May is National Foster Care Month. Foster care is one of the greatest areas of need in our state. Currently, there are over 6,000 children in foster care in Alabama and only 2,390 approved foster families. This shortage of homes means that children are often sent to group homes, placed in homes with several other children, or simply not provided relief from dangerous circumstances.
The need in our state for safe, loving homes for children in crisis is great. As a social worker at a local child welfare agency, I interviewed two of our foster care social workers: Jessica Rush and Angie Brabham. They’re here to teach us more about foster care and what families in our state can do to help.
Common Misconceptions about Foster Care
When I asked Jessica and Angie to identify common misconceptions about foster care, they made three powerful points:
- Becoming a foster parent is not hard. Many people think that becoming a foster parent requires you to have certain elements lined up in your life. That simply isn’t true. To become a foster parent, you have to have safe, stable housing, a clear criminal background check, and the willingness to love others and learn. You also need to complete 30 hours of required training which is provided by the county Department of Human Resources or by the agency working with you.
- Foster children are not criminals. The label of “foster child” often carries a stigma. This stigma leads people to assume that foster children are bad children. In truth, they are the victims of tragic situations in which they have had no control. They are in foster care because of decisions made by the adults in their lives.
- Foster care rarely equals adoption. The goal of foster care is reunification with family of origin when at all possible. Seventy percent of children in foster care are returned home to biological family members. In order to truly impact the lives of children in foster care, foster families need to be motivated by a desire to love the child and their family.
The Greatest Needs of the Foster Care System
Sometimes the needs are so great that it feels hard to make an impact. Fortunately, there are many ways that families and individuals can help out. Angie and Jessica identified the following:
The first need is obvious: more homes.
The children in our state need safe, loving homes where they can receive shelter and rest. Their parents need trustworthy, loving families that can partner with them while they create a safer, more stable home environment for their children. There are over 12,000 churches in the state of Alabama. If one family in every church in our state stepped forward to be a foster parent, there would be no children in need of safe homes.
There is a specific need for homes for older children and teens.
Teens are the most likely to end up in group homes where they lose the powerful impact of experiencing life in loving families. Many people feel that teens are more challenging than babies and small children, which is not true. Both sets have challenges. Oftentimes babies and small children show challenging behavioral signs of trauma but do not have the skills to communicate and understand their circumstances.
Children in foster care need mentors.
They need people they can rely on and teach them. Mentors can be teenagers, college students, or adults. A mentor can be anyone that has the desire to change and impact a child in need. Mentors also act as a support to foster families. It provides an additional person that can love and influence the child in care.
Children in foster care need committed foster parents.
Foster children need foster parents that are committed to them and are willing to do the hard work of parenting. Parenting foster children has challenges: these are children that have experienced significant trauma. They need parents that will be dedicated to helping them sort through the hard things they have experienced while providing them with consistent love and care.
Ways to Help During the Pandemic
Our current situation creates some unique challenges for the foster children in our state, but there are still ways that people and families can help:
Support the foster families and children in your community.
If you know families that are currently caring for foster children, reach out. Offer a listening ear, send them a meal, or deliver some fun activities for the kiddos in their home to do.
Become a licensed foster parent for respite care.
If you do not feel able to provide a long-term home for a foster child, you can become licensed for respite. Respite foster parents provide short-term care for children in foster care, which may be a couple of days to a couple of weeks. This in turn provides rest and respite for foster families.
If you are interested in helping, take action.
Reach out to the Department of Human Resources in your county and ask for information on becoming a foster parent or mentor/volunteer. You can also reach out to non-profit agencies in your area that work in foster care. Both will tell you ways to get involved.
If you have more questions or want more information, you can visit https://dhr.alabama.gov/foster-care/. You can also contact Agape of Central Alabama, Inc. and ask to speak to one of our foster care workers.