According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 213,964 children entered the foster care system in 2020 alone, and 30 percent of them were under 5 years of age. What’s more, many of these children (roughly 45 percent) were placed in non-relative foster homes, which means a lot of families are stepping up to help children in need. Whether you’re seriously considering becoming a foster parent yourself, or are simply curious to know more, here are some things we learned about the foster parent experience from Rita Soronen, President and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a national nonprofit public charity dedicated to finding permanent homes for children waiting in foster care in North America.
5 Things a Child Welfare Advocate Wants You to Know About Foster Care
1. Neglect Is the Number One Reason Children End Up in Foster Care
The vast majority of kids who end up in foster care are there as the result of neglect, not abuse—the difference being that the latter is defined as a crime of commission (i.e., physical or sexual violence), while the former is an act of omission, and can include things like inadequate supervision, lack of healthcare, hazards in the home environment and basic needs (food, clothing) that haven’t been sufficiently met.
In other words, a lot of children in the foster care system are there not because their parents were malicious, but simply because they didn’t have the means to provide for the child properly due to circumstances beyond their control, such as substance abuse problems, poverty or being at risk of homelessness. This is an important distinction because it ultimately has an impact on how the child perceives their home life.
2. The Goal of Foster Parenting Is to Return Children to Their Biological Family
Soronen emphasizes that, ultimately, “a foster family is there to take care of that child and make sure they're safe while the court and the social agency prepares that child to go back home.”
For this reason, it’s important that foster parents have a “strong positive sense for the bio family and make sure the child knows that this is a team effort to get that child back home where they belong.” This can be surprising for foster parents who initially just want to save a child from harm and support them as long as possible, but don’t understand the complicated dynamics and the end goal, i.e., reunification.
The good news is that most cases do end with a successful reunification, Soronen tells us, and it’s critical that foster parents aren’t a barrier to that. Foster parents must do whatever they can to “make sure the line of communication with the bio family stays open,” she stresses, adding that this sometimes takes a lot of work, particularly when the bio family is struggling with feelings of resentment towards the foster parents. As such, the ideal foster parent is one who has empathy for all parties involved.
3. It’s Common for Foster Children to Not be Very Communicative at First
It should come as no surprise that in some cases the single biggest trauma the child has experienced—or at least the biggest trauma that the child is capable of recognizing as such—is that of being removed from their family home. As a result, it’s very common for foster children to not want to talk very much at first.
“A foster child has gone through layers of trauma, one of them being the removal from home,” the expert tells us. “And so resilience, perseverance, and being open to listening to a child who may immediately not want to be very communicative—all those things are really important when it comes to making sure the child feels welcomed as if they were a member of the foster family until they no longer are.”
4. Foster Parenting Involves Intensive Training and No Financial Payout
Foster parents must donate a considerable amount of time to participating in intensive training programs that prepare them for everything from the introduction to the end goal (reunification and goodbye).
There’s a major misconception that foster parents make money off of the service they provide, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. “The reality is no one gets rich becoming a foster parent. In some jurisdictions, the kind of financial assistance that foster parents get barely covers, and at times falls short of, covering the costs of caring for a child.” It’s also worth noting that when resources and services aren’t provided through a social agency in a reasonable amount of time, frustrated foster parents with the means to do so might just opt to pay out of pocket for everything from therapy to new clothing for the child.
And sure, Soronen concedes that there are always a few bad eggs—those who figure out how to scam the system—and the media eats it up. But at the end of the day, it’s a truly self-sacrificial undertaking that the vast majority of foster parents sign up for because they want to help children in need.
5. Foster Parenting Requires Tirelessly Following Up and Communicating with Case Workers, Social Agencies and Courts
As a foster parent, you are just one part of the picture. Behind the scenes, case workers, courts and social agencies are working actively with biological parents to a) achieve the ultimate goal of reunification and b) support the needs of foster parents who have stepped up to help.
Like in other situations dictated by red tape and bureaucracy, communication breakdown can occur and things fall through the cracks, which is why foster parents often find themselves needing to be more proactive than they imagined, whether they’re seeking basic information on the progress of the case, or even just reimbursement for childcare expenses and necessary healthcare referrals.
Another often frustrating aspect of foster parenting? Getting a realistic timeline for reunification. “You know, court hearings get delayed. Families don't show up for all the right reasons. And so something happens and it delays the timeline,” Soronen explains. “Foster parents must have a direct pipeline to the child's caseworker so they can reach out and communicate frequently—and if they're not responding, go right up the chain to the caseworker supervisor, because that's your right. That's critically important.”
In other words, becoming a foster parent is no small undertaking. “For people that are considering becoming a foster parent, do it for all the right reasons,” advises Soronen. “[Do it because you have] an altruistic sense of wanting to help a child in need, and particularly a child that's been abused or neglected.”