Written by: David Dodge,

Six years ago, Chastity and Mark Gomez, of Denver, were speaking with friends who had begun the process of becoming adoptive parents. After learning about the abuse and neglect suffered by so many children in the foster care system, many of whom need homes, they decided to get involved as well.

“It’s impossible to ignore once you learn about it,” said Mark Gomez. “The statistics are just horrific.”

On any given day in the United States, over 400,000 children, who have been temporarily or permanently removed from their biological families, are dependent on the country’s foster care system. Yet a perennial challenge facing the child welfare system is recruiting enough foster parents to meet the need — a problem that has worsened during the pandemic.

“If you have ever been moved to help children in need, and have the ability, now is the time to get involved,” said Rita Soronen, president and C.E.O. of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.

“It’s intimidating to get involved, but once you get trained and gain some experience, you realize it’s totally doable,” said Chastity. “The impact you can have on the lives of these kids is incredible.”

Child welfare advocates stress there are many different ways to help — ranging from volunteering at a child welfare organization a couple of hours a week to permanently adopting a child in need — and that no way is too big or too small to make a difference.

Make that first call

An overwhelming amount of information about the foster care system exists online, but the best thing you can do, advocates advise, is pick up the phone and call your local agency. “They will tell you everything you need to know and then some,” said Soronen.

The child welfare system is run by states, and in some instances by counties, so you’ll need to find an agency certified in your area. The Child Welfare Information Gateway — a resource funded by the federal government — maintains a directory.

The culture and quality of agencies vary widely, said Soronen, so it’s a good idea to speak with several before making any decisions. Some private, religion-based agencies won’t work with L.G.B.T.Q. individuals, single people, unmarried couples or parents of differing faiths. For those interested in working without such restrictions, the Human Rights Campaign, a national L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy organization, maintains a directory as part of its All Children — All Families project.

Get trained and informed

Before hosting children in their homes, all foster parents must undergo 10 to 30 hours of education and training, followed by a three- to six-month “home study.” The latter involves an inspection of your home, as the name implies, but also a background check, physical and mental evaluations, interviews with you and your family members and a financial assessment.

Irene Clements, executive director of the National Foster Parent Association (N.F.P.A.), strongly suggested foster parents pursue additional education opportunities, referring to the official training required by some systems as “woefully inadequate.”

Fortunately, there is no shortage of resources to do so. Many advocates list the Child Welfare Information Gateway as a good place to start. The N.F.P.A. also hosts many training and educational opportunities online. AdoptUsKids, another national nonprofit, includes a list of resources, broken down by state. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropic organization dedicated to child welfare, regularly publishes research on topics related to the foster care system. And the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, which focuses on support for older foster youth, has many useful resources.

“At this stage, many people get overwhelmed by this all and give up,” said Mary Keane, senior policy advocate at You Gotta Believe, a foster care agency based in Brooklyn, “But we’re not looking for a commitment the minute you walk through the door — take your time, get educated and get involved when you’re ready.”

It is particularly important, advocates said, to seek cross-cultural education and training, as most foster parents will host a child at some point with a background different from their own. For this reason, Black, Latino, L.G.B.T.Q. and bilingual foster parents are particularly encouraged, as children from these backgrounds are overrepresented in foster care. Though the child welfare system will enthusiastically welcome anyone with the capacity, interest and suitability to serve as a foster parent.

It is certainly not essential that you share a background with your foster child, said Julie Farber, a Deputy Commissioner with the New York City Administration for Children’s Services. But it does reduce the learning curve, she said.

“Queer kids face a special challenge in the system, because people don’t want to take them,” said Keane of You Gotta Believe, who has personally fostered 14 children, about half of whom identify as L.G.B.T.Q. “Having that shared cultural identity can be helpful, so it would be fantastic if more L.G.B.T.Q. foster parents got involved.”

Choose Your Path

There are many ways to support children in foster care — even short of hosting a child in your own home if you are not able, or ready, to do so. “You can do something as simple as provide transportation to support sibling visitation,” said Minna Castillo Cohen, the director of the Office of Children, Youth and Families at the Colorado Department of Human Services. “Maybe you’ll find a deeper relationship develops along the way.”

Becoming a mentor is another way to be useful without undergoing the training and certification process required of foster parents. Nina MacLean — who has fostered five youths at her home on the Upper West Side, over the last 31 years — said mentors have proved crucial to her and her family over the years. “They take the kids to the zoo or aquarium, giving me time to recharge, and the kids the chance to connect with another loving adult,” said MacLean.

Those who might be willing to get certified, but are unable to host children for longer stays, can still provide respite care. These short-term stays can last several days, or even hours, and are an important resource for other foster parents who travel out of town, on occasion, or need a moment to run a few simple errands.

Many who might otherwise be open to long-term stays fear growing attached to the children in their care, only to see them return home to their biological families. “The primary goal of the foster care system is to reunite children with their biological families,” said Trey Rabun, associate director of kinship and community services at Amara, a foster care agency in Seattle. “But the care and stability they provided remains with that child forever.”

The very fact that it is difficult to say goodbye, said Mark Gomez, the Colorado foster dad, is evidence of a positive impact. “It means these kids developed healthy attachments and experienced healing,” said Mark, who, along with his wife, have helped nearly 20 foster youths in their care safely return to their biological families over the last six years.

And for those hoping to expand their family permanently through adoption, the foster care system presents an important avenue to do so with kids in need — more than a quarter of children in the system, many of them older youth and teenagers, end up being “legally freed” for adoption, meaning birth parents relinquished their parenting rights, or had those rights terminated by a court.

“People always want to tell me how great I am for fostering,” said Nina MacLean, the Brooklyn-based foster mom who adopted four out of the five children she has fostered. “But I’m equally blessed, just to have the opportunity to be a part of these children’s lives.”


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