There are many different paths to becoming a parent. In honor of Mother’s Day, we wanted to share this article from our May issue on becoming a foster parent. You can pick up a copy of Cincinnati Parent at your local grocery store, bookstore or library, or read through it here.
Comforting a crying child. Making time to play pretend. Listening to a story. Cooking a great grilled cheese together. These unsung parts of parenthood may seem mundane, but for children in the midst of a family upheaval, these small acts provide the stability, normalcy and love they often desperately crave.
Every year, more than 22,000 children enter Ohio’s foster care system, and on any given day, about 800 children in Hamilton County are in foster care, unable to stay with their biological families because of abuse, neglect or other circumstances.
“These kids have all gone through some kind of trauma to be in the foster care system,” says Robyn Bastin, Licensing Supervisor for Lighthouse Youth Services, the largest private foster care network in the tri-state area.
Although some families do eventually have the opportunity to adopt the children they foster, the primary goal of foster care is to provide a temporary, safe, nurturing and stable environment until a child can be safely reunited with their families, which usually happens within a year in Ohio.
If you have ever considered the idea of fostering a child, here are the requirements as dictated by the state as well as the important personal characteristics that are attributed to successful foster families.
In Ohio, foster parents must be licensed by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services through their county public children services agency (PCSA), or a private agency certified by the state to approve and recommend foster parents.
Basic requirements include being at least 21 years old, having at least one person in the home who can read, write and speak English or be able to communicate with the child and the placement agency, be free of any physical, emotional or mental conditions that could endanger the child as confirmed by a physician, pass a criminal history and background check and take part in a home visit.
Parents must also complete 36 hours of pre-placement training on topics including child development, the effect of trauma, child sexual abuse and helping a child manage emotions and behavior. There are also requirements for continued training once a family has become licensed.
It’s important to note that foster families come in all shapes and sizes. Parents do not need to be married, and they can be single or cohabitating, gay or straight.
“Foster parents come from all walks of life,” says Brian Gregg, Chief Communications Officer with the Hamilton County Department of Job and Family Services. “It could be someone young with no children of their own, or an older person who has already raised children, and they decide they want to help out another child.”
Prospective foster parents are required to rent or own a home or apartment that meets physical safety standards, such as having fire extinguishers, and has space for a child or children, although they do not need their own individual bedrooms. Families must also demonstrate that they can provide reliable transportation.
The state requires that foster families demonstrate financial stability, meaning they can support themselves and the child. Foster families do receive a stipend while a child lives with them, but it only covers the child’s daily expenses. Medical expenses for children in the foster system are covered by Medicaid.
Besides meeting regulations set by the state, good foster parents possess a variety of personal traits and skills that make the fostering experience positive for both them and the child in their care.
As any parent knows, the ability to adjust and change course at a moment’s notice is a valuable asset in parenting. Adults who can be flexible – from not knowing how long a child will be in their care to attending weekly appointments to handling unforeseen circumstances – will be better equipped to handle the ups and downs of fostering.
“It is very important to be able to look at children through the lens of trauma, and understand how the trauma the children have experienced impacts them emotionally, behaviorally, socially, cognitively and physically,” says Bryan Forney, Executive Director of Focus on Youth, a nonprofit, faith-based foster care and adoption agency. “[Foster parents need to] be open to parenting in a way that adapts to those needs, and have the ability to be flexible with schedules, expectations, plans and ways of doing things.”
Compassion and understanding
For any child dealing with big emotions, one of the most important things a parent can do is just be there, offering time and undivided attention. While fostering may seem like an overwhelming responsibility, pre-placement training helps prepare families for these challenges, and support is available from the foster care agency and other foster parents.
“You not only have to be willing to open your heart and home and fall in love with a child, you also need to work with the biological parent and aim for reunification,” says Gregg. When possible, children in the foster system maintain regular communication with members of their biological family, including parents, grandparents and siblings, and foster families receive training on how to nurture these important relationships.
Prospective foster families should have a strong support network already in place before they take a child into their home. From biological children to grandparents, extended family and close friends, the more people to welcome a child the better. For families who are religious, their church family can be another source of support and assistance.
“Ask your friends and extended family to walk alongside you in this journey to provide emotional and physical support as you take this important step,” Forney suggests. “The church community in Cincinnati has been very involved in educating the community about the important need for foster parents and have done a wonderful job partnering with foster care agencies.”
Many agencies also provide peer-support groups among foster parents, along with respite care opportunities to give parents a break from time to time.
It takes to develop a relationship with a child whose life has been turned upside down. A foster child may not even realize the impact of the stability you’re providing until much later. Being patient with the child, and the process, is key to a positive long term outcome.
“These kids need someone to teach them how to ride a bike, help them with their homework and help them pick out a college,” Gregg says. “We like to point out that you could really change a child’s life. You have to have a good heart to really want to do this.”
For families who are interested in learning more about foster care, advocates suggest researching local agencies and calling or setting up in-person appointments to ask any questions before starting the process. Connecting with foster families in your area can also provide valuable insight for what to expect. It’s important to note that even if a prospective foster parent starts the training, they can still decide at any point that the commitment or timing simply isn’t right for them.
“Fostering might not be the thing for you because it can be cumbersome and overwhelming, and it tends to intrude in your personal business and life. However, you won’t know if it’s right for you until you come to the classes,” Bastin stresses. “You’re not committed. There’s no pressure. You have nothing to lose.”
Even if you’re not a foster parent, there are other ways you can help. Consider mentoring a child in need, or becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, to speak for the best interests of children in the court system. (Find more information at www.casaforchildren.org.) Also, simply reaching out to a foster family you know and asking how you might offer them support can be very helpful and appreciated.
“The challenges of being a foster parent can be great, but the rewards of taking in a child who is in need of some of the most basic necessities, like safety, food and love, are much greater,” Forney says.
More information about Ohio foster care rules and regulations can be found on the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services website.