In my last post, I talked about entering foster parenting with realistic attitudes. In this post, I want to talk about how to actually start. Agencies will offer training, but you need real life experience. I recommend getting that experience a little bit at a time. Parenting other people’s children is a skill, and just like any other skill it’s good to start with small steps. When learning to swim, it’s safest to start in the shallow water before jumping into deep water. In the same way, it’s best to enter the pool of fostering parenting from the shallow end first.
• Start by volunteering with youth organizations
A good first step is to start working with organizations that serve young people. Not only will you learn relationship skills, but a good organization can teach you important policies and boundaries for working with children. The training and mentoring that these organizations provide can be an invaluable resource as you learn how to positively impact kids’ lives.
You also will learn quickly how your skills match up with particular populations of kids. For example, I have never raised biological children and infants are a mystery to me. I’m much more comfortable with teenagers, with all of their angst and growing pains. My experience with church nurseries and church youth groups taught me that, for many reasons, I would not have been a good foster parent for infants or toddlers. The limited commitments of volunteer work offers an unparalleled way to learn your skills, or lack thereof, before you take on the monumental task of parenting.
• Become part of a foster family’s safety net
Next, walk alongside a foster family for a while. Some agencies have a formal program allowing you to serve alongside support current foster family. It is similar to shadowing that’s common in intern arrangements, but you also become part of the safety net for that child and family. You can provide concrete help while having a more experienced foster parent show you the ropes. If the state agency doesn’t have a formal shadowing system, find a foster family in your church or civic organization and set up an informal arrangement. You may have to go through some level of foster training, but you generally can delay any actual placements until you feel confident enough to accept a foster child in your home.
Becoming part of the safety net not only allows you to provide concrete help, but it allows you to see challenges and solutions in real life. You have limited responsibility, but unlimited opportunities to learn skills and techniques. It’s one of the best ways that I’ve found to learn how to be a foster parent before you actually become one.
• Start with emergency or respite care
Finally, start as an emergency or respite placement. Both are short-term responsibilities and will allow you to learn the system while providing a valuable service. You will be an official placement with an assigned case worker, so you can learn your responsibilities and limitations before taking on the more demanding responsibilities of a permanent placement.
Your work also may be pivotal for a foster child or family. Short-term care may not be as emotionally rewarding as long-term relationships, but the arrangement fills a critical need in the system. When I started as a long-term foster parent, my job required me to take regular work-related trips out of town. If I had not been working with an agency that had respite care available, I could not have served as a permanent placement.
Emergency and respite care also help children directly. Disrupted placements is one of the biggest problems for kids, and a series of them can cause long-term trauma. Emergency placements allow a caseworker to spend more time finding an appropriate match for a long-term placement and can help lower the disruption rate. Respite care can provide a resource for a parent who has to travel, as I did. It also can help relieve the pressure on a family and help stabilize a difficult placement.
One other thing that these steps will do is help you learn from experience whether you want to continue toward being a long-term foster parent. Many people have limited time or other resources and stop at being a volunteer or supporting another foster family. Other people move from emergency to long-term care and back depending on their particular circumstances at the moment. If you are drawn to the mission of being a foster parent, don’t let yourself be frightened away by vague fears. Take one step at a time to gain the experience you need to make a realistic decision based on experience and to help traumatized children without burning out prematurely.