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In a perfect world, all children would be loved and nurtured and live in a cozy home with a stable family. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. More than 400,000 children are placed in in foster care annually, with more than 200,000 moving in and out of foster homes in a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Typically, children are placed in foster care because of abuse, neglect or abandonment, but they can also enter the system because of behavioral problems or because a biological parent is incarcerated or ill. While foster parenting is not without challenges, it also often provides numerous, significant advantages for both the foster parents and the child.
Safe, Stable Environment
One of the most meaningful advantages that foster parenting provides is a safe, stable home for the child explains Mandy Zalich, executive director for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Westmoreland, Inc. “The goal of fostering a child is almost always reunification with the parents,” says Zalich. “This is why it's so important to have the child placed with a nurturing foster family. No matter what the situation was with the child’s parents, he or she is still experiencing a loss. During this process, children lose all of their connections – their friends, their family, their room, their pets. Foster parents provide stability and are there to help them through this transitional period.” About half of the children who are placed in foster care will be reunited with their parents or primary caregiver; in the meantime, the foster parent's goal is to provide the child with stability as well as whatever help the child may need in terms of medical or psychological treatment says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also reports that a child entering foster care is typically between 6 and 8 years old, and most remain in foster care for about a year. Not surprisingly, this transition can have a dramatic effect on a school-age child’s academic achievement. “Every time a child is moved from a home, they lose about six months in the school system,” says Zalich. “So, for instance, if a child is removed from a home, or if a child turns out not to be a good fit for a family, and needs to be moved again, he’s going to fall back another six months in terms of academic progress.” Zalich says that before they’re placed with a foster family, neglected or abused children have worries and concerns that their peers do typically don't, often rendering them unable to concentrate or participate in school. “A kid in a classroom who’s still living at home with his parents might be thinking about whether he has food at home, whether there are disputes going on, whether he has a warm coat to wear, or whether he’s going to be picked on because his clothes are dirty or don’t fit. He’s got all of this going on in his head while he’s supposed to be learning,” Zalich says. Foster parents can provide a critical benefit in this department. “When children are able to feel safer and have more stability, they have a lot less to worry about at home, and maybe can focus on their schoolwork a little more,” she says.
Foster parenting doesn’t just benefit children; it can also have a profound impact on the foster parents themselves. The most significant benefit, says Zalich, is knowing that you helped save a child’s life. “Knowing that you have made a difference in a child’s life, that you have helped him during this transitional period, is the biggest advantage of foster parenting,” she says. Most foster parents, she says, are people who love children but either cannot have children of their own or who have stopped having children. Foster parenting can also lead to a permanent placement: approximately 20 percent of the children who move through the system are adopted by their foster families. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that foster parenting can sometimes provide a quicker route to adoption than other channels, while providing the opportunity for the child to maintain a connection with his birth parents. Foster families typically express up-front whether they wish to adopt a foster child, Zalich says. “If CYS (Children and Youth Services) finds that the kids are better off in foster care, they will try to place them, early on, with pre-adoptive parents.” This can minimize disruptions and enable the child to remain in a stable home while the fostering and adoption process continues.
Fostering a child certainly has many advantages, but Zalich says that the hardest part of becoming a foster parent is knowing that the situation is likely temporary. “You love this child, you take him in, and you treat the child as part of your family, but then you’re asked to let him go,” she says. Despite the emotional tug-of-war, foster parents should find solace in the fact that they can remain a resource for the child. “While it is up to the biological family, parents can choose to stay in touch with their child’s foster family by asking them to babysit or remain a resource in terms of the child’s education, training or therapy,” says Zalich. This is more common when a child has been reunited with his parent but still has a sibling or a half-sibling in foster care. “While letting go of a child is incredibly hard, it may be the best thing for the child, since reunification is always the goal,” she says.