If finding enough adults who were willing and able to care for the more than 400,000 children in foster care in the U.S. was a struggle before the pandemic hit, it has gotten unsurprisingly and epically harder since life as we knew it shut down.
The very structure of foster parenthood, like everything else, looks much different during the pandemic—court hearings have been postponed again and again, visitation with biological family screeched to a halt, and caseworker visits have gone virtual. Even with these precautions in place, adding another child to your home brings with it an increased risk of exposure, and many foster parents who were already licensed and active when the coronavirus hit have been hesitant to take new placements, whether because they are immunocompromised themselves, or they are concerned for the health of elderly family members or someone else in the home.
However, the need for foster parents isn’t lessening; in fact, as two people in the child welfare system recently told the New York Times:
“If you have ever been moved to help children in need, and have the ability, now is the time to get involved,” said Rita Soronen, president and C.E.O. of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
“It’s intimidating to get involved, but once you get trained and gain some experience, you realize it’s totally doable,” said Chastity [Gomez, a foster parent in Colorado]. “The impact you can have on the lives of these kids is incredible.”
Here’s what to keep in mind if you’re thinking about taking the leap into foster parenting during these most unusual of times.
As a former foster parent myself, I can tell you that the child welfare system in the United States is something of a maze. Its rules, regulations, and requirements can vary widely from state and state, and sometimes even from county to county. To get started, you’ll first need to identify the department in your state that manages its child welfare system. It might be your state’s department of human services, or a job and family services department, or a department of child safety—or whatever else your state might call it.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintains a directory that will get you moving in the right direction, depending on where you live. My home state of Pennsylvania, for example, has a statewide “adoption and permanency network” administered by its department of human services. When my husband and I were beginning to grapple with the licensing process, I called up that network and asked for help. They sent me a list of approved foster and adoptive agencies in my area, which we then researched one by one.
You will also need to be licensed through an agency, and choosing the right agency is one of the first important decisions you’ll make as a potential foster parent—especially during this fraught and uncertain time. Call a few agencies and talk with the director or another leader about the services they provide and the agency’s overall mission or philosophy. You will want to ensure not just that the office is conveniently located, but that the caseworkers are knowledgable and responsive, and that the agency’s values align with you own. As David Dodge writes for The Times:
The culture and quality of agencies vary widely, said Soronen, so it’s a good idea to speak with several before making any decisions. Some private, religion-based agencies won’t work with L.G.B.T.Q. individuals, single people, unmarried couples or parents of differing faiths. For those interested in working without such restrictions, the Human Rights Campaign, a national L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy organization, maintains a directory as part of its All Children — All Families project.
Preparation is everything
The foster parent licensing process itself is fairly extensive—and rightfully so. It is, for obvious reasons, incredibly important for agencies to do thorough background checks on any potential foster parent, as well as gather information about their mental health, financial stability, and the safety of their home. The amount of training—most of which is likely to be virtual right now—that is required will vary depending on your agency, but is likely to be in the 10-30 hour range initially, with additional yearly training requirements after that.
My husband and I attended training sessions on all sorts of topics, from how to fill out the giant stack of paperwork we’d received to how to parent from a therapeutic-based relational model. Whatever is offered by your agency, I suggest taking as much of it as you can. The bare minimum will get you licensed, but being licensed and being ready are not one and the same. Your agency is also likely to have other suggestions for videos to watch and articles or books to read that will help to better prepare you for caring for a foster child.
Here are a few books I suggest to get you started:
You should also immerse yourself in foster parent support groups, both locally and nationally. Given that most of your trainings are likely to happen virtually, you won’t be able to connect with other would-be foster parents during your training sessions as you normally would. Ask your agency for help connecting with other local families via Zoom, text, or e-mail. 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’ll find an abundance of experience and wisdom to learn from.
Have a back-up plan
Even during the best of times, foster parents need to take breaks, whether to get a few hours alone to run errands or a weekend to travel for a wedding (you know, once we can do such things again). Be sure to ask your agency what their policies are regarding who else can babysit the kids in your care, as there are often different requirements for, say, part of a day versus an overnight visit. Ask about respite (very short-term) care options through your agency. You may also be able to partner up with another foster family at your agency to trade off respite care with one another as needed—your own makeshift foster care pod.
Because of the times we’re living through, you should also ask what policies and procedures the agency has in place to address the pandemic—what happens, for example, if you contract the virus and become too sick to care for the kids in your home? What do you do, and who do you notify, if one of the kids in your care comes down with symptoms of COVID-19? Having a clear set of expectations for how to handle someone in your home becoming ill will help alleviate at least one stressor, should this happen.
To avoid surprises in the future, you’ll also want to be well-versed in both how things like home visits from caseworkers and visits with biological family are being handled right now and how they will be coordinated once the pandemic is under control.