As a child, I lived in foster care for 10 long years, in 14 different homes — so I know the critical role foster families play in children’s lives. That’s why I decided to become a foster parent.
Because May is National Foster Care Month, it’s a good time to call attention to the nearly half a million children in foster care in the United States — and many more children living away from their biological parents with relatives, neighbors or friends. Children enter foster care for a variety of reasons, which include serious physical and sexual abuse, neglect or poor parental choices. However, it is important to realize that not all children enter foster care because of hideous maltreatment. Some are victims of poverty, homelessness, deaths in the family, or a lack of skills and education on the part of their parents. Many times, the parents were victims of abuse and neglect when they were children.
Originally, my husband and I started the fostering process, because his niece and nephew were being raised by my in-laws. We decided that it would be a good idea for us to become licensed foster parents, so that we could be a solid back-up option in order to prevent the children from having to enter foster care with strangers. Now that we have gained some first-hand experience, we realize that there is truly a child out there for every family.
Foster parents (those who step forward to temporarily provide homes and nurturing care for these disenfranchised children) come from all walks of life. Some are childless couples, others already have several children. Foster parents can be single men and women, or same sex-couples. Most important, foster families are people who care about children and wish to create an environment that nurtures their safety and well-being. When I was a foster child, I would have been thrilled to be with any foster family who showered me with love and care. Unfortunately, during my almost 10 years in foster care, I encountered a few terribly abusive foster parents. Despite that, I know that there are countless amazing foster and adoptive parents out there — but there is always a need for more! Because of the shortage of foster families, children are often placed in overcrowded foster homes or in group homes or other institutions.
It can seem overwhelming to take a child into your home, but during the licensing classes and home study that my husband and I went through to become foster parents, we found we could specify what kind of child would best fit our lifestyle (including age, abilities, behaviors and background). Letting potential foster families discover what their family is equipped to deal with helps ensure that each placement has the best chance for success. For example, since my husband and I are a young couple with flexible, but ever-changing schedules, we decided it would be best for us to initially foster one child under the age of five.
Now, we are caring for a 3-year-old boy. The progress he’s made with us has been incredible! He was non-verbal when he came to us, and many experts thought he was severely delayed or even autistic. Now, after many months, we can’t get him to stop talking! We’ve made significant strides with potty-training and have enriched him nutritionally. It has been amazing to watch him grow and experience the world with new eyes. We feel that whatever happens, we will have made a huge difference in his life.
I commend and applaud foster families who step forward for these sometimes forgotten children. There are numerous misconceptions about who these children are or what it takes to be a foster parent. The reality is that there is probably a child out there to fit your family, and it is the job of the child welfare agency to find the right match for you. To find out more about becoming a foster parent, please visit your local child welfare or child protection agency’s website today!
There are children right now who need you, just like I needed a foster family 15 years ago.
P.S. This week we got a call about taking in a 7-month-old baby. After discussing it with my husband, we agreed that we are ready to take on a second child. As it turns out, there is a large need for foster parents for infants, toddlers and babies. I encourage families looking for ALL ages, sibling groups or single children to explore the possibility of being foster parents.
Ashley Rhodes-Courter is a National Ambassador for American Humane Association and author of the New York Times Best Selling memoir, “Three Little Words,” which describes her life in the foster care system.