Placing children and adolescents in foster homes is a complex process that requires skilled family resource specialists and case workers along with experienced program managers and a pool of available, well trained foster parents who are willing to welcome a child into their homes, at times on an hour's notice. Whether a child is in a foster home for a day, a week, a month or a year, he must feel safe and cared for and understood regardless of the severity of his problem or situation.

KidsPeace offers foster care services in 10 states and the District of Columbia, all of which have different laws, rules and regulations regarding foster care. The staff must keep themselves and the foster parents with whom they place children up to date on all state and federal regulatory changes and information that is important to the care and safety of the kids, while providing the mandated hours of training each foster parent must attend. In addition to general training, foster parents are trained on specific conditions, treatments, therapeutic models and parenting skills to meet the needs of the children they accept.

According to Betsy Lunney, State Manager of the Foster Care and Community Programs for KidsPeace in Pennsylvania, there are several different types of foster care. "Respite care involves caring for a child for a day, a weekend or longer when his foster family needs a break for such reasons as an illness, a death in the family, a need to travel without children or time to regroup and figure out, along with the treatment team, how to improve the relationship with him. In fact, some families start out providing respite care to see if foster parenting is right for their household."

There is also emergency shelter care, where a child has been removed from her home and needs immediate placement for less than 30 days; short-term placement (3-6 months); long-term placement (longer than 6 months); and foster care until adoption can be arranged (fost-adopt), often by the foster parents. Kinship foster care places children with their relatives who are willing to go through the same foster parent screening process and training to accept responsibility for children to keep them within their extended families.

The Approval Process

Family Resource Specialists are the KidsPeace associates responsible for the licensing process for foster parent applicants. They conduct interviews with family members, process all application paperwork required by state regulation or the agency and offer required training. A rigorous background check is performed on family members in the household, as well as on extended family members and baby sitters who will supervise the foster children. In addition to processing background checks, general paperwork and providing training for the applicant parents, the family resource specialists spend time with them in their homes to determine with the family, the types of children most suitable for the home. Among other things, this is accomplished with consideration for the family's lifestyle, life experiences, size of the home, family interests and the amount of time the foster parent(s) will have to spend taking a foster child to various appointments and visits with their families. Foster parent applicants are encouraged to identify race and gender preferences, along with age range and any particular emotional and behavioral issues that children might present. The number of children the family can accommodate is identified, and those able to care for more than one child are asked to consider sibling groups to avoid their separation when possible.

"We don't limit ourselves to certain types of families," Lunney explained. "We have single parents, same sex couples, families with grown children and families with children living at home. What is important is that foster parents have no violent criminal backgrounds, are at least 21 years old, are in good health, have sufficient income to meet the family needs, have an insured car to transport the foster child, and have sufficient room in the home to allow the foster child to have his own space. Having some parenting experience and a willingness to care for children with unique needs are also important."

The approval process may initially feel intrusive to the potential foster family, but it is imperative that the agency learn as much about a foster family and its members as possible before placing a child. There are questions about parenting styles, current family interactions, birth children's behavior, socio-economic status and financial status, hobbies, ages of family members, health and the family's motivation to foster and their willingness to work in partnership with the agency.

The Job of Foster Parenting
Foster parenting is a very difficult job and could be seen as a community service, according to Lunney. It is the job of foster parents to teach the children new skills, help them negotiate the world and augment the therapy or treatment they are receiving from mental health care professionals to heal from abuse or neglect they may have suffered prior to entering their homes. The matching process goes deeper, depending on the issues of the child. Is a foster family willing to take a bed wetter or a child who has difficulty forming attachments or a child who needs to be taken to a tutor every day after school? Families that are overscheduled or in which parents work different shifts may be inappropriate for a child who needs hours of daily help with homework or becomes anxious when his schedule is disrupted in any way. KidsPeace encourages foster parents to get their foster children involved in community activities, sports, church groups and bands or scouting.

Lunney described the matching process as more of an art than a science. It is based on the family resource specialists' understanding of the needs of the child and the capabilities of the foster parents to meet those needs. "We gather available and significant background information on the children as well," Lunney explained. Many kids come into foster care to remove them from homes that have been deemed unsafe due to abuse or neglect, and an increasing number of children have severe issues and need assistance with daily living, behavioral and emotional disorders, a need to gain independent living skills and care that will keep them out of the juvenile justice system. Once placed, KidsPeace caseworkers visit often to make sure that the children are doing well and that their psychological, behavioral, educational and physical needs are being met.

Adoption
More and more frequently, foster children's parental rights are terminated, and the children become available for adoption. The laws differ from state to state, but the Federal "Adoption and Safe Families Act" of 1997 made finding permanency for the nation's foster children a priority. If birth parents cannot show within a reasonable amount of time that they have improved the home environment from which their children were taken or that they have stopped abusing drugs or alcohol or received counseling to help them overcome their difficulties, their parental rights are terminated. Once that occurs, children become available for adoption by a loving home. Many foster parents become attached to the children they are fostering and apply to adopt them when they become available for permanent placement.

"The government wants to stop the problem of kids languishing in the foster care system until they are 18 and then being released into the community without support systems or the proper training to live independently," Lunney explained. Adoption gives these children families who will assist them through the transition to college or independent living and ensure that they have a home to which they are attached for the rest of their lives.

"Although it makes us very happy when one of our foster children finds a permanent home with one of our foster families, it often means that the family will have no room to take in additional foster children," Lunney said, so our foster parent recruitment process is ongoing." In Pennsylvania, KidsPeace is able to facilitate adoptions and also conducts adoptive family home studies for international and domestic adoptions of children not in the foster care system. Visit Fostercare.com for more information on KidsPeace foster care services.