Foster Care: Here's What You Need to Know

More than 400,000 kids are in foster care across the U.S. The foster system is facing a crisis due to a shortage of foster parents and foster homes.

With parenthood comes a newfound appreciation for the love and devotion raising a child takes. It can be heartbreaking to be reminded that many children, through no fault of their own, yearn for that kind of love and devotion.

Currently more than 400,000 children are in foster care across the nation, and the foster system is facing a crisis in many states due to a shortage of foster parents and foster homes.

No one knows the need for foster families better than 31-year-old Ashley Rhodes-Courter. With her husband, she has fostered more than 25 children, one of whom they adopted. Rhodes-Courter herself spent 10 years in foster care, bouncing around 14 different homes, including a group home, and suffering abuse and neglect before being adopted by Gay and Phil Courter at age 12.

Rhodes-Courter recounts her experience in the heart-rending memoir, New York Times bestseller “Three Little Words,” which grew from a New York Times Magazine essay she wrote as a teenager. While she admits being scared to write the book, she hoped it would inspire others. “I was terrified and felt like I had no idea what I was doing, but I also knew this could be a wonderful opportunity to help change people’s lives in some way. I hoped I would inspire other young people battling their own adversities or perhaps encourage adults to continue their work with youth and to give back to the community in some way.”

Rhodes-Courter’s deep desire to give back continues in her work today. A fierce child advocate, this St. Petersburg, Florida-based mother of three boys, ages two, four, and five, founded The Foundation for Sustainable Families, a non-profit that connects families with resources in areas such as foster care and adoption. She also runs a social service agency called Sustainable Family Services, LLC, that provides counseling, family coaching, and crisis intervention for families in need. She has now written a second book, “Three More Words,” that chronicles her experience post-adoption, pointing out that adoption isn’t necessarily a happily-ever-after.

However, Rhodes-Courter is quick to observe that she was lucky. Many teenage foster children will never be adopted and will ultimately age out of the system at 18, something they begin preparing for when they are merely 12 and 13 years old with courses on independent living.

“There are so many teens who need homes and mentors,” she says, “so I hope people are willing to open their hearts and homes to these youths as well. They are often the most misunderstood and underestimated. I was lucky that a family took a chance on me, a 12-year-old girl most others had rejected.”

Maybe you’ve only just considered opening your heart and home to a foster child, or perhaps you’ve thought about it for a long time. In either case, Rhodes-Courter has offered her invaluable insight on points to consider before climbing onto the “crazy roller coaster” of fostering.

Fostering or adopting?

One of the most fundamental decisions you must make is whether you’re interested in fostering or adopting a child. While fostering may lead to adoption, that’s not typically the case.

“Can fostering lead to adoption? Sometimes,” says Rhodes-Courter. “But after fostering over 25 kids, we have one adopted child,” she adds, noting they adopted their five-year-old before he turned two and most of their fostering took place prior to having their two biological children. “The whole point of foster care is to be a temporary placement for children until their parents can regain custody or a suitable relative can be found.”

Only if the court has terminated the parents’ rights can a child in foster care be adopted. “If in your heart you know you want to adopt, fostering may not be for you because your heart will be broken many times over when you’re asked to reunify the children – perhaps even to the people who abused or neglected the child in the first place,” she cautions. “Families must simply be very clear about their intentions when starting the fostering or adoption process.”

Only you can know

Whether you’re ready to foster a child is only for you to decide. “Parents or individuals must assess if they are emotionally, financially, mentally, and practically ready for this crazy roller coaster of fostering,” says Rhodes-Courter. “I recommend people do their research, hop onto social media support groups or forums, and go into the process with open, yet practical, eyes and hearts. Only the individuals of a family can know their family dynamic and if this is right for them.”

She adds that you need to consider very difficult scenarios, such as whether you could handle a foster child hurting one of your biological children, pet, or spouse, or whether you could handle seeing the child leave at the end of the placement.

“It is never easy to see children go back to horrible situations. Parents become bonded and attached to these kids. We took great pride in helping to reunify a family or help a mother – often a victim of abuse herself – get back on her feet. But we also had kids who were reunified with their rapists and with parents who were active criminals. This was devastating, and we worry about these children constantly,” she says. “This work is hard, but we know the permanent, positive impact good foster parents can make. While in your home, you have the chance to shower them with the love, affection, and opportunities that might change their lives forever or give them the tools to overcome their difficult circumstances.”

Where to begin

If you think fostering may be the path for you, start with a simple online search. Most states in the U.S. operate foster programs regionally by county, says Rhodes-Courter, who encourages prospective couples or individuals to simply search “foster care” or “foster parent” along with their county or city.

Although states may differ as to eligibility requirements and training, prospective foster parents, generally, will undergo a background check, health screening, and home inspection, and they must provide references or letters of recommendation and take a certain number of parenting classes. You can stipulate as to the children you will consider fostering. “Foster parents can absolutely stipulate if there are certain ages, genders, or behaviors they do not feel equipped to handle,” says Rhodes-Courter.

If you’re considering adopting a child out of foster care, there are more than 100,000 foster children available for adoption. The Heart Gallery of America provides adoption information by state and features children from almost every state and Canada who dream of finding a “forever family.” Another resource is AdoptUSKids.org, which connects children in foster care with adoptive families.

Other ways to help foster children

Even if you cannot foster a child in your home, there are countless other ways to help. Volunteering with CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, is one way to have an enormous impact on the life of a foster child. CASA or guardian ad litem volunteers essentially are voices for the child – they inform judges and other adults of the child’s needs, including what will be the best permanent home for the child.

“My guardian ad litem was a woman named Mary Miller,” says Rhodes-Courter, “and she was the one who was the very consistent adult in my life. She helped get me legally free for adoption, she made sure I was getting school supplies and my hair cut and my teeth cleaned, and when there were foster parents who were mistreating me, she reported abuse, and she was just a really strong advocate for me and made sure that I wasn’t just falling through the cracks like other kids.”

Other ways to help include becoming licensed as a respite home to accept foster children for very short periods of time or mentoring foster children at a local group home, the importance of which cannot be understated. “How do you become a good student or good employee or, ultimately, a good parent if you have no framework for what that’s supposed to look like?” asks Rhodes-Courter. “So it’s imperative that we’re wrapping support systems and families and mentors and caring adults around these kids. Otherwise, they’re not going to really have a chance to be successful adults.”

Finally, organizing drives for toys, clothes, school supplies, or basic necessities for local non-profits is always welcome. Connecting with your state’s Foster Parent Association (such as this one in California) can help you determine what local foster children may need.

This piece originally ran on Mother.