If it was a pre-pandemic struggle to find enough adults willing and able to care for the 400,000+ children in foster care in the United States, it is not surprising and since life as we knew it got epically more difficult.
The structure of foster parenting, like everything else during the pandemic, looks very different – court hearings have been postponed time and again, visits to biological family members have been stalled, and visits from social workers have become virtual. Even with these precautionary measures in place, adding another child to your home poses an increased risk of exposure, and many foster parents who were already licensed and active when the coronavirus emerged were reluctant to do new internships, either because they were immunocompromised themselves are or are concerned about the health of elderly family members or other people in the home.
However, the need for foster parents is not diminishing. indeed, as two people in the child welfare system recently said New York Times::
“If you’ve ever been moved and able to serve children in need, now is the time to get involved,” said Rita Soronen, President and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
“It’s intimidating to get involved, but once you get trained and get some experience you realize it’s absolutely doable,” said Chastity [Gomez, a foster parent in Colorado]. “The impact you can have on these children’s lives is incredible.”
Here are some things to keep in mind if you want to take the plunge into foster parenting at these most unusual times.
As a former foster parent, I can tell you that the child support system in the United States is something of a maze. Its rules, regulations, and requirements can vary widely from state to state, and sometimes even from county to county. To get started, you must first identify the department in your state that manages the child welfare system. This could be your state’s Human Services department, or a Labor and Family Services department, or a child safety department – or whatever your state calls it.
The The US Department of Health maintains a directory This will keep you moving in the right direction depending on where you live. For example, in my home state of Pennsylvania, there is a nationwide “Adoption and Persistence Network” that is administered by the Human Services Department. When my husband and I started looking into the licensing process, I called this network and asked for help. They sent me a list of approved nursing and adoptive agencies in my area, which we then researched one by one.
They must also be licensed through an agency, and choosing the right agency is one of the first important decisions you make as a potential foster parent – especially during this difficult and uncertain time. Call some agencies and speak to the director or other manager about the services they provide and the agency’s overall mission or philosophy. Not only do you want to make sure that the office is conveniently located, but that the case workers are knowledgeable, responsive, and that the agency’s values align with your own. As David Dodge writes for The Times:
The culture and quality of the agencies are very different, said Soronen. It is therefore a good idea to speak to more than one before making decisions. Some private, religion-based agencies do not work with LGBTQ people, individuals, unmarried couples, or parents of different faiths. For those interested in working without such restrictions, this is the Human rights campaign, A national LGBTQ advocacy group maintains a directory as part of theirs All children – all families Project.
Preparation is everything
The licensing process for foster parents itself is quite extensive – and rightly so. For obvious reasons, it’s incredibly important for agencies to conduct thorough background checks on potential foster parents and gather information about their mental health, financial stability, and the safety of their home. The amount of training required, most of which is currently likely to be virtual, will vary depending on your agency, but will likely range from 10 to 30 hours initially, with additional annual training requirements thereafter.
My husband and I took training on all sorts of topics, from filling in the huge pile of papers we were given to parenting through a therapeutic relationship model. Whatever is offered by your agency, I suggest taking as much of it as possible. You get a license with the essentials, but being licensed and being ready is not the same thing. Your agency will likely have other suggestions for videos and articles or books to read that can better prepare you for caring for a foster child.
Here are a few books I would like to suggest to get you started:
You should also dive into local and national foster parent support groups. Since most of your training is likely to be virtual, you will not be able to interact with other potential foster parents as usual during your training. Ask your agency for help in contacting other local families via zoom, text, or email. Look for foster parenting communities on social media – Facebook is a good place to start. Join the groups and take some time to read previous posts and comments. You will find an abundance of experiences and wisdom to learn from.
Have a backup plan
Even at the best of times, foster parents need to take breaks to have a few hours alone for errands or a weekend for a wedding (you know, as soon as we can do things like that again). Be sure to ask your agency about guidelines on who else can babysit the children in your care, as there are often different requirements for part of the day or an overnight visit. Ask your agency about (very short-term) care options. You may also be able to team up with another foster family in your agency to swap follow-up care with each other if necessary – your own Provisional Foster Family.
Given the times we live in, you should also be wondering what policies and procedures the agency has put in place to fight the pandemic – for example, what happens if you contract the virus and get too sick to care for the kids in To take care of your home at home? What do you do and who do you notify if any of the children in your care have symptoms of COVID-19? If you have clear expectations about how to deal with someone in your home who is getting sick, you can at least relieve one stressor in that case.
Also, to avoid surprises in the future, you should be familiar with how things like house calls from clerks and visits to biological family members are currently being handled and how they will be coordinated once the pandemic is under control.