How to Become a Foster Parent
INSIDE: Learn how to become a foster family—from choosing your local DFCS vs. a private agency, types of foster care, the certification process, and what to expect.
Throughout the U.S., there is a desperate need for foster parents. People who can provide safe, loving homes are in high demand, and children wait daily to be placed in homes. Currently, there are roughly 440,000 children in the foster care system in the U.S. (13,873 in Georgia and 411 in Muscogee County). Though the certification process seems daunting, it’s a step towards helping children in need.
Before we get started, here are some little-known facts about foster care:
Single and married people can become foster parents
Same-sex couples can become foster parents
Adoption from the foster care system is free or nearly free
Almost all foster children come with a monthly stipend, WIC, and health care. In most states, clothing stipends, carseat stipends, additional services, and daycare are also provided. In some states, children who are adopted from foster care receive benefits well past their adoption – including free in-state college tuition.
In the state of Georgia (and many other states), children who are a part of a sibling group, have special needs, or have been in the foster care system for two consecutive years receive a monthly stipend and health care after their adoption is final, up until ages 18-21.
—>Think becoming a foster parent might be right for you? Here are 10 steps to help you become a foster parent:
1.) Discuss the idea with your partner (if applicable)
Deciding to become a foster parent is a big decision that shouldn’t be made lightly. Being a foster parent is hard— it’s emotionally taxing and therefore requires both partners to be on the same page. A few questions to ask each other are:
What is our motivation for becoming foster parents?
What types of children do we feel capable parenting?
Do we feel comfortable maintaining a close relationship with a child’s biological family?
If applicable, how will we prepare our children for this transition?
Do we want to lay any particular ground rules before getting started?
It’s important to be honest and truthful with yourself and each other about all of these questions. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, and the more candid and transparent you are in the beginning, the easier it will be to make decisions down the road.
2.) Choose Between an agency or DFCS/DHS
In most states, potential foster parents can choose between working directly with their county (DHS or DFCS), or working through a private agency. Essentially, the group that you choose will be responsible for your foster care experience. You will be certified by and work directly with them for placements. As with everything in life, there are pros and cons to both.
Through the county (DFCS or DHS)—
You’re working “directly with the source”—DFCS is the department that handles foster care within a state/county.
DFCS is the first to receive a call when a child comes into care, which (usually) benefits families that feel more capable of parenting babies and young children.
Don’t discriminate based on sexual orientation or marital status
They are underpaid and understaffed. Caseworkers often have gigantic case loads, which means that turnover rate can (sometimes) be high, and some case workers can be hard to get ahold of.
Through an agency—
Generally, agencies provide more support and resources to foster parents. Because they are smaller and have fewer cases, they are easier to get in touch with.
Agencies work on a “state-wide” basis, meaning that if a child comes into care that matches your profile, but they are in a different area, you are still considered as a placement for that child. (This can also happen with DFCS, it just isn’t as common.)
Some agencies discriminate based off of sexual orientation and marital status
Due to regulations, there can be more paperwork
Sometimes, agencies only place certain types of children (special needs, therapeutic homes, etc.)
Fees may be involved
3.) Consider which type of foster parent you’d like to be
There are many types of foster parents, which vary from state-to-state. Each are just as valuable and needed as the last, and one might be a better fit for your family than the others.
A few examples of the types of foster care are:
Partnership parent – Partnership foster care is what most people associate with “traditional” foster care: a child is placed in your home on a temporary basis (though it can last for years) as that child’s parent/s work a case plan for reunification. As their foster parent, you provide a safe, loving environment for that child, while knowing that he or she will likely reunite with his or her biological family.
Resource parent – A resource parent works a contingent plan with the state. Meaning, if a child’s biological family is not able to parent the child, you would be willing to consider adopting that child. Traditionally, this is called “foster to adopt”; however, many states have changed the term, as “foster to adopt” implies that a child will be adopted, which is almost never a guarantee.
Legal risk – A legal risk foster parent is a parent who is interested in adopting, but who accepts the placement of a child whose biological parents’ parental rights have not yet been terminated, or, whose biological parents are appealing the termination of their rights.
Adoptive parent – An adoptive parent is open only to children who are legally available for adoption.
