How to help the foster care system

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Last month I was happy to read Hans Fiene’s essay encouraging more people to become foster parents. My wife and I have been fostering for four years, and it is more meaningful than anything else we do. Fiene is right that there are many children who need your help, that adoption is more common than you think, and that the kids will never stop benefiting from your love.

That said, this calling is not for everyone. Child welfare is brutal, and many people will understandably shy away. But you can still support the system even if you can’t commit to becoming a foster parent. Especially since coronavirus has made the job harder, and becoming certified can take several months, you should look for ways to help right now. Here are a few things you can do.

  • Donate to non-profits
    Money is always helpful, and there are several non-profits that serve the foster system. A friend started one in Colorado that matches foster families with people who want to help them. Here is another wonderful non-profit that would welcome a donation. Both organizations bring meals to new foster parents, support bio parents as they improve their lives and try get their children back, and provide foster children with clothes, toys, and books. Both are also gearing up to provide extra help for families under stay-at-home orders. Foster Together, e.g., is providing cash grants to parents and activities for kids.

  • Bring food to foster parents
    We had two hours to decide whether we would accept our first child—a medically fragile four-day old infant. We had no diapers, wipes, or a crib. We had not organized any time off from work. Having an infant when you have months to plan is already tiring. Having one dropped in your arms is even more so, and not worrying about food makes the job a bit easier. So take the initiative and setup a Meal Train. You can also signup with one of the non-profits linked above and bring food to foster parents in Colorado and California.

  • Babysit foster kids
    Like all parents, foster parents need childcare help, if even the occasional date-night. You can help provide that! While there are regulations around babysitting foster kids, you’ll probably have no issues if you watch them for just a few hours. Simply put: you can likely help watch foster kids right now. For longer periods of time it may not be that hard to become certified. In Colorado, you just need to be background-checked, get fingerprints taken at the Department of Human Services, and do a one-day First-Aid / CPR course.

  • Let your foster parent friends know you’re thinking of them
    That first foster placement left us physically and emotionally drained. Managing his health issues was a full-time job. His case took over two years to resolve, and the uncertainty often left us in tears.

    This process taught me and my wife that it is hard to be around people who are hurting. We were not fun and we were not good company. In fact, we were usually bad company. Our conversations focused on one thing, and we were often withdrawn, exhausted, and stressed. Yet, our community stuck by us. Having friends and family around mattered so much. It gave us something to look forward to, and a way to feel like ourselves again.

    It might be awkward, and you may not know what to say or do. But saying or doing anything is, 99 times out of 100, the right move. To be with others as they hurt is a gift as valuable as any other. It doesn’t have to be much. A simple text to check in and let your friends know you are thinking of them is immensely helpful.

  • Accept emergency placements and respite care
    After the coronavirus pandemic has abated, I encourage you, as Fiene did, to go through the certification process and become a foster parent. But note that Fiene described long-term care–what most people think of when they hear foster care.

    There are two other ways to be a foster parent that involve less commitment. You can accept short-term emergency care. We once had a teenage girl at our house for 10 hours because she needed somewhere to sleep while being moved between group homes. We also had a pair of brothers for just three days. Such placements give case workers time to figure out a more permanent solution. They are also easier than long-term foster care.

    You can also serve as a respite option. That is–you can watch fosters kids while their caregivers are on vacation, or if they simply need a break for a few days. Like emergency care, respite care is a crucial part of the foster system.

  • Become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA)
    If you want to do more than donate money or babysit but cannot envision hosting a foster child, there is another option. You can become a CASA. These volunteers develop a relationship with the foster child, and often act like a big brother or sister. They also work closely with the child’s lawyer to advocate for his best interests. Depending on where you live, CASAs may even serve as the child’s legal representative. Like becoming a foster parent, CASAs must take months of training.

Whatever path you take, working with the foster system will be one of the most important acts of service you can do. Though it will rarely be easy, the joy will be worth it. As Pastor Jason Johnson said: “It will be far more difficult than you could possibly imagine, and far more beautiful than you could have ever hoped for.”

As for the infant we accepted: our son turned four a month ago. Other than having me as a father, and the fact he just changed his name to Spider-Man, he’s as normal as can be.

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