Do I Want to Be a Foster Parent?

When I was young and thought about becoming a mom, I pictured myself cuddling a newborn or playing Candy Land with a 4-year-old. Fighting with a teenager about how many piercings she could get never really entered the reverie. (I haven’t gotten there yet, but I’ve heard stories!)

Don’t get me wrong: I love my big guys (ages 5 and 8—not that big, but getting there). At the same time, I can’t imagine I won’t miss having little kids around. It got me to thinking: Should I become a foster parent?

New Jersey is in desperate need of foster parents, particularly for sibling groups, kids with special needs, and older children. If you have it in your heart to take in one or more of these kids, you’d be doing what my people call a mitzvah (I can tell you what that means, but you could also Google it). However, if what you really crave is to hear the hilarious verbal antics of a 3-year-old, or smell that indescribable smell of a newborn, there are plenty of little ones in need of a stable, loving home.

You can find out the official info about becoming a foster parent on the state's website. To get the real scoop about foster parenting, I talked to Kristine Brown at the NJ Department of Children and Families, and to Jessica Boykin, a foster parent in Camden County. Here’s what I found out:

Q: Is the fact that I miss having little kids in the house a good enough reason to become a foster parent?

Brown acknowledges that there are many reasons one might want to become a foster parent, and missing little kids is certainly one of them.

Q: I don’t have a spare bedroom. Is that a problem?

Not necessarily. Foster kids are allowed to share rooms. The Department has a general guideline that each foster child should have 50 square feet to him- or herself, but each home is assessed independently. The only thing that’s non-negotiable is that the child needs his or her own bed/bassinet/crib, and it must be in a bedroom (so, the pull-out couch in the living room is out) that’s kept in a sanitary condition.

Q: My spouse is interested in a foster child but doesn’t have time for the training. Does he need to participate?

In a word: Yes.

Q: How involved are the home inspections?

According to Boykin, foster home inspections are pretty hard core. Your home will be inspected for safety issues, for example:

  • Is there a carbon monoxide detector?
  • Is the home childproofed?

It’ll also be inspected for cleanliness, including clutter (yikes!). Boykin was actually told that her vents needed to be vacuumed out. The good news is that if something needs attention (you always knew those dust bunnies under the hutch would catch up with you sooner or later), they’ll let you know and give you a chance to take care of the problem.

Q: What’s the hardest part of being a foster parent?

Boykin says the most difficult day-to-day challenge has been dealing with the lack of a routine. For example, many foster kids are not accustomed to things like having breakfast, lunch, and dinner at fairly regular times. She also said that nights are tough, because while kids can be occupied with other stuff during the day, nighttime is when it really hits that they’re not at home.

Q: What’s the best part of being a foster parent?

Obviously, the best part is knowing you’ve made a positive difference in the life of a child in need, but that can manifest in many ways, both big and small. Boykin always asks her foster kids if she can give them a hug before doing so, and in the beginning, they always say no. It’s a great feeling, she says, when they eventually feel comfortable enough with her to say yes.

Q: How will my own kids react to having a strange child temporarily living with us?

While every kid is different, Boykin says her kids have done very well with the situation, and often develop real friendships. The hardest part for her kids is when it’s time for the foster child to leave.

Note that while you’re going through the training process, a resource worker will talk to your kids to make sure they’re okay with becoming a foster family and understand (as much as their age/maturity allows) what that means.

Q: How long will a foster child stay with me?

It varies from a couple of days to a few months. You can have them continuously, or you can ask for a break in between placements.

Why not?

So, if you think you may be able to meet the requirements (Brown stresses that “the requirements for becoming a foster parent are not complicated, and the Division of Child Protection and Permanency will help each individual through the steps”), and you love your big kids but can’t help missing what you miss, why not look into it? Or consider taking in an older child; you may be his or her last chance to be a son or daughter.

While I haven’t yet become a foster parent myself, I have some experience with the issue. In the 1960s, my grandmother took in a foster child, a 10-year-old boy named Mischa who had come to the U.S. from Cuba without his parents. He stayed with the family for about two years, but he became a member of it forever.

Mischa passed away recently, and we all miss him terribly. I can say with certainty that not only was he better off for having been taken in by my grandmother, but we all are richer for having had him in our lives.

Do you have any words of wisdom or stories to share concerning fostering a child? Please share with us and our readers.

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