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The Ins & Outs of Becoming a Foster Parent

Foster parents are in short supply, and your home may be the perfect fit for a child who needs a temporary safe environment. If you've been considering opening your home to a foster child or are curious about what it entails, the following may help you with your decision. We asked Megan and Jeff Steele, who have just completed foster-parent training, and Laura and Sam Burelson, veteran foster parents, to share both the rewards and the stuggles of foster parenting.

How do you know if you want to become a foster parent?

If you're considering foster parenting, examine the root of your interest. The more honest you are with yourself, the better you'll be able to identify what role would be the best fit for you and your household. Maybe you want to expand your family, or maybe, like Jeff and Megan, you just want to help children who need a safe place to stay. If you're serious about fostering, find out your state's requirements. Meeting with a program director or taking a training course should help you decide whether foster parenting is right for you.

Sam and Laura first became involved with the foster parent program by participating as a respite care family. Respite care involves making your home available to a child in need when his foster family needs to take time off or is going to be away. Laura explains that respite care homes are necessary because foster children can't simply go to Grandma's house if the parents go away for the weekend.

"Respite is aimed to help prevent burnout for foster families, and also gives foster children a fun change in routine," she says.

Is fost-adopt an option?

Fostering to adopt, sometimes known as fost-adopt, is one of many options available, and it can be especially appealing to couples who haven't had luck with the regular adoption process. Megan and Jeff have adopted two children through an agency outside the foster care system, but they say they're still interested in expanding their family through foster care and fostering to adopt. Sam and Laura recently adopted a little girl who was in their care as a foster child. If you're considering fost-adopt, speak with a foster program representative in your state to learn the requirements to apply as a foster home open to adoption.

What is the most difficult thing about being a foster parent?

Jeff and Megan say they learned in their classes that one of the most challenging parts of foster care is being able to effectively communicate with the child's family of origin.

"As expected, having children in foster care is an emotionally charged situation, and that can create a lot of tense situations, as well as make emotions run high for all involved. We feel another difficult thing will be to send children back to a situation we feel is not the best for them," they say.

Laura and Sam say "the unknowns" have been the hardest parts for them. They say it's challenging to take in children when you don't know how long they will be with you or what type of parenting style they are used to. Since the overall goal of foster care is to reunite children with their families, saying goodbye is inevitable and has to be taken into consideration when you're deciding whether to foster.

What advice would you give to parents considering fostering?

Megan and Jeff say don't be afraid to ask questions or talk with others who have fostered before.

"People have a lot of ideas of what adoption or fostering is all about. I think they would be surprised to find out that it is not what you expect. Many times people only hear the bad stories associated with adoption and fostering; they don't hear all the good stuff," they say.

Sam and Laura have individual advice for prospective foster parents:

Sam: "It's important to try to provide a fun environment. Kids in foster care have enough going on in their lives that they need a relief from that. Of course, you have to parent, and that includes discipline, but children who come into care have experienced loss, uncertainty, fear and loss of control. Everything is out of their control, and they don't understand most of it. So it's important to create a fun and loving environment to work through these things."

Laura: "It's extremely important to remember that behaviors communicate emotion. Kids can't always tell you what they're feeling, and most of the time they don't even know or understand what they're feeling. Kids behave how they feel. If their world feels unpredictable and scary, they're going to act that out."

How do you qualify to foster?

Requirements vary by state, so you'll want to research the specifics for your area. Most often, prospective foster parents have to attend training sessions, which include first aid and CPR; pass a background check; and agree to a home inspection. Most states require a home study process, where the foster agency evaluates several household-related requirements, such as placing medications and hazardous materials in a locked cabinet, having fire extinguishers available and having appropriate spaces for children to sleep.

More information on the process of fostering for your state can be found at AdoptUSKids. And you can find out What It's Really Like to Adopt a Baby.