Patience is a virtue. I bet some of you are wondering right now how long it will take to finish reading this article! You want answers and you want them now! The truth is the time it takes to become a foster carer or foster parent varies from state to state; it varies depending on how long it takes you to complete training, paperwork, and other requirements; and it varies depending on how long it takes your agency to complete your home study. Generally speaking, it takes about four to nine months to become licensed/certified to foster. After that, it may take days, weeks, or months to actually receive your first foster child. There are many variables, but those who have a clear vision of the foster care process will be patient until they find a child whom they can best serve.
The time from your first inquiry into foster care to when you receive your first foster child could be up to one year. But like anything that is worth doing, foster care is worth doing well and that may mean waiting. Time frames vary from state to state.
– Licensing/Certification. Becoming an official foster parent, you need to become licensed or certified. It can take between four and nine months, depending on your state. Why so long? Let’s think about that for a moment. If you wanted to place your child in a stranger’s home for a year, what would you want to know about them? Their skills? Their education? Their criminal background? Their reputation in the community? How they raised their other children? Their religion? Their temperament? How long do you think it would take to determine all of this? Wouldn’t it be worth the wait? Below is the minimum that your agency may require before you can become licensed/certified.
– Training. You may think you don’t need training because you are an experienced parent or grandparent. And in many cases, this is true. However, being a foster parent, or a foster carer, is much different than being a regular parent. Foster children have experienced, grief, loss, and sometimes, unimaginable trauma. Pre-service training fills in the gaps to help to prepare you for what may come.
There are many different pre-service trainings for foster parents such as Foster Parent College or PS-MAPP. These trainings can be anywhere from 20-30 hours long, can be completed between 2-12 weeks, can be held in a classroom setting or in your own home, and can be online or blended.
Whatever training your state provides, being trained before receiving a foster child is absolutely vital. In training, you will learn things such as trauma, child development, partnering with biological parents, handling unusual incidents, working with behavioral/mental health, handling false allegations, preparing a child to move, and adoption.
– Interviews. Another part of the process is the interviews. These interviews can take place in your home or at the agency office. There can be two to four interviews, lasting one to two hours apiece. Depending on which agency conducts the interviews, every member of the household is interviewed. Interviews are a way of determining how the applicant was raised and what their philosophy is on raising children.
Some questions may include: How were you disciplined as a child? Did you undergo grief and loss as a child? How do you get along with your family? What are some traditions you have as a family? What is your view on education? Does religion play a part in your family’s life? What does your family do for fun?
These questions may seem invasive at first, but they give the interviewer a snapshot of what life might be like for a child placed in that home. They also cover some problem areas that may come up later.
– Home Inspection. A home inspection is necessary to determine whether your house and property are safe. An inspector may check things such as fire extinguishers, pools/spas, sleeping arrangements, flammables, power tools, water temperature, staircases, etc. Cleanliness is ideal for a foster home, but health and safety are more important. Home inspections can take anywhere from 15 minutes to one hour.
– Doctor’s appointment. Some states have age requirements when determining eligibility for foster parents and other states focus on health. You may need a doctor to clear you if you have certain conditions. You may also have to disclose what medications you take on a regular basis. Things such as family medical history may also be important.
– Background checks. There are three different background checks that your agency may perform. 1) Criminal background check. Have you ever been charged or arrested for a crime? You will need to disclose it to your agency. 2) Child Protective Services Check. This check will determine whether you have ever had a substantiated allegation of abuse or neglect against a child. 3) Driving record. This check will determine what your driving history is like. You may not be excluded if you merely have parking tickets. However, DUIs or criminal speeding is definitely a concern. Background checks take between one to six weeks, depending on how many states you’ve lived in for the past 5 years.
What to do while you wait
I always check my email while waiting in a long line at the supermarket. I want to make the most of my time. Do the same with foster care, utilize your time. If you are the impatient type, make the most of every opportunity! Below are some ideas to take advantage of while you wait.
– Get experience. If you have completed your training and you don’t have much experience with traumatized children, then you need to get experience. Tutor a foster child. Provide respite for another foster family. Volunteer at your local youth group. Volunteer at your local hospital in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Spending time with the same type of children that you may be caring for in the future will work wonders for your confidence and prepare you for the future!
