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How Does Foster Care Work: Things You’ll Wish You Knew Before Fostering

As you can imagine, doing foster care is definitely not easy.  And many wonder how does foster care work?  After talking with many foster parents over the past couple years, I’ve put together a compilation of “things you wish you knew before fostering”.  Because the counties and agencies rarely give you the down low on the truth of how does foster care work.

How Does Foster Care Work: Things You Wish You Knew Before Fostering

There are so many aspects to foster care that they just don’t cover in training class.  So if you’re wondering ‘how does foster care work’, I’ve compiled a list from real-life foster parents.

It’s Hard On Your Extended Family Too:

Our second placement was a 1 month old baby that the social worker said was a permanency placement.  Many times, during a three month period, she repeatedly said everyone was ruled out.  No family qualified or wanted him.  The family who adopted three of his five half sisters didn’t want him.  Etc.  Unfortunately, we let our guard down then.  Only to find out that the family with the three half siblings DID want him.  But only once he was free and clear.  They just refused to foster him.  The kicker is that the social worker knew this all along.  We still have no idea why she lied to us as she laughed at me when I asked.

So not only was this hard on our immediate family, grandparents, great-grandparents, and extended relatives already considered him to be part of our family too. A loss felt by more than 50 people.

Caseworkers And DHS, In General, Are Not Held Accountable

We’ve dealt with social workers who never return phone calls, straight up lie (see above), and could honestly just care less about the foster family.  They aren’t held accountable in their job.  Rules get broken and some have their own agendas, no matter what the law says or what is best for the children.

The System Is More Broken Than Outsiders Will Ever Know

I always knew that the foster care system was broken.  However, it took actually stepping into the role of a foster parent to see how bad it truly is.  You can read a bit more about An Emotional Roller Coaster Weekend where our fears were confirmed.  We had done respite for three girls, who we also petitioned to adopt but family came forward in the end.   We were very new to the foster world yet.  And even though we saw many red flags about their current foster home, we let it go.  Only to find out our fears were completely founded.  🙁  

Reunification Can Be A Good Or Bad Thing

Sometimes, it’s an extremely happy occasion when a child gets to go home.  I’ve had those and there is no greater feeling.  But other times, you absolutely know that the kids are going back to a very unfit home.  We’ve also experienced those.  In those cases, sometimes they end up back in care and sometimes they fall off the radar.

The Foster Parent May Be The Only One Looking Out For The Children

Sadly, we’ve quickly learned that foster parents are typically the only one who wants what’s best for the kids.  Most kids have a Guardian Ad Litem or CASA assigned to them, who is supposed to be looking out for the children.  However, from the experience of many foster parents, that just isn’t the case.  (Of course, there are some really great ones out there that do want what’s best for the kids.  We just never saw that personally with any of our cases.)

It’s Okay To Say No

When you get a call for a placement, be sure to ask lots of questions.  But don’t be surprised when the worker can’t answer most.  However, after you gather all the information you can, if you are having doubts, it’s okay to say no.  It’s usually better for everyone if you’re just up front with what you can handle than to have to displace in a couple weeks.

You Might Be Able To Offer Some Healing, But You Won’t Be Able To “Fix It”

No matter how great a home, how many hours of therapy, and how much love you can give, there are some things you just can’t erase.  The trauma for many is so great.  But it was hard to admit that I can’t actually just “fix” things for our foster children.  Nobody can.

Trauma Changes Everything

This goes hand in hand with the previous statement.  Trauma almost seems to rewire a person’s brain.  It changes a person’s life forever.  That’s not to say that some children don’t overcome and thrive, it’s just a long hard road.

Read As Much As You Can About Children That Come From Trauma

Because trauma changes everything, doing your research before you’re ‘in the trenches’ is a good idea.  Topics include: RAD, ADHD, ODD, sexual assault (signs to watch for, not always obvious), frontal lobe development, and more.  Foster children typically don’t behave ‘normally’ but there are reasons for this.

Newborn Trauma Is Real

A misconception that many people have is that nurture versus nature will win out.  But studies have shown that even infants can experience trauma in utero.  Being pulled at birth is very traumatic and yes, babies, feel and know that!  And not only that, children placed in a loving foster home from birth can and, many times do, have many struggles because of their circumstances.

You Will Be Surprised At How Little Communication Or Support There Is

Honestly, we’ve had kids dropped off for weeks at a time without a shred of paperwork or even a phone call.  Much is demanded of you in way of appointments, documentation, reporting, etc.  However, it can feel like nobody wants to let you know anything, including pertinent information about the child in your home.

Birth Parents Get Treated Better Than Foster Parents

We are required to do training, have home inspections, background checks, and every inch of our lives gone through.  The bar is set extremely low for birth parents and many things are swept under the rug to try to make reunification happen.  We even had a baby, whose parent was testing positive, and the social worker still pushing for reunification (and quickly).

