Not everyone is called to be a foster parent; it’s a vocation that takes hard work, compassion, and a willingness to sacrifice. Still others want to foster but aren’t able to, for a variety of reasons. But that doesn’t change the reality that there is a need for people willing to take these children in — and for the communities around them to offer support. There are over 400,000 children in foster care, children who need love and caregivers who need help. But how does someone who can’t be a foster parent still offer support to foster families? The good news is, it’s easier than you think.
1. Offer respite care
It can be hard for foster parents to get a break, and it’s for one simple reason: because the foster child can’t be in the supervision of any adult who hasn’t been cleared by the state. That means foster parents can’t just ring up their usual babysitter and ask them to watch the kids so they can go see a movie. Can you imagine if you could never get a break to go run some errands, see a new movie, or even just sit inside a coffee shop by yourself for an hour? Add in that foster parents have to potentially attend court dates, new school transition meetings, therapy dates, doctor’s appointments, and more by themselves, and the need becomes even greater. That’s why getting yourself licensed to provide respite care can be so helpful. Requirements will vary by state, but it can be as easy as filling out a form and providing a copy of your driver’s license to the appropriate agency, and then you can step in for a few hours when a foster parent needs you.
2. Bring a meal…
Many foster parents are parenting their biological children as well, and the call to take in a new child — or children — can come at any time. It can be at 2:00 in the morning, and while no one is required to say yes, foster parents are the ones who do. So while one day they’re feeding, say, a family of four, within a matter of hours, they could end up feeding a family of seven. Bringing a meal is a great way to not only show support and care, but also provides help in a tangible way.
3 … but don’t forget groceries too!
No, you don’t have to go grocery shopping for anyone (although if you have the means to get groceries, by all means, do so!). But if you can stop by your local grocery store and pick up some kid-friendly snacks, drinks, or maybe baby wipes or diapers if needed, then you’d again be providing very tangible help to people who may be scrambling to get the things they need for children they just took in.
4. Become a guardian ad litem
So you’re not able to become a foster parent. That’s OK! Something else you can do to help foster children is becoming a guardian ad litem. In this role, you’re essentially acting as the child’s court guardian; you attend court hearings and argue for what will represent the child’s best interests. You are the one who will serve as the child’s voice in court. Too many children who are abused or neglected get shuffled through the court system with no one to fight for them; becoming a guardian ad litem means you can help stand up for these children when no one else will.
5. Run errands
It can be a huge help to offer to step in when a foster family needs help with even the most mundane things — after all, they may not have someone available to provide respite care, so going to take care of things like the dry cleaners, getting an oil change, or taking the family dog to the vet can suddenly be much more difficult. It would be incredibly easy to phone your friend and let them know you’d be happy to step in and take care of these kinds of errands for them whenever they arise.
Foster parents could very likely be 10 times as overwhelmed as typical parents are, and that goes for cleaning, too. If you know anyone who fosters, ask if you can help them — and then deliver. Stop by their house and take the dirty laundry to your house to clean and fold. Drop in to help clean on the weekend. Or if you don’t want to do it yourself, give them a gift certificate for a cleaning service.
7. Include the kids
It can be difficult for foster children to find normalcy, and to feel like they’re wanted. So make sure you include them. Organize playdates with your kids, invite the foster family to a movie night, and make sure to include them in birthday parties. No one wants to be the kid that’s left out of everything, but that can be even harder when you already feel like everyone in your life has left you.
Foster children often come to a home with nothing more than what they can carry in a backpack or duffel bag, and it’s not uncommon for foster parents to spend more than what the state provides them on things like clothes, shoes, school supplies, haircuts, and more. So find out what size clothes the kids wear, or what kinds of items are on their school supply lists, and drop them off.
9. Grieve with them
Being a foster parent is difficult because in most cases, it will be temporary. The goal is always reunification with the biological parents, and there also may be a situation where the child needs a new placement for some reason. Whatever the scenario, it can be heartbreaking to say goodbye to a child they have come to care deeply for… so be there for them. Offer a shoulder to cry on, let them know you are there for them, and acknowledge the loss they are feeling. Don’t brush it off as something they should have expected just because they chose to foster.
If nothing else, pray regularly for the foster parents you know, as well as the ones you don’t. They’ve willingly taken on an enormous burden, usually without any admiration, acknowledgement, gratitude, or help from the community around them. Pray for them, and pray for the children they’ve been entrusted with.
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