– Read books. There is no shortage of good books on foster parenting. Authors such as Dr. Bruce Perry, Nancy Thomas, or Karyn Purvis are great experts that have unique perspectives on fostering. Podcasts, radio programs, and online websites are also good resources to look into. Years ago, these resources didn’t exist, now the world is at our fingertips with the click of a button! Take advantage of it!
– Wraparound team. Though a quarterback is usually the only person to throw the ball during a football game, he has many people to support him. His offensive line, his coaches, and his running back help him to be successful. If one person, or a number of those people, does not support him then the quarterback cannot be successful, and he will lose the game. The same can be said of a foster parent. A good foster parent has two teams to support her: the professional team and the natural supports.
The professional team consists of the caseworker, therapists, mentors, teachers, attorneys, and other professionals. These people are there to help assess, guide and plan for the child’s future. Depending on your state, this team may meet on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis. They may not always agree, but they should have the best interest of the child in mind.
Natural supports are non-professionals by nature. They may be family, friends, or others in the community who are willing to help you with your foster journey. They can be grandparents, uncles, aunts, clergy, neighbors, or friends. This network can provide meals or other things the child may need like diapers, car seats, or cribs. They can also provide respite. Don’t underestimate needed time away. Every foster parent, or foster carer, needs a break! Take it. These natural supports can also provide emotional support when things get rough. Of course, confidentiality is always key, but having someone to talk to is vital as a foster carer.
– Veterans. Talk to other foster parents who have been through the trenches. They will tell you the joys and the challenges of foster care. They will pull no punches! A veteran foster parent will prepare you, guide you, and be with you when you are going through the process. Ask questions. Take advice. Call them at 3 a.m. in the morning! They won’t mind!
– Respite. Provide respite for another family! Respite is a time when you care for a foster child for another foster parent. This could be a few hours or a few days. This gives some well-deserved time off for that foster parent and refreshes and re-energizes them. This also provides you with some well-needed experience that you need to determine what type of child you can best serve. It’s a win-win situation!
Receiving your first child
After you complete your requirements to become a licensed/certified foster parent, or foster carer, the real waiting game begins—the wait for your first placement! How long it takes can vary from child to child.
– Fostering parameters. What age range works best in your family? Usually, most foster parents want children younger than their youngest child to keep the birth order intact. Others are brave and open their home to teenagers. Others are open to sibling groups. The fact is that homes are needed most for teens and siblings. Substance-exposed newborns are tough, and they need love and consistency.
– Child match. There is much pressure once you receive your first call. And many questions need to be asked such as: Why was the child removed? Does the child have any special needs? Does the child have any behavioral issues? These are all good questions that may or may not be answered quickly. Remember it’s not a race to the finish line and it’s not a race to see if you can get the best child in your home. It is a mutual selection process where you determine how you can best serve a child in need. Choose wisely.
Choose a different path
The fact of the matter is that foster care may not be for you. Odd behaviors, strangers coming in and out of your house, frustration with the child welfare system, and personality conflicts with the biological parents may all be good reasons to go a different direction. Don’t feel guilty. You may be able to serve in another way.
– Court Appointed Special Advocate. A CASA is a volunteer that serves a foster child throughout his time in care. A CASA mentors the child, spends time with him in public, and reports directly to the judge. The CASA can also obtain things the child needs that no one else can. They are an invaluable resource!
– Guardian ad Litem. A GAL is an attorney that serves a foster child’s best interest. The GAL assists the foster child as well as the foster parent. The GAL cannot give legal advice to the foster parent but they can provide explanations and guidance to the foster family as they weave their way through the legal system. If you have your law degree, becoming a GAL may be a real option.
– Big Brothers Big Sisters. This is a volunteer mentorship program that can really assist foster children. Each “Big” is paired with a “little.” The Big spends time with the child after school, in the community, and at home. Studies show that youth who have another significant adult in their lives fare better at school and at home.
– Put your fostering plans on hold. Finally, you may realize that you may need to wait indefinitely to foster. Perhaps it’s not the right time or not everyone is on board with the thought of fostering. Perhaps you need more time to fix your home or a family member is going through an illness. Whatever the case, waiting for the right moment is never a bad idea. You can’t rush into fostering.
Patience is a virtue! Foster caring can be a challenge, but the more experience you get, the better. Don’t go it alone. Get support, get advice, and don’t rush the process! Ask questions and reach out when you need help. It will be worth the wait!
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 eight children, six of whom are adopted. His adopted children are 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 are his passions and callings for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.