If you're new to the world of foster care, the prospect of becoming a foster parent can be pretty intimidating. Foster parents are often called "parents plus" because in addition to providing the food, shelter, care, and love a good parent would provide for their own kids, they also have to deal with the special circumstances of a foster child.
Serving as a foster parent generally means working closely with a foster agency on a regular basis, and often means regular contact with a child's biological family as well. Foster children may also have special psychological needs. Many come from abusive environments, and all are in the stressful situation of being apart from their birth family. Additionally, foster parents generally take care of the children for a short time, which can be very difficult emotionally.
But as challenging as this role is, it can also be highly rewarding. Good foster parents know they've provided a home for a child in dire need, and the best ones may even turn a child's entire life around. And nobody in the U.S. foster care system goes in completely unprepared. To take in foster children through a foster agency, you have to go through a screening, training and licensing process.
Foster parents don't have to be married, and prior child-rearing experience is not a necessity. But in most states, they do have to meet the following criteria:
- They must be 21 years or older. Additionally, some states do not accept foster parents who are older than 65.
- They must have room for a child in their home. Some programs require every foster child have his or her own room, while some only require that they have their own bed and personal storage space.
- They must already have the financial resources to provide for their own family.
- They must provide a home that meets certain safety standards
- They must be in good physical and mental health
If you meet this criteria, you can proceed through the process of becoming a licensed foster parent. State foster care systems vary, but the process typically goes something like this:
- The first step is to call the state Division of Social Services and request an information packet on becoming a foster parent. The information packet outlines what is expected of foster parents and includes specific instructions on how to proceed through the licensing process. You may also be able to attend an orientation session organized by the local foster care agency.
- If you decide you're interested in becoming a foster parent, the next step is to fill out a foster parenting application. The application gives the foster care agency an idea of your suitability as a foster parent.
- If they are satisfied you meet the basic criteria, the foster care agency social workers will begin a home study. The home study includes visits to your actual home, for various safety inspections, as well as fairly extensive background checks into you and your family. In most cases, the agency will fingerprint everybody in your home over 12 years old and check their criminal record. This process can take several months, and it requires a lot of work from you and your family, but it is crucial to protecting foster children in the system. When it works correctly, it weeds out applicants who would make poor foster parents.
- While the home study is in progress, you will enroll in a foster care training course taught by the local foster care agency. The most popular course curriculum today is the Model Approach to Partnership in Parenting (MAPP). In this 30-hour, 10-week course, instructors cover a range of issues, focusing on good parenting, dealing with children with special needs and working with the foster care agency.
- If the home study goes well and you successfully complete the training program, you will become a certified foster parent. The agency will try to find a child that is a good match for your home, and they will come to live with you.
The foster parent does not carry all responsibility for the child, as a biological or adopted parent would. The foster parent is not legally responsible for the child, and may request that the child be removed from the foster home at any time. Medicaid covers the child's medical expenses, and the foster care agency provides a monthly check to help cover the child's room and board. The monthly sum is not by any means extravagant, so foster families may end up supporting the child with their own funds as well. As a point of reference, the recommended monthly rates in North Carolina are:
- $315 for children up to 5 years old
- $365 for children 6 to 12
- $415 for children 13 and up
Even though the state maintains true custody, foster parents do have a definite responsibility for children in their care. Their ultimate responsibilities are to care for the child and to look after his or her daily well-being. In a very real sense, their job is to provide parental love to children without parents.
If you are interested in becoming a foster parent, or you'd simply like to learn more about the foster care system, check out the links on the next page.