Because of my past work in foster care, I often am asked how the community can help foster families. Here are some practical ways that I have found that people can help short of becoming a full-time foster parent.
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 need adults who believe in them and have their backs. 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 watched. One of the adverse 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 move the pendulum back, but for now everyone is a bit 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 advocate avoiding that trap.
Be Part of the Safety Net
When I was a single foster parent, my daughter needed sudden, not-quite-emergency surgery. I spent the night in the hospital with her and hadn’t had time to think through what needed to be done next. The next morning a friend from work, 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. “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.
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 neighborhood, 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.
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 someone to help us process whatever is happening with our child.
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 fund, so perhaps you can mobilize your group or civic organization to fund a scholarship with a good therapist or clinic.
We are coming up on the time of year when lots of groups collect gifts for foster children. 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 that can help a child in a tangible way.
Become a Respite Home
Almost everything involving a foster child is more complicated than parenting biological children, and overnight stays is no exception. States are supposed 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 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 any point in time. But if we can provide care to the caregivers, we can become part of a meaningful network that is essential for foster care.