system to the criminal justice system.
It’s critical to weigh this reality because if you take on a foster child, cannot cope and relinquish them back into the foster system, you may be exacerbating the problem you set out to address. In the process, you may imperil that child’s long term prospects.
It’s possible to legally adopt a foster child, but this can be a multi-month or multi-year process. As we showed you earlier, often the objective of the foster care system is to try to reunify a child with their birth family. However, when a judge comes to the conclusion the birth parents can’t responsibly look after the child, their “parental rights” are terminated. In this case, the court will try to establish a long term permanency plan, such as adoption, to give the child a stable home.
A parent may have their parental rights terminated for any number of reasons (e.g. severe chronic abuse or neglect) but the reality is judges will often take their time in this process.
If you’d prefer to foster a child who’s parental rights have already been terminated, that’s often possible. Alternatively, agencies will often know of circumstances where rights have not yet been terminated, but it’s looking like an eventuality.
Just as is the case during adoption, most foster family formation is transracial. Foster children and foster parents gain tremendously when foster parents are prepared to learn, understand, and incorporate their foster child’s birth culture into the family.
Historically, the foster care system has been accessible to single people looking to become a foster parent. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, roughly 28% of all foster and foster-to-adopt parents are single.