Here’s What It’s Like to Actually Be a Foster Parent

Foster parent First Hand Account - An illustration of a family made up of a woman, a man, and a child. They are all laying on the floor together reading something. There are shadows from the windows that surround them.
Malte Mueller

According to, there are more than 407,000 children and youth in foster care and only 34 percent of them are placed with relatives or kin, while the other two thirds are placed in the care of nonrelative foster parents who have stepped up to share their home and help.

I spoke at length with Laura (who would prefer to keep her last name anonynous), a foster parent since 2019 and the creator of Foster Parent Partner, an online community that provides direct support, as well as informative content and practical resources, to help other foster parents in their journey. Laura lives in California with her husband Chris, a writer who is also actively involved in foster parenting and care; the couple do not have biological children of their own, but they know a thing or two about parenting, particularly informed trauma parenting, as a result of their work within the foster system. This is Laura’s story.

The background

To give you a lay of the land, we foster through an agency that contracts with the county and we are what they consider therapeutic foster parents, which means we typically get calls for kids who have a greater level of need and care as it relates to emotions and behaviors. We usually foster sibling pairs who stay long term, for several months. In addition to my personal experiences, I’ve supported and mentored hundreds of families that message me to brainstorm ideas of things to try or schedule meetings to talk and get support.

Before we got started, and in order to get licensed, we had to make some adjustments to our home, such as adding a pool fence, fixing screens on our windows (no holes allowed), locking up all of our sharp items and chemicals and adding mesh to the stairway rails. We also decided to have less decorated kids’ bedrooms, as we allow for kids to personalize the space when they move in. (Lights, wall decals, bedding, and even paint!)

The phone call

Back in 2019, our first ever call was about two young kids who were with other foster parents, and it wasn't working out [since the foster parents weren’t] able to meet their needs. We actually got to talk to the caregivers and do a play date, which was wonderful. The foster parents were amazing—we went over to their house and met them and they were very honest. We also got to spend some time with the kids on that visit and it didn’t give us a full sense of who they were, of course, but it was a good ice breaker.

So then there was that moment of like, ‘are we sure?’ It was nerve wracking. That first time you say yes, it's always a leap of faith because you really don't know until you're in it. But we said, “yes, let’s do it,” and the foster parents dropped them off with a huge car of items that they had purchased for them. And then it was go time.

Sink or Swim

It was a complete whirlwind the first couple of weeks, going from no kids and never parenting children to being a parent of two kids who need a lot of accommodation and attention. I mean, we were exhausted.

These were young children who needed a lot of developmental support, so there were some concerns with getting daycare and early education services, and they needed a lot more hands-on advocacy.

It was also a very high touch situation with their [biological] parents; the parents were very actively involved in seeking reunification and it was a lot to manage. There were daily phone calls that we were responsible for facilitating and monitoring ourselves, as well as weekly visits. There are guidelines on what can and can’t be talked about, and we had to make sure everyone was following the rules.

We were trying to keep a connection between the biological parents and the kids—and the kids have feelings about their parents, good and bad. As much training as there is, you're not really trained on how to instill confidence and trust with a parent, how to co-parent, where to get their input. It’s just a lot.

Missed Work

That first time, I was not prepared for any of it. I didn't realize how much work I would be missing, to be honest. It’s just kind of implied that you’ve made arrangements and can make it work, and I thought, “Oh, I’ll take a half-day, maybe a few half-days off while everyone gets settled in and the daycare situation is sorted out.” That was not the case at all. We are compensated with a daily stipend to cover the kids’ needs, but I’m not submitting when I’m missing work or anything like that.

There's the Federal Medical Leave Act, which foster parents can access. So if you work for a large corporation and you have an HR department, you can submit for this time—it's not paid, but you can get time off and you don't get penalized. I work for myself, though, so there is nothing I can do. I’m a consultant, and if I'm not taking meetings, not going in to meet with my main client, then I'm not getting paid. And I know that for a lot of families, it's not possible. The loss of work and even just the loss of time to commit to other kids in the home and your own personal needs, it does lead to a lot of foster parents quitting. I mean, nearly 50% quit in the first year.

Making it Work

There was a moment where my husband and I were sitting in a support group and we raised the flag and were like, “We cannot do this. We don't know where to go from here, but this is not sustainable.” Ultimately, we hung in there, but we had to make some changes.

Now we prioritize date nights, we get babysitters even though they can be hard to find. We go to a support group every month. I have my own kind of parent mentor that I speak to a couple of times a month just to vent and get advice. I mean, it is incredibly draining and you have to take breaks. You have to recollect yourself and reconnect with who you are and your own hobbies and interests. You need to travel. After every foster case my husband and I get out of town for a few days.

All those things do have to happen, or you’ll lose hope and forget why you’re doing it in the first place—and then it’s not a good situation, especially not for a child. Secondary trauma is real and it does happen to caregivers. Some even get to a point of compassion fatigue—it’s called blocked care—where you kind of just don't engage anymore.

Highs and Lows

I’ve definitely been in situations where I learned the backstory, got to know the parents and felt like the kids in my care really didn’t need to be in the system—that being in foster care was more damaging to them than the problems that put them there, and that softer interventions could have been used. There's always more to the story. There's always something else going on—generational trauma, racism. There's just so much impacting the system and it can be very sad and frustrating for foster parents, too. Ultimately, foster parents will always be needed, but I would love for a day to come when I don’t have any calls; to just sit empty and only really be needed in severe moments where family is not able to come in and help and there isn't an opportunity to preserve the family.

As caregivers, we can attend the court proceedings, provided no one objects to us being there, and that’s one of the most emotionally taxing experiences for me. It's difficult to see parents show up and do the work and still not get their kids back quickly. It's difficult to see parents not show up. It's difficult to hear potential lies talked about in court and you can't do anything about it. It's difficult when things are misrepresented. I can't think of a court hearing that wasn't stressful. And if it's stressful for me, I can't imagine how it is for the family.

But there are bright moments, too. We had one reunification where the parent did need help for substance abuse issues—they got the help and did the work in a really genuine way. The court agreed and returned the child, and I had developed a really nice relationship with the parent. The parent acknowledged what we had gone through, too, and how we would miss the child. It was sad to say goodbye, but it was such a beautiful reunification and I was so happy to see that circumstances had improved for the family.

We were actually able to stay in contact for months after—we sent Halloween costumes and got to go to a birthday party. That tapered off, of course, but it was really rewarding and it filled me with a lot of hope. So often these situations don’t have a happy ending, but when they do, you really have to reflect on those positive experiences and return to them when things get hard.

A Sense of Purpose

My reason for fostering has evolved over time, and continues to change and morph depending on my life and where we’re at. I got into foster parenting after seeing a special on TV that the Dave Thomas Foundation puts on every year called “Home for the Holidays.” It's about kids in foster care who end up getting adopted, but you see their stories and learn about foster care.

As a teenager, I was in a bubble and I did not know what foster care was. I just couldn’t believe there were kids out there that didn’t have a Christmas tree up and such. It definitely planted the seed for me, so throughout my life I’ve been thinking about those kids and the kind of lives they have. Now, as a foster parent, I can’t always make things happen, but I do have a lot of power to support and advocate for families that need it most.

Knowing what I know now, I could never walk away from child welfare in some capacity; I can't live my life without trying to improve the system because the kids are relying on us…and I want to fight for more support for foster parents because we need it, too.

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