Must Document Everything

This is actually to protect yourself.  The saying in the foster care world is that “It’s not IF a parent will report you and cause an investigation.  It’s WHEN.”  No matter how good a job you are doing, bio parents (and foster children for that matter) have nothing to lose by making up false stories and causing issues.  Investigations, depending on severity of report, may lead to all foster children being removed from your home and licensed suspended until you are cleared.

You Are Actually A Co-Parent

I was surprised at how closely the county has us working with the bio parent(s).  Naively, I assumed I was only taking care of the child.  Turns out, there is quite a bit of communication between foster families and bio parents.  (In many cases.)

Your Big Heart Will Cause You To Need A Bigger Van

Many families end up thinking they’ll start with one foster child only to receive a call on a sibling group.  Our plans were entirely this until we received that very first call for a sibling group of three.  Five bio kids plus three foster kids bumped us to a family of ten immediately!  We had to scramble to find a vehicle that could transport us all.

Consider Different Ages

If you’re not sure what age group would fit best, consider doing respite for awhile.  Opening up your home, short term to a variety of age groups will help you to figure out where you can best serve in the foster care world.

Be Careful With Your Words, Always

Things can be twisted and turned to fit someone’s agenda, no matter how sincere and honest you are.  So always be careful with what you say and how you say it.

Timelines Are Open To Interpretation

A quick, couple week placement turned into an adoption for a friend.  A 3-6 month placement for us ended in just one week before the kids were sent home.  Timelines are rarely, if ever correct.  However, I still find myself asking the “what’s the projected timeline” question with each new placement.

Your House May Never Be Clean Again

No matter how often I clean, when we have placements over the age of 1, the house never stays “clean” for longer than an hour.  Toys and games are just too irresistible.  And even with a rule about putting away the things you’re playing with before taking out another, things just end up all over.

You Will Fall In Love, You Will Feel Loss

True, you will not connect with all of your fosters.  But it’s impossible to avoid falling in love with some of your foster children.  And when those children leave, you will feel a loss.  Truth be told, even the ones that you don’t fully connect with will take a piece of your heart when they go.

Even If You Don’t See It, You DO Make A Difference

It’s easy to feel beat down in the world of foster care.  However, when doubting whether or not you make a difference, know that you DO!  Studies show how important a stable, loving home is to infants as it impacts their brain development.  Showing an older child how a functional loving family operates gives them a glimpse at what life can be.

I was talking to a woman who used to do foster care and sharing how we don’t know if we are making that difference that we desperately want.  And she shared a story about how a young adult came up to her and she realized it was her old foster child.  Even though they only spent a few weeks in her home before being sent back with the parents, that child shared how much of an impact that moment of normalcy made.

It Takes A Village

We quickly learned that doing foster care takes a village.  Whether it’s a kind word from a friend to get me through a hard day or someone offering to babysit so my husband and I can re-group, it truly takes a group effort to maintain the life of a foster parent.

How Does Foster Care Work

As you can see, there are so many aspects to the world of foster care.  The list above and so much more.  It would be impossible to include everything.  It’s emotional and so very hard.  Many foster parents end up feeling burned out.  Some quickly and some after many years.  So if you’re still interested in learning more about how does foster care work, check out my other posts on this topic:

So tell me, have you ever considered fostering?  Or are you a foster parent?  Do you have anything to add to the question “how does foster care work”?


Peggy Nunn

Saturday 19th of October 2019

Goodness, you have such a big heart. I am not sure I could have done that (when I was younger) for many reason. The system is blessed that you did help the children you had for what time they were there.

Dana Rodriguez

Friday 20th of September 2019

This is a really interesting post. I know that foster families must have a lot to deal with.

Dennis Sanchez

Monday 19th of August 2019

My wife and I are interested in becoming foster parents, but we worry that it might be too much for us. I like that you mentioned that a loving home is important in a child's brain development. We are going to have to do some more research on how to become foster parents.


Monday 19th of August 2019

Hi Dennis,

I have to say that it truly was WAY more intense than I expected it to be. If you're interested, though, I HIGHLY suggest getting licensed and asking your county or agency to put you as a 'respite' home first. This will give you a chance to experience a variety of age ranges but only for a short period of time. (Respite is where you take in placements from foster homes who are going on vacation, need a break, etc. So you'll know up front if it will be for the weekend, week, etc.)

Dandi D

Friday 26th of July 2019

We have been considering foster care for a while now, so this is really helpful to read.

Mia E.

Wednesday 24th of July 2019

I just recently saw a documentary on the foster care system and it is just heartbreaking from all sides. Sometimes the stay with foster parents is the only stability that a child ever experiences. Good foster parents do make a difference.