Emergency placement – Emergency foster parents are open to short-notice, short-term (often overnight or several days) emergency placements until a more long-term home for a child can be found.
Respite Care – Respite foster parents provide short-term respite for children who are currently in another foster home. This can be a one-time occurrence or frequent, usually lasting for a weekend or up to one month, to provide the foster family with a break.
Therapeutic Placement – Therapeutic foster homes usually have extra training in a specific area that makes them more qualified to care for special or high-needs placements.
Relative/Kinship Care – Relative or Kinship care homes are for families who are biologically related to the child.
Non-Relative Kinship Care – Non-related kinship care homes are for families who are not biologically related to the child, but who knew the child or their family well before they entered foster care.
4.) Consider what age range and type of children you feel equipped to parent
A common misconception in foster care is that foster parents have no say in the types of children they receive phone calls about. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. DFCS and agencies ask and prefer that you be completely honest about the type of children that you feel most comfortable parenting, as the success of the placement depends on a foster parent’s honesty about what they can handle.
Prospective foster parents are asked dozens of questions in this vein—from ages, to race, ethnicity, and special needs (emotional, medical, and physical). Some parents feel best-equipped to foster teens, while others are more comfortable with newborns. There’s no wrong answer to questions like these, and the more honest you are, the better.
5.) Reach out
The next and first actionable step forward is to reach out to your local county office or agency. I simply Googled “’my county’ + DFCS” and “‘my county’ + foster care” to reach the appropriate person. (Note: if you decide to foster through your county, you may have to call more than once. Remember: overworked!) Once that initial contact is made, a representative will then come to your home to meet you and provide you with orientation dates, which is the first step to becoming a certified foster parent.
6.) Take classes
Foster care training class requirements vary from state-to-state, but generally last several hours per class for 6-10 weeks. These classes cover everything from the skills needed to parent children who might be in your care, to the state policies in place to protect those children and your family. During this time, you’ll also become First Aid, CPR, and Fire Safety certified. It’s also worth noting that this is a non-committal phase, meaning that you are in no way committed to becoming a foster parent during this time.
7.) Prepare your family and your home
Foster care is an endeavor that requires the support of each family member. While rewarding, it’s often draining, sometimes lonely, and always a gamble in that you never, ever know what might happen. That said, it’s important that everyone be open and honest about their feelings, their concerns, and their limits.
Preparing your home is also important. Though regulations vary from state-to-state, a home’s physical safety is a large factor in becoming an approved home. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers, pool alarms (if applicable) and functioning windows are relatively universal requirements for approved homes.
8.) Complete your paperwork and home study
Required paperwork and home studies vary widely by state, but the short is this: it’s a long, daunting process with lots of forms. Though some see this as a nuisance, it’s absolutely necessary when children’s lives hang in the balance. Paperwork packets include medical information, financial data, questionnaires, interviews, recommendations from friends and family, and psychological evaluations. Drug screens and criminal background checks will also be preformed.
Home studies include a licensed individual coming to your home (usually for several days, for several hours at a time) to assess your home, its fitness and safety for a child, to interview you and any other family members who live in the home, and to discuss the process with you. Though it seems scary, it’s a necessary process and ensures that children are placed in homes that are the best fit for them, and vice versa.
9.) Create a Closet (and a Village!)
Based on the age range and needs of a child you are certified to parent, it’s a good idea to keep a closet of items in the event of a last-minute (hint: phone calls are almost always last-minute) phone call. We are sure to keep diapers of all sizes, clothing bins of all sizes, an extra car seat, bottles and a crib on-hand at all times (we foster littles, as you might have guessed!)
It’s also important to establish a “village” for yourself— friends, family, and community members that you can count on to support you through your foster care journey. This can be something as simple as bringing a pack of diapers in the middle of the night when you receive a placement, offering to babysit for a few hours, bringing over a freezer meal, or just offering emotional support.
10.) Keep your phone on
Once your home is approved and you’re a certified foster parent, it’s very much a “hurry up and wait” situation. Some new foster parents get calls only hours after being certified, while others wait months. It’s very much dependent upon the type of foster parent you are, and the needs in your area at any given time, but at some point, the phone will ring!