Foster Care 101

The Foster Care Process

Step 1: Contact Social Services and Get Trained

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.

To start, prospective foster parents contact a state department (e.g. Administration for Children’s Services) to register and attend a 2 - 3 hour orientation on the process of becoming a foster parent and generally who is well-suited to welcoming home a foster child.

If you continue to be interested, you’ll go through a certification process (sometimes 30 hours or longer), where you’ll be trained to reflect upon your strengths and “development points” for becoming a foster parent, as well as learn what your rights and responsibilities are to your foster child.

This process often takes a few weeks to complete.

Step 2: Home Study and Getting Screened

After (or sometimes in conjunction with) training, the state assesses whether you’re in a good position to become a foster parent. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a perfect individual, but rather you’re physically, financially, and emotionally up to the task.

This step in the process isn’t necessarily hard, but does require real organization: making appointments, running down documents, getting sign-offs, and from start to finish, lasts a few months.

Specifically, a doctor needs to provide a note of medical clearance that you’re well enough to take care of a child. In addition, all adults living in the house must be fingerprinted and pass a screen for no known criminal history. You must demonstrate (often through tax records and bank statements) you can pay your own bills and aren’t doing this to receive state assistance.

A lot of the paperwork will be physically collected during a “home study” when a state social worker visits the home where a foster child would live. During the home study, the social worker will try to get to know you, your habits and visualize what life will be like for a child under your care. The home itself must be in compliance with all local zoning, safety and fire codes. While your home doesn’t need to be kept spotless, the social worker will evaluate if it is clean, safe and in good repair. The exact requirements for the number of bedrooms and sleeping arrangements vary from state to state, but across the board, the idea is that the social worker is evaluating whether or not you are able to provide a safe, stable physical environment for the child in need.

Yes, there are rules about which criteria a social worker can use to assess “fitness” but the reality is that this is still a subjective call on their part. Encouragingly, we hear far fewer stories today about people feeling discriminated against based on marital status or sexual orientation, two topics will cover towards the end of the course.

Step 3: Matching

Once you’re “cleared”, you’ll specify your preferences for a child (or children), but the reality is you’ll likely start getting calls from the state for children that don’t directly match with your criteria.

You can prioritize the number of children (we’ll address siblings in a following lesson), genders, ages (infant to age 21), races and heritages, any forms of disability and other attributes.

The longer a child has been in the foster care system, the more you’ll be told about their personality, their habits, hobbies, likes and dislikes. If a child has just entered the system, you’ll likely get few of those details, because the state department hardly knows the child.

Before you make a final decision, technically, there should be a period over multiple visits when you and the child get to know each other. The reality, however, is many children will be brought once and left under your care, sometimes all on the same day.

As we’ll get to later, if your heart is set on adopting (where you become the legal parent), you can preference children whose birth parents have had their legal rights terminated.

Impressions from Foster Children

For many foster children, this process begins abruptly and traumatically. With no notice, they’re removed from a home that may be objectively dangerous, but is all they’ve ever known.

They’ll find themselves under the care of well-intentioned, but overworked, agencies which try to characterize what needs the child has and find them a home as soon as possible.

Foster children have little say where they are placed, find themselves defenseless in scary, unfamiliar environments and just want to get back to the home they are accustomed to.

Many foster children will be separated from brothers and sisters, often the only people they believe can protect them, and who previously could be relied on to share fears, hopes, questions, stories, play games and otherwise take their minds off of painful experiences.

While some foster children settle at one foster home, most will enter and leave a succession of homes, and with each transition, many foster children feel a compounding sense of rejection.

For these reasons, amongst others, some foster children enter a new home with a sense of guarded optimism, but just as often, a feeling of confusion or hopelessness.

As we’ll discuss in a following lesson, foster children want someone who will care for them, listen to them before laying down rules, pay attention to their wants and who will look after them “like they were their own children”.