This is National Foster Care Month, and today is National Foster Care Day. Not everyone has the resources to become a foster parent, but there are many other ways to help. Here are some ways that you can help a foster child short of parenting them. Some contributions don’t take much time, while others require building relationships. Any of them, however, can be a life-changing contribution to a foster child or foster family.
Be Part of the Safety Net
Foster parents face a lot of challenges raising children who have suffered trauma, and we aren’t good at asking for help. If you know of a foster family in your church or community, simply ask them how you can help. They may need you to pick up prescriptions or help with a school project. Any number of small gestures can be a huge help to a foster child or family.
When I was a single foster parent, one of my children needed sudden, not-quite-emergency surgery. I spent the night in the hospital with her and hadn’t had time to think through what I needed to do next. The following morning a co-worker, whom I didn’t know well at the time, stopped by and asked how she could help. I started to say that I was fine, but then stopped myself. “If you can wait with her for an hour in case the doctor comes by, I need to go home to take a shower and feed the dog.” My friend was more than willing to wait, and that small gesture was a huge benefit to me at that moment in time. Because she took the time to ask, she was able to help and we became close friends. She became part of my safety net for both me and my children.
Be a Sounding Board
Sometimes, foster parents just need someone to talk to. Parenting a traumatized child can be challenging, and we will make lots of mistakes. We often need a nonjudgmental friend who will just let us vent. Don’t worry that you don’t know enough about foster parenting to give advice. We often don’t need that; we just need someone to help us process whatever is happening with our child. Even if you don’t have practical advice, it helps us to know that we have friends who care enough to listen.
Be a Practical Resource
Stipends never cover everything that a traumatized child needs. I do not recommend that you give a family money, but you may be able to help with practical gestures such as a gift certificate for pizza. Mental health resources are particularly hard to find and pay for, so perhaps you can mobilize your group or civic organization to fund a scholarship with a good therapist or clinic.
It’s popular to buy gifts for foster children at Christmas, and that’s always a good project. But don’t forget that foster kids and families may need help throughout the year with birthdays, school supplies, extracurricular activities, or summer camps. Many small, practical gifts can help a child in a tangible way.
Be A Mentor
Multiple studies show that one of the best ways to help a child who has suffered trauma is to become a mentor. Children who have suffered trauma particularly need to have trusted adults in their lives who can offer advice and walk beside them through challenges. There are many mentoring organizations who can use your help, from large national organizations to smaller local groups.
Expect to be thoroughly vetted and monitored. It is good that we are more aware now of child abuse. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of our emphasis on preventing child abuse is that we have lost track of the differences between mentoring and grooming for abuse. I hope that eventually we can rediscover the difference, but for now expect parents and organizations to be hypervigilant.
Mentoring also is a good option for helping children who have aged out of the system. Former foster children often lack the adult relationships that offer crucial support for transitioning to adulthood. There are many mentoring groups throughout the country, and most of them do not ask you to provide housing or any resources beyond mentoring. In fact, getting involved in providing economic resources can harm the relationship, so most experts advise avoiding that trap.
Become a Respite Home
Almost everything involving a foster child is more complicated than parenting biological children, and overnight stays are no exception. States are supposed to allow foster parents to make decisions that “reasonable and prudent” parents make, but each agency has its own definition of that standard. Some states, for example, allow foster children to stay overnight with friends, but only for one night. Therefore, for example, a foster family that needs to take an older child on a trip to visit potential colleges must find a licensed foster family to care for their younger foster child. Similarly, a foster child can’t spend a weekend at a friend’s cabin unless the friend’s parents are vetted and licensed.
This is where licensed respite homes can be a godsend. Although different agencies call them by different names, respite care is exactly what it says — a temporary respite for the child and the family. So if a foster child wants to go on a vacation with a friend’s family, that family can go through the licensing process to become a respite home. They aren’t agreeing to take whatever placement comes their way, only to be available to care for a particular child for specific times.
Like most things, the process differs among agencies. Some have a less onerous process for dedicated placements, while others require full licensing. It is worth considering, however, if you want to be able to offer tangible help to a particular foster family.
Foster care is a challenging journey that takes a lot of a family’s resources. Not all of us are called to take on that responsibility at a particular point in time. But if we can provide care to the caregivers, we can become part of a meaningful network that is essential for a functioning foster care system.