What Does It Mean to Foster a Child?

Man hugging child
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Webster's II New Riverside Dictionary defines "foster" as: 

"1. To bring up: nurture. 2. To cultivate and encourage. Giving or receiving parental care though not related through blood or legal ties."

A lot of nurturing, culturing and encouragement goes hand-in-hand with ​raising a foster child. There's also a lot of paperwork and meetings, but above all, being a foster parent means providing a child with new opportunities that he may not have had otherwise.

Fostering a Child Means:

  • Mentoring the birth family and helping with the family reunification process.
  • Taking a foster child trick-or-treating for the first time.
  • Showing a foster child his first fireworks on a 4th of July.
  • Helping a foster child graduate from high school and set a goal to attend college or a vocational school.
  • Baking a foster child's first birthday cake, even though he's turning eight.
  • Sharing some summer fun with a child who has never run through a sprinkler before.
  • Maintaining connections with a past foster child who is now parenting her own child and doesn't mind you being a grandparent figure.
  • Encouraging a foster child to rise above the issues of his past and move on with life.

How to Become a Foster Parent

  • The rules for fostering a child are set by state law so they can vary, but becoming a foster parent almost always begins with a visit to the appropriate legal division in your state. You'll have to complete an application, but many states make these available online. The application will provide general details about your family and your home, and it may ask why you want to foster a child. You might be given an opportunity to state whether you'd prefer an infant, a toddler or an older child—even a teenager.
  • Submitting an application is usually followed by an orientation class or a series of classes. You'll attend with others who want to become foster parents. It's a group thing, not a one-on-one lecture, and it's not just instruction. You can ask questions to get a feel for the kind of relationship you're about to embark on and to express any concerns you may have.
  • Foster parenting almost invariably involves a home study. A social worker will come to your residence to meet with you and other family members and to make sure that your home is safe and nurturing. Your religion, race, gender, and marital status are not judged and are not considerations, although your age is a factor to some extent—you must usually be over 21 years old. Home studies can involve as many as five or 10 visits.

    The Prospect of Letting Go

    You might also have to learn about letting go eventually. The underlying goal of foster care is always to reunite the child with his birth parent or parents. Some behavior or incident led to the child being removed from his home, and the state will work toward fixing that problem so the family can be reunified. Sometimes that's just not possible, however, and the child is placed for adoption. Foster parents are often given the first opportunity to adopt, but if you decide against it for some reason, the child will be relocated to a new home.