I love baseball. One of the most overlooked players in baseball is the pinch hitter. This is a player who takes the place in the lineup of a starting player. A pinch hitter may or may not have much notice of his turn at bat, but when the coach calls upon him, he needs to be as ready. The pinch hitter can make or break the game. The same applies to respite providers.  Respite providers are the pinch hitters for regular (also known as long-term) foster parents.

What is Respite?

Respite is support offered to foster parents, in most states. Respite is a time of planned or unplanned time of a foster child away from their regular foster home. It has often been said that you cannot pour into another person’s cup if your own is empty. Respite is a time to re-fill your cup. Each licensed/certified foster parent is usually entitled to a certain amount of respite hours from their foster care agency. 

Let’s use Arizona as an example. In Arizona, foster homes that are licensed through the Department of Child Safety (DCS) are allotted 144 hours of respite per year from July 1st to June 30th. This equals six days, or three weekends per year, which is paid by the foster care agency. On top of this, in Arizona, if a foster child is enrolled in services from a Behavioral Health clinic, they may be entitled to up to 600 hours of additional respite, which may be overnight or during the daytime. This respite is normally paid for by the Behavioral Health clinic. Lastly, in Arizona according to Normalcy Rules, foster parents are allowed to use a private, short-term caregiver of their own choosing, using their reasonable and prudent judgment. Payment for this type of respite is determined privately. This caregiver, who could be a neighbor, close friend, or relative, may be used up to 24 hours in a non-emergency situation or 72 hours in case of emergency. In either case, the DCS Specialist must be notified. Check your state’s requirements for specific instructions about respite.  

Why is Respite Needed?

Children in foster care are there through no fault of their own, due to abuse, neglect, abandonment, or the simple inability of their biological parents to care for them properly. Because of this, regular foster parents are needed. But from time to time, the regular foster parents need a break. Respite can provide needed help to these foster parents as well as provide a smooth transition from the regular foster provider to the respite provider. The children have had enough disruptions in his life, respite doesn’t need to be another one. It should be a refreshing vacation for the child. Whether it is just for a couple of hours for a planned date night or for an overnight due to an emergency, it is good to know that there is someone there to give consistency and normalcy to kids when we need it.

10 Ways to be a Good Respite Provider

Good respite providers are not born, they are made. It often takes time, patience, experience, and a lot of humility. The more opportunities you have, the better you will become. Here are ten tips on perfecting your respite skills:

  1. Be prepared. That’s the motto of a good Boy Scout. It should also be the motto of a good respite provider. Get as much information about the child beforehand. What is his favorite meal? What are his allergies? How does he go to sleep? What soothes/comforts him? Does he have any special needs? Does he have any behavioral issues? Does he take medication? Also, it may be a good idea to get proof of custody in case of emergencies. The more you know ahead of time, the better.
  1. Get trained. Every licensed/certified respite provider must receive some type of training. But if you really care for a child who has a special need or behavioral issues, it may be profitable to get training in order to better serve that child. Training on attention deficit disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, or Down syndrome can come in handy when the time calls for it. 
  1. Be available. The good thing about being a respite provider is that you have time to plan when to take in a foster child. But every once in a while, a foster family encounters an emergency, and they will need respite on the spur of the moment. Be ready. Perhaps this respite care includes a child that you particularly connect with, perhaps you are the closest one to the emergency. Keep the foster family’s needs in mind.
  1. Stick to a schedule. If a regular foster care provider needs you once a month for their own mental health, set up a schedule. This can be a win-win-win for all involved. It benefits you, because you can have everything prepared; it benefits the regular provider because it gives them an opportunity to recharge their batteries; and it helps the foster child because it can give them a familiar face instead of facing a stranger.
  1. Take multiple kids. Sibling groups often need to stick together. They have an unbreakable bond and have shared many life experiences. Respite should be another positive experience in their lives. 
  1. Don’t make money the main focus. If you are applying to be a respite provider purely for the financial incentives, it likely won’t be worth it. You won’t get rich being a respite provider, and pretty soon you realize it is not as rewarding monetarily as you thought it would be.
  1. Have a good attitude. Do it because you love foster kids.  Do it because you love foster parents and want to give them a break.
  1. Have the correct perspective. Providing respite is not merely, “glorified babysitting,” it is bridging the gap in care for a child whose foster parents need a break. It can also provide an opportunity to assist that child in the healing process of being separated from his biological parents. 
  1. Have fun. Have a plan in place for sleeping arrangements, activities, meals, homework, and outings. Just plopping the kid down in front of the TV may not be enough.
  1. Build bridges. Lastly, being a respite provider can be a good stepping stone to a longer, more permanent placement. For example, if you are not sure if you want to become a long-term foster care provider, you may want to start off as a respite provider. Also, if you are interested in adopting a certain foster child, providing respite first may be a good way of determining if you can meet that child’s needs.

