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Becoming a Foster Parent in Northern VA

May is national foster care month. There are not many things closer to my heart than foster care and adoption, so this post is dedicated to prospective foster parents, who may have interest in becoming a foster parent but have no idea how or where to start. I used to be a social worker in my past life, and this is my take on the ins and outs of becoming a foster parent here in Northern VA. 

Becoming a foster parent is not for most families. You have to have a big heart, an overabundance of patience, stable home, and thick skin. You have to be prepared to raise a child as your own and then give them back, sometimes suddenly with no warning. You have to be prepared to have your heart broken. Over. And. Over. Again. 

To become a foster parent you must go through foster parent training and be approved by your local social services agency or a licensed child placing agency. Not everyone who goes through the training process gets approved. They have social workers look into all aspects of your life, complete background checks and a home study. 

Once you are approved you can choose which type of foster care you will provide and also the types of foster children you are willing to take. Some different types of foster care include respite, foster to adopt or short term foster care.

Providing respite care means you are providing support to another foster family by watching their foster child for a few days up to a few weeks. Some foster parents need respite if they want to go out of town and cannot take their foster child with them, or if they need a break on some weekends. Respite is sometimes a good option for beginner foster parents who want to test the waters. 

Short term foster care (sometimes called emergency foster care) is sometimes needed when a child is placed in a foster home for a few nights up to a few weeks. These foster families keep the foster child for a very short period of time while the social workers look for biological relatives or a more permanent foster home. 

If you're a foster parent who would like to try foster care with the ultimate goal of adopting, you will most likely get foster children who will not be returning to their biological families. These kids will have a treatment goal of long term foster care or adoption.

On average, children stay in foster homes for up to a year and a half. The fastest I've seen a foster child return home has been 6 months, and the longest I've seen has been up to two years.

However, some children start out with the ultimate goal of returning to their birth families, and then end up being adopted by their foster family due to unforseen circumstances (like the biological parents not being able to get it together). 

When becoming a foster parent, it is important to think about what type of child you will accept into your home. This is kind of a big deal. You need to think about what kind of child will be a best fit for your family. For example, it may not be wise to accept a 17 year old male foster child when you have a 16 year old daughter at home. It also may not be the best idea to accept a 7 year old foster child who has violent tendencies when you have a toddler at home. Keep in mind that you don't always know what kind of trauma the foster child has been exposed to and how that would affect their behavior in your home. Social workers will inform you of everything they know, but that could be very limited. They will usually have team meetings to discuss which foster families they would ask to take in a child coming into foster care. It is not the end of the world if you say no to a placement that you're not comfortable with. The health and safety of your own family needs to always come first. 

Over the years I've gotten lots of questions from people interested in helping foster children. Here are some of the most common FAQs:

What kind of children come into foster care?

Children who have been abused and/or neglected and removed from their homes. They are all so very different. They all have their own strengths, weaknesses, quirks, issues and needs. The majority are teens and sibling groups. Rarely are there newborns or infants. Some of the children are violent, but most are harmless. I've know some who have had to be constantly moved because they get physically violent, and other's who wouldn't hurt a fly. Some have a whole host of medical issues and are constantly in and out of the hospital, while other's may be extremely pleasant and loving but may wet the bed and hoard food in their room. 

One time I was talking to this little girl who had just been placed in a foster home. I asked her what her favorite thing about being in her foster home was. Her eyes lit up and she exclaimed "I have a bed to sleep in!" I asked her to elaborate, and she told me that she was used to sleeping in the "tube." 

"What's a tube?" I asked her.

"You know, those tubes you play inside at the playground." 

My heart then proceeded to shatter into a million pieces.......... 

Anyways, most kids who enter the system are just normal sweet kids who have been dealt a bad hand in life and have been through unfair circumstances. Most of them are frightened. If you have kids, imagine how they would feel going to a strangers home, sometimes in the middle of the night, having to sleep eat and live with people they have never seen before. It's hard for them. Expect some issues to arise. 

How much do foster parents in Virginia get paid?

First off, being a foster parent isn't a job that gives you a steady income. Also, it's not really income; it's reimbursement for food, clothing, enrichment activities, etc. The amount of reimbursement you recieve is not taxable income. Your monthly checks will arrive at the beginning of each new month for the previous month. This is not something you would want to do for the money. And if you are in it just for the money, then shame on you. Most foster families spend all the reimbursement on the foster child and then some more. Social workers determine how you should get reimbursed based on the level of the child's needs. When a child just comes into the foster care system, their foster family will most likely get a flat rate of $1600 per child for the first month they are in care. Some foster parents get excited because that can add up. I had one foster mother recieve nearly $5,000 the first month of caring for three new foster children. However, after that first month the pay significantly dropped after having a VEMAT meeting where the child's needs are discussed and points from a checklist are added up to determine the monthly reimbursement rate. The agency also covers all medical expenses for the child. 

During that first month it is the job of the foster parent to document each and every little thing that your foster child has going on. Do they wake up in the middle of the night, and how often? Document it. How often do they have tantrums? Document all of them. Do they try to run away? Do they not eat well? Are they violent? Are they excitable? Angry? Happy? Depressed? Do they wet the bed? How do they eat? Are they doing well in school? DOCUMENT EVERY LITTLE DETAIL. All of this will be taken into account during a meeting you and some social workers will have that determine the rate of reimbursement. The social workers have a checklist they go through (