There are no fairy-tale endings in foster care, only families who work very hard and the communities who rise up around them. When you open your home to kids in care, there is no longer the family you were — just the family you are becoming, and will grow to be. You need a lot of support as you flex and stretch. In our home as foster parents and in our professional lives, my partner and I have worked alongside struggling families and front-line workers for a combined 35 years across the U.S. We've adopted our three children from foster care. We understand becoming a foster parent, working on the front lines or adopting from foster care aren't options for many folks, so we've come up with a menu of alternative ways to have a direct impact.
5 things you need to know about foster care:
- Homeless Shelters for Children. These are an actual thing and they exist in neighborhoods across our nation as a last resort for children with literally no where to go. Kids here range in age from newborn to 12.
- Right now in our cities, kids are sleeping on the floors of cubicles and social workers' offices because they've been removed from their families of origin for safety reasons and there is literally no where else for them to go.
- Social workers drive around for hours at night with kids in their cars so that kids can get some sleep. They do this until the child welfare office reopens in the morning and the search for a "bed" can resume because there is literally nowhere for babies, little kids, or teens to sleep.
- Not all foster homes offer long-term care. Some foster homes offer emergency care on a short-term basis to eliminate the above need for numbers 1-3. These licensed homes are meant to fill the gap between a child being removed from their homes and being placed in a long-term foster home while the situations get sorted out. These homes can also offer respite (a break for foster kiddos and foster families) on a short-term basis. There is no nationwide search or application for such a home. Every day people need to make the choice to become one by calling their local child welfare agency's office. And you need to be persistent.
- Because there is a shortage of temporary placements (shelters, foster homes, assessment facilities, hotline foster homes, kinship homes, hospitals and residential institutions), children are being left in dangerous, traumatizing and potentially life-threatening situations while random "spot checks" are conducted on reported homes by social workers and child welfare agency investigators because there is literally nowhere safe for these kids to go.
How can you help the foster care system?
The following is a non-exhaustive list with actions that will directly improve outcomes for kids in care, their families of origin, front-line social workers and the foster families filling the gap. Our challenge to you is to double this list in your own community.
55 ways to help families involved with foster care:
- Make a list of the people you know who are foster parents. Take your list of foster parents and directly ask them to create an Amazon wish list of their needs. Circulate that list among your extended network and help meet their needs.
- Substitute "foster parents" with "families in my community who are struggling" and do the same.
- Take #1 and make it a workplace competition
- Take #1 and do it four times a year, every season change.
- Donate your time. What's your talent? What are you passionate about? How can you turn that into something you do once or ongoing that can be impactful?
- Donate museum passes, gas cards, YMCA family memberships, gas cards, public transportation passes, toll passes, Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Applebee's, restaurant cards for pizza, Chinese, Thai, etc., to families struggling to make ends meet, and to foster families or social workers who can disburse them as they see fit.
- Bake things for social workers. Kind gestures are far-reaching for front-line workers.
- Paint visiting room walls. All child welfare departments have rooms for kids to visit with their families. Often times these rooms have no toys, are gloomy and could use a fresh coat of paint. Offer to paint a mural to brighten the rooms up.
- Volunteer at a men's or women's correctional facility/prison. What do you enjoy that you'd want to teach? Yoga? Literacy? Cooking? Drawing? Poetry? Tai chi?
- Google "food insecurity" and find out if a program exists in your neighborhood. If not, start one. If so, support one.
- Build a library of diverse books for your foster parent friends. HereWeeRead.com is a great resource for diverse kids' books.
- Become a member of a local or community "mom's" group on Facebook where baby and kid items can be sold, bartered or donated. If you or a friend foster babies, this can be a great way to acquire used goods like a stroller, infant swing, car seat and clothes. Be sure to check expiration dates. If you need help installing car seats, fire departments have an open-door policy for showing you how to install correctly.
- If there is no such group, start one.
- Make meals and deliver them once a week. Pair up with a friend and cook biweekly. Offer one thing on an ongoing basis: pizza Fridays, for example.
- Order takeout regularly and have it delivered if you can't sit with the family. Make sure the food is kid-friendly.
- Become a Special Education Surrogate Parent for a kiddo in foster care. By proxy, foster parents fill this role but kids would benefit academically and pro-socially from knowledgeable folks working with their school supports, particularly if there's an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) involved.
- May is National Foster Care Month. It's a great reason to intentionally expand your knowledge on the topic.
- November is National Adoption Month. It's another a great reason to intentionally expand your knowledge on the topic.
- Are you on social media? Follow Fridays are a great way to share the blogs or accounts of people you follow. Doing a search for #fostercare #fosteradopt or #transracialadoption are great places to start.
- Sponsor birthday parties for kids in homeless shelters and domestic violence shelters.
- Talk to the folks who run domestic violence shelters. What are their needs? Business casual and business clothes for the women living there? If it's in your realm of professional experience, consider offering on-site mock job interviews, or donate your time to do art projects with kids. Offer to bring a meal and desserts on the nights you're on-site. It's a nice break for the staff and residents. Find out what they like to eat.
- Become a lifelong mentor.
- Support the work that others are doing, especially former foster youth and adoptees. For example, Caring Cases, started by a former foster youth, offers backpacks and luggage filled with hygiene kits, a blanket, pajamas and a book for transitioning kids. Another example: Angela Tucker is a transracial adoptee at center of the documentary "Closure." Her "Adopted Life" episodes involve incredible interviews with young transracial adoptees; her husband, Bryan Tucker, has a new documentary about youth aging out of foster care. Alliance of Moms and the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) are doing important work for kids in need.