Who is Eligible to be a Respite Provider?

Different states usually have different standards to become a respite foster care provider. However generally speaking, most state’s requirements are the following: pass a criminal background check, be in relatively good health, have a transportation plan, have a healthy and safe home environment, and have experience with children. If you are asking, “what type of respite providers are needed,” consider the following:

  • Couples/Families. A family can be a great environment to provide respite because they can be a great example of what a healthy family looks like and how each person plays a role to contribute to that family.
  • Singles. Usually, teen girls thrive with single women and teen boys thrive with single male respite providers. These teens can get one on one attention and get a chance to see things from a different perspective.
  • Empty nesters. Retired? In your 50’s or 60’s? Bored? I have the perfect solution: become a respite provider. Kids can benefit from a vacation from their regular providers. It can also give the kids an opportunity to get a “grandma” or “grandpa” back in their lives.
  • Relatives. If you are related to the regular foster parent, proving them respite may be the perfect plan. The foster children may be already familiar with you and this can give you a better understanding of what their family does. 

How Can I Become a Respite Provider?

  • Child Welfare. Check your state’s Child Welfare agencies or Child Protective Services. They may be able to point you in the right direction. In order to become licensed/certified to be a respite provider, you may need training, a home inspection, fingerprinting a home study, and/or a Physician’s Statement. Connection to a knowledgeable Social Worker can work wonders.
  • Behavioral Health Clinics.  Many clinics who provide counseling and other services may also provide Behavioral Health respite. This type of respite is different in that you are trained to care for children who are struggling with behaviors. The training is free and the reimbursement subsidies are a bit higher. Yes, these children can be a bit more challenging, but the good news is that they are generally better behaved during their time in respite as compared to their regular caregiver. Remember, these children may not be more challenging because they are “bad kids” but because they may have endured abuse, neglect, or abandonment. They need someone like you to be a breath of fresh air in their lives.
  • Division of Developmental Disabilities. Children with developmental disabilities include children with Down syndrome, autism, epilepsy, or Cerebral Palsy. Long time caregivers of these individuals are my heroes. They often sacrifice on a daily basis to care for the needs of their clients who have very special needs. From time to time, they need to be relieved by a short-term caregiver. Depending on your state’s requirements, you may be able to provide respite in your own home or in the home of the regular caregiver. You can be a hero to these heroes.

Why Don’t More Foster Parents Request Respite?

With this type of support available in most states, why don’t more foster parents take advantage of respite? There may be many reasons, but here are a few I have found in my 15 years’ experience of social work:

  • Pride. Many foster parents feel they don’t need respite. They may feel they can do it all and asking for help is simply a display of weakness. The inner thought may be, “If I ask for help, I may not look like a good foster parent.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Requesting respite can actually be a sign of strength. It can be a sign that you have your priorities in order; that you know when you need help; it can be a sign that you want what is best for your foster child.
  • Guilt. Some foster parents may feel guilty about requesting respite. They feel their social worker may say, “What? You need respite again? You just asked for respite a year ago, and you are coming back again so soon?” Of course, I’m being facetious. But there are some social workers who may attempt to guilt foster parents, especially if no respite providers are available.
  • Not available due to state statutes. Not every state offers respite to foster parents. There may be many reasons for that, including the regular foster parent may not be officially licensed/certified with the state., or the regular foster parent may be a kinship provider and may not be eligible. Search for the rules and regulations in your state.
  • Poor Communication. Some foster parents do not know that respite is available. Perhaps this information wasn’t provided during training. Regardless, this service is available in most states and with just a little research, could open up many doors of opportunity. 

Many people think, “I could never foster, I would get too attached to let them go.”  Well perhaps becoming a respite provider is the perfect job for you. First of all, respite is short term and secondly, as you will soon discover, it is often good to be attached to foster children; if not for your sake, for theirs. Foster children likely have not had an opportunity to become attached to a significant caregiver. Getting attached and keeping in touch and having multiple opportunities to connect with that child through respite may be just what that child needs. It can be a win-win situation for all involved.

Derek Williams is an adoption social worker and has been in the field of child welfare and behavioral health since 2006, where he has assisted families in their adoption journey. He and his wife started their adoption journey in 1993 and have 8 children: 6 of which are adopted. His adopted children are of all different ethnicities including East Indian, Jamaican, and Native American. He loves traveling with his family, especially to the East Coast and to the West Coast, and is an avid NY Mets fan! Foster care and adoption is a passion and calling for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.