Content brought to you by the Michigan Department of Human Services
Perhaps you've always thought that you'd extend your family one day by opening your home to a child that doesn't have one. Or maybe you've struggled to have a child of your own and wondered about how to become a foster parent or maybe even adopt a foster child. Whatever your situation, there are many people who don't get past the "dreaming" or "thinking" stage of becoming a foster parent. Stuck by what to do or how to get started, they never take action or dig deeper into the possibility. If you are one of those people, here's your guide to get started to see if fostering is the right choice for you.
Step 1: Make a simple call
One of the first and easiest steps is to call 855-MICHKIDS, where you'll be connected with experienced foster parents who can address questions or help explain the process of becoming licensed to be a foster parent.
Katie Page-Sander manages the Foster Care Navigator Program (FCNP), which is funded by the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS). She oversees the team of individuals who answer these calls and who, in addition to personal experience as foster families, have been trained on the foster care licensure process.
"We are not a licensing agency," she stresses. "We help at every point during the process."
With more than 13,000 children in foster care in Michigan, the need for foster families is great, Page-Sander maintains. She likes to refer to her team of navigators as foster care concierges who help navigate the roadmap to foster care licensure.
"Sometimes we refer to ourselves as a friend on the inside," she says.
Many people have misconceptions about the foster care system. The navigator program helps dispel myths, answer questions and provide direction for getting started.
"Many people don't realize that you can be single and be a foster parent, you can rent your home, you can have other kids or not have other kids, you can work full time," Page-Sander says. "There is a huge range of scenarios, and we need that huge range as we have a wide and diverse population of kids in need of a home all over the state."
Step 2: Attend an orientation
A key first step once a family or individual has had initial questions answered by a Foster Care Navigator is to select a local agency with which to work and then to attend one of the agency's orientation sessions.
"We advise people to visit one or more agencies and meet with the people there face to face to get a feel for each," Page-Sander says.
While all agencies are regulated by the state and require the same training of foster parents, some agencies are larger, some smaller.
"There's your local county DHS agency and then there are private agencies across the state contracted by DHS," Page-Sander explains. "Some are religious and others nonsecular. People don't realize that you get to select your agency; you have a choice."
In making that decision, parents should develop a list of questions that they can run by their navigator in advance of an agency orientation. Those questions can touch on availability of support groups in place for foster parents through the agency, services for foster families within the agency, access to a child therapist and educational support.
"You should feel that you are getting really good customer service," Page-Sander insists. "Is the agency responsive to your concerns? Do they call you right back? The state is in desperate need of foster homes. You should be treated as though you are needed."
Step 3: Fill out an application
After agency orientation, aspiring foster parents will next need to fill out a foster home licensing application. They will also need to get fingerprinted and complete the Licensing Record Clearance Request form, a background check assessing whether the individual has a conviction or a substantiated child abuse or neglect record. Applicants will also need to provide medical records for the entire family.
Step 4: Have a home study
Another major part of the licensure process is a home study. During this visit to an applicant's home by a social worker from the agency of choice, the foster care applicant or applicants will discuss all aspects of their life.
"Contrary to what some people think, we are not super picky about a perfect home," Page-Sander says. "There is a wide range of dedicated, safe wonderful parents out there. We just have to ensure that the home is safe, that the individuals are willing to undergo the necessary training and that they understand the purpose of foster care is reunification of the child with his or her biological family if possible."
The state requires that 40 square feet of bedroom space is available for each foster child in the home.
"A bedroom has to be a bedroom," Page-Sander notes. "It can't be a closet or the living room. Also, social workers completing the home study are not going to bring white gloves and check for dust. It's about ensuring the home is safe."
Step 5: Get prepared
Another key component of the foster care licensing process is a mandatory 12 hours of training. Each agency follows a standardized curriculum known as "PRIDE" or Parent Resources for Information Development and Education.
"The PRIDE training goes over the reasons that children end up in foster care, grief and loss, attachment, working with the child's biological family and the professional team, and appropriate discipline," Page-Sander explains.
Foster parents will be required to complete additional training each year that they maintain their license.
Once all of these components of licensure are completed, and the individual or family receives their license, it could be a matter of days or even hours before they receive a call about a foster child in need of a home.
"It's not uncommon for people to get a call the day they receive their license," Page-Sander notes. "It depends on where you live and the range of foster care children you are open to receiving."
Page-Sander notes that teenagers, sibling groups and children with disabilities are in particular need of homes.
"If you are open to receiving a teenager, you may get the call within hours," she says.
Children and teens awaiting a foster home will bounce between short-term temporary placements and sometimes shelters, neither of which is intended to be a long-term solution.
"That's not ideal," Page-Sander says. "We are always looking for a family setting for kids."
Foster parents can expect monthly, if not more frequent, visits from their social worker, and communication in general will be frequent with their agency.
"Families who are very private may have a hard time as foster parents," Page-Sander acknowledges. "Lots of people will have access to you, your kids and your house. There will be a lot of people in and out of your lives between the child's caseworker, the foster parents' licensing worker and the child's biological parents."