Content brought to you by the Michigan Department of Human Services
For those considering extending your family by becoming a foster parent, Katie Page-Sander, who manages the Foster Care Navigator Program (FCNP), which is funded by the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS), provides information on five things to know about fostering a child.
Emotional impairments are common, but there is help
Most children who enter the foster care system are there because they have experienced abuse and/or neglect. Parental substance abuse and parental mental or cognitive health impairments are other more common reasons.
"Kids who lose both of their parents in a random accident typically have family that will take them in," Page-Sander explains. "Most children who come into foster care are in families that have had chronic issues or an acute incident warranting children's immediate removal from the home."
Given the traumatic circumstances around their placement, foster care children typically have emotional impairments.
"When people hear the term 'special needs,' they often think of a child in a wheelchair or a child who is blind, and we definitely have children like this in the foster care system, but I feel that every child in foster care certainly has special emotional needs," Page-Sander says. "They have been separated from their parents and often from their siblings as well."
And while all foster kids have special emotional needs, not all of them react the same way.
"You want a child to be afraid when he or she enters a foster home for the first time," she says. "That is a normal developmental reaction for a child meeting a stranger. What's more concerning is when the child jumps into your arms and says 'I love you, Mommy or Daddy.' This indicates the child has had to get his or her needs met by any human around."
Foster kids usually have family visits
A range of services are available to children and their foster parents to assist them in healing and moving forward, and visits with the child's biological family are often a part of that process.
"Keeping in mind that reunification of a foster child with his or her biological family is the goal; regular visits with biological parents are a necessary step," Page-Sander says. "Initially those will likely be supervised visits. If the parents can show progression in their treatment plan, those visits may be changed to unsupervised night or weekend visits followed by overnight visits and finally a return home."
According to Page-Sander, state legislation mandates that a permanency planning hearing for each child in foster care should be held by at least the 12-month mark after the child first entered foster care.
"This means that a 12-month stay in foster care is typical, but there are always exceptions," Page-Sander says. "The hearing will make sure that a timeline is in place for the child's return to his or her biological family or that a timeline is in place for termination of parental rights if that is in the child's best interest."
Fostering can lead to adoption, but that isn't the goal
In those instances where biological parents' parental rights are terminated, foster parents may be given the opportunity to adopt.
"Sometimes a relative will step up to adopt a child, but if that is not the case, the state will turn to the foster parents to see if they can keep the child permanently," explains Page-Sander. "There is already a connection there."
However, when a child in foster care is able to reunify with his or her biological parents, there still may be an opportunity to stay in touch with his or her foster family.
"It's a complex relationship between biological and foster parents," Page-Sander notes. "Sometimes jealousy, sadness and anger come into play, but ultimately, you can become bonded over your mutual love for that child. It will be another loss for their child to have his or her foster parent(s) completely cut out of their life. Still, it's up to the biological family if they want to maintain contact with you."
There is financial help, though not a lot
Foster parents are eligible for reimbursement for some expenses related to meeting their foster child's needs.
"This reimbursement is not comprehensive," Page-Sander notes. "Foster parenting is not about making money."
Foster parents receive roughly $16 per day per child. Families fostering infants will receive slightly more to cover the costs of formula and diapers. Foster children are eligible for Medicaid to cover medical, dental and vision costs, and some foster children are eligible for WIC and free school breakfasts and lunches.
"There are community scholarships out there and service organizations out that provide support and resources for foster children," Page-Sander says. "There are many resources to help offset costs."
Foster parents are special, but don't have to be extraordinary
A foster-to-adopt parent herself, Page-Sander acknowledges that due to the finances involved to helping foster care children cope with trauma, being a foster parent is indeed hard work and certainly not for everybody.
"Still, anybody can do this who cares about kids," she notes. "It doesn't take a superhuman person. I feel we're all responsible to care for the kids in our community. While many of these kids have been through trauma and have special needs, in the end, they're all just kids. If you can love a foster child and help him or her reunite with his or her biological family, that's a noble effort."