Before I became a foster parent, foster care was one of those things that I had heard of but never gave much thought to, thanks in large part to my privilege of being a white, married, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender person. For me, foster care was a storyline in movies and TV shows (sometimes portrayed accurately, sometimes not), or a news story that popped into my social media feed every once in a while.
But for thousands of families in Washington state, navigating the foster care system is a daily reality. There are approximately 8,000 children living in out-of-home care in our state. While that is a high number, there are a couple of reasons to be optimistic:
- The number of youths experiencing foster care in Washington state has been trending downward for the past several years.
- Almost 44 percent of youths in foster care in Washington are placed with a relative (called kinship care). While there is room for improvement, this percentage is higher than the national average. Youths in kinship care have more positive outcomes than those who live with a nonrelative foster family, including minimized trauma, connection with siblings, and improved behavior and mental health outcomes. Hopefully, the percentage of youths placed with family will continue to increase.
In Washington, approximately 77 percent of youths enter foster care due to neglect, which is often the result of the trauma and challenges their parents are dealing with. Many of these families could benefit from preventive services and support, which would perhaps eliminate the need for their children to be removed.
Recent laws such as the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 and the Family First Transition Act of 2019 allow states to use federal funds for preventive services, rather than for foster care expenses only. While this shift toward prevention and support may be occurring, it is happening slowly. In 2020, Washington spent $188.7 million on foster care, compared to just $10.7 million on preventive services such as substance abuse treatment, mental health care and parental skills training.
Within three years of entering foster care, approximately 57 percent of children will be reunified with their parents; 16 percent will be adopted; 5 percent are placed with a guardian; 3 percent become emancipated; and 16 percent remain in foster care. The average time a child stays in foster care is 15–18 months.
The impact is not equal
Foster care does not impact all children and families equally. Native American children are nearly three times as likely to be placed in out-of-home care than white youths; African American children are twice as likely to be placed in out-of-home care than white youths.
LGBTQIA+ youths are overrepresented in foster care as well, and are also often experiencing family rejection in addition to other trauma. If a youth who identifies as LGBTQIA+ does not feel supported in their foster home, they are more likely to run away, and therefore more likely to experience homelessness. In fact, 40 percent of youths experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQIA+, and 33 percent of Washington youths who have spent time in foster care experience homelessness by the time they turn 21.
While youths from any socioeconomic background can, and do, experience abuse or neglect, children are removed from their homes more frequently in lower-income communities. Keeping youths experiencing foster care close to their schools, churches, friends and other sources of support is critical for their success. However, often foster families are not available in the communities from where children are most frequently removed, resulting in children being placed far away from their support systems.
Placing children outside of their communities also presents an extra challenge for parental visits. One foster parent I spoke to lives in Seattle and had a young child from Marysville placed in her home. The child’s mother had a hard time getting to visits, since state social workers try to hold visits close to where the child is living so that they do not have to endure long car rides. For this foster parent and child, those parental visits became less and less frequent, and eventually stopped.
Reunification is the goal
The goal of foster care is for children to be able to return home to their parents; this is referred to as reunification. Nearly 60 percent of youths who experience foster care in Washington state are able to reunify with their parents. Only about 16 percent of youths who experience foster care wind up being adopted by a nonfamily member.
Foster parents can support the goal of reunification in a number of ways, including by:
- Making sure the child is available and ready for visits.
- Establishing a relationship with the child’s parent(s).
- Communicating regularly with the child’s parent(s).
- Speaking in a positive way about the child’s parent(s).
Of course, reunification is not always possible, and sometimes adoption does become a child’s permanent plan. Organizations such as Northwest Adoption Exchange work to find adoptive homes for youths experiencing foster care in Oregon, Washington and Alaska.
Foster care myths
Connection is key
The foster care system can often seem like a bunch of individuals in various silos focused on their own role in the larger process. Social workers deal with paperwork and the legal side of cases. Foster parents and kinship providers address the day-to-day care and needs of the children placed in their homes. Parents attend meetings, court hearings and parenting classes, trying to jump through all of the hoops presented to them so that they can reunite with their children.
Too often, these key players are not given the opportunity to connect and figure out how to work together toward the goal of reunification. Connection is what’s often missing, and connection is key.
But for many caregivers, connections with the parent(s) of a child placed in their home can feel intimidating. Will they be mad at you? What if there is conflict? What am I supposed to do or say? As a foster parent, I know that I carried all of these insecurities (and more) into many meetings with parents. When people enter these meetings with fear and distrust, forging connection becomes extremely difficult.
Luckily, programs exist to help build connection and break down barriers built up by fear. One such program is the Family Connections Program at Amara. Amara is located in both King and Pierce counties, and it has been supporting foster youths and families for more than 100 years. The organization licenses and supports foster parents and kinship providers, and works to promote and support connections between foster parents and parents whose children have been removed from their home.
The Family Connections Program brings parents whose children are placed in out-of-home care and those caring for the children (foster or kinship caregivers) together to have a facilitated, collaborative, child-focused conversation. These conversations allow parents and caregivers to connect and make a plan to work together to support the child(ren) they all care about. Nicole Mazen, Amara’s chief program and policy officer, explains, “We are working toward a system that supports a community approach rather than an individualistic one.”