- Offer small grants to teachers who are looking to do creative things in their classrooms. Make it competitive.
- Buy new tires, offer oil changes, toll passes, or internal/external car washes. We do a lot of driving to doctors' appointments, quarterly reviews, school meetings, weekly visits with families of origin and general travel. Food, distance, gas. It all takes quite the toll.
- Donate car seats directly to foster parents or social workers. Kids get shuffled around a lot, unfortunately, and car seats expire. See #12.
- Donate bikes, scooters and helmets. Recreational options are important for kiddos in general, but especially kiddos who may be behind in gross motor activities because of their early life situations.
- Donate seasonal gift certificates. This was huge for us. Last year, we scraped together the cash for memberships to: Children's Museum ($130 annually), Science Museum ($150 annually), Zoo ($130 annually) and the YMCA ($120 monthly family membership), Costco (way too much) and the National Audubon Society ($129). These places were incredible for our kids and great for us, each for very different reasons, but when the memberships ran out, we were unable to renew them.
- Provide iTunes gift cards for folks whose kids use learning apps.
- Lawn care. Our lawnmower died and was in the shop for almost the whole season. Eventually we had to pay professionals to service our big yard. It's one of those things that's not a big deal if your life is manageable. Oftentimes, though. for folks who foster, the day-to-day grind is really about your kids and family, and things like yard work and deep house-cleaning become unmanageable.
- Provide household maintenance and regular cleaning. See #30.
- Haircuts. Is this your passion or profession? I've seen folks I know set up shop in city squares or on the common and give free haircuts to homeless folks. What about back-to-school cuts? Braids or protective styles for natural hair? Great way to boost the esteem of kids and other folks.
- After-school time frame is a two- to four-hour chunk of hellacious time for so many families. Kids in care often don't have after-school programming as the slots for these places fill up quickly. Can you transport? Help with homework? Other?
- Cover the cost of camps and research the enrollment process. We are so busy we often miss deadlines by just a couple days
- Are you a photographer or videographer? Each state has a website of youth in care, waiting to be matched with pre-adoptive families. They often are languishing in care and don't have updated photos or videos for prospective families to view. Volunteer your time to take Heart Gallery of America photos, prom photos or senior photos.
- Offer your timeshare.
- Provide life books, goodbye books and everything in-between. Photos are often how we remember some of the most important times in our growing up. The same is true for kids and young adults in foster care, but there are often gaps. With digital technologies at our fingertips, there's no reason why printing services like Chatbooks, pinhole press or Costco books can't be printed regularly. Maybe this is something you could coordinate.
- IKEA gift cards. That is all.
- Do a big grocery-shopping run once a month.
- Legos, Play-Doh, Magna-Tiles, board games, Lakeshore Learning, oh my!
- Educate yourself. Google is your friend. How/why was the foster care system even created?
- Podcaster? Blogger? Interview a family. Elevate the voices of the folks doing the work.
- Financially resourced? Pay tuition, fees and offer year-round summer housing for a former foster youth in college. There used to be more federal funds for this but there has never been enough. Access, entry and success to higher ed takes an army for a young person to successfully navigate. If you can wipe away the financial burden, do it.
- Throw a virtual baby shower for a new foster family.
- Play chess the same time every week with someone in your community.
- Tutor or offer to become Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI)-checked to babysit in the home.
- Dental and medical care. Kids get behind when they're shuffled around. If this is your profession, how can you help improve continuity of care?
- Purchase and build bunk beds. See #38.
- Organize a fundraiser with your coworkers, family, friends, community for a specific cause. Do it quarterly. Report out on impact over time.
- Support ongoing social workers and their support staff. Literally send flowers, bake cookies or give them a massage gift certificate.
- Outdoor enthusiast? Take kids camping or start a local hiking group. In New England, the Appalachian Mountain Club has a strong program worth replicating called the Youth Opportunities Program (YOP). I'll never forget the first time I climbed a mountain with a bunch of latency-aged boys living in a residential facility. Looking at the world from the top of a mountain offers all the greatest real-life metaphors imaginable.
- Get tickets to professional sports games, college games, ballet, theater, Blue Man Group, etc. Give them away or bring someone with you. Same for musical concerts, festivals, amusement parks.
- Sponsor families in your community for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Pay heating bills in the winter.
- Foster parent training. ABA expert? Complex trauma? Behaviorist? Nutritionist? Transracially adopted? These are all areas where foster parents would benefit from ongoing training and support.
- Become a foster parent.
Families involved with the foster care system need a village. What can you offer? We are more resourceful than we realize and when we combine our collective efforts to coordinate, plan and execute, the outcomes are powerful. We can keep families together. We can change the narrative. That's what we're going for here.
Jenna of FosterMoms.com is one of two moms showing up for life at the intersections of transracial adoption, foster care and same-sex parenting. She and her partner just won a 2018 Iris Award for Instagram of the Year for chronicling their day-to-day lives over at @fostermoms. A mixed-race family of five, they are knee-deep in a big move and are finding rhythm as a family and on their #Road2WellNest. Follow or work with them, link up with one of their exciting 2018 projects, or jump in while you can to receive their first newsletter in more than two years!