Youths experiencing foster care often struggle with dual loyalties. Even though their home life may have been challenging, kids love their parents. But at the same time, they might also discover happiness in a foster home — holding both of those feelings at the same time can be a big challenge. They may wonder if it’s okay to tell their foster parent that they miss and love their mom. They may feel nervous telling their parents about a fun activity or outing with their foster parent. When they are able to see their parents and their foster parents communicating and working together, the “us versus them” feelings may subside.
If you do end up adopting a child through foster care, maintaining that connection to their family is incredibly important. Children need to know where they come from, as well as the truth (in age-appropriate terms) about their past and history. Sometimes parents feel like they are protecting children from information that is hard to hear, but when children lack this information, they tend to make up stories, which can oftentimes be much more exaggerated than the truth.
It is powerful for a child to see someone they physically look like. I spoke with an adoptive mom, whom we’ll call Jane because she asked to remain anonymous. Jane’s youngest son joined their family initially thought foster care, and he was adopted a few years later. The rest of the family members are all quite tall, but he is not, and he often feels like he sticks out and is different. But when he is with his birth family, the opposite is true: At 4 feet, 10 inches, he is almost as tall as his grandmother, and his mom only has a few inches on him. They all share a love of shoes and basketball, and a strong distaste for rollercoasters. Jane told me that seeing and being in a relationship with her adopted son’s family has had a significantly positive impact on his self-perception and self-esteem. The Family Connections Program can be the first step in facilitating such positive relationships.
While it is not always easy, Jane notes that the connection with her son’s family is important to them all. She has had many conversations over the years about challenging topics, but finds that by letting her son ask questions, by answering them honestly and by following his lead, he gets the information he wants and needs at a pace that is appropriate for him.
It is important to remember that, like any other relationship, the connection you have as a foster parent, kinship provider or adoptive parent with a child’s family will change over time. The relationship Jane has today with her son’s biological family is significantly different from what it was a decade ago, or even five years ago. Situations and people change over time, and remaining open to that change is critical.
There are different ways to get involved
While reducing the number of youths who are removed from their families in the first place and relying on kinship care as much as possible are best, there is still currently a need for foster parents. According to data from the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF), there has been an overall decline in the number of foster homes across Washington state. In March 2019, there were 5,061 licensed foster homes; as of September 2022, that number had fallen by 16 percent, to 4,257. Keep in mind that this is the number of licensed homes, which is smaller than the number of homes that have an opening for a child entering foster care. Some of those homes are already full, some are not taking new placements for a variety of personal reasons, and some became licensed to provide care for a specific child. This lack of foster homes makes it incredibly hard for children to be placed in a home that can meet their specific needs, in their specific community.
The need is especially high for foster homes that can meet the diverse needs of youths experiencing foster care. One agency working to help meet that need is Amara.
Amara works to ensure that the foster parents it licenses are prepared to meet the diverse needs of the youth they will be caring for. Mazen notes, “Throughout our work with families, we ensure that they are gaining the necessary skills to provide open, affirming, loving and relationship-focused homes. We expect that our families will be able to meet the unique identity needs of youths they welcome into their home: This includes their cultural identities, their SOGIE [sexual orientation, gender identity and expression], their identity as a youth in foster care, and their relationships with their parents and extended family. We help people learn about the concept of openness — building and maintaining connection between people, and how they can best facilitate this.”
Becoming a foster parent means being part of a team, working with others to help support kids and their families. It means being open to uncertainty, being willing to build connections, and having a desire to actively listen, empathize and engage with families.
Becoming a foster parent
There are several different ways you can go about becoming a foster parent in Washington state. You can become licensed directly though the State of Washington by applying through the DCYF website, where you will find more information, including the (many) forms you’ll need.
Another route to becoming a foster parent is to work with a private agency, known as a child placement agency (CPA). CPAs hold about 33 percent of the licensed foster homes in the state. People often choose to become licensed through a CPA because the agency is able to offer higher levels of support and guidance to foster parents. You can find a CPA that is a good match for you by filling out a quick form on the Washington Fosters website.
I asked Mazen what advice she would give someone who is thinking about becoming a foster parent. She replied:
“First, start by asking yourself what your motivations are — are you looking to build community and be a safe place for someone who needs it, someone who may or may not have a community to draw support from, or are you looking for a child to fit into your family? Kids and families need people who are coming from that first motivation.”
If you would like to learn more about becoming licensed with Amara, the first step is to attend an orientation meeting (Amara information meeting, or AIM). You can find a list of upcoming meeting dates and times, on the website; you can also register there.
Other avenues of support for kids experiencing foster care
If it’s not the right time for you to become a foster parent, there are other ways to support foster kids and families in your community. Organizations such as Treehouse need donations and volunteers to support youths experiencing foster care with their education goals. The organization also provides items, such as clothing and toys, to foster families for children placed with them. Visit Fostering Family for other ways to get involved — from volunteering to supporting foster youths or taking legislative action.
Foster care is a far from perfect system that impacts thousands of families in Washington. As a community, we all can play a role in supporting these families, whether that’s by becoming a foster parent, supporting a parent or family in your community, or volunteering with a local organization.
There are many great organizations supporting children who are experiencing foster care as well as their families. Learn more about their work and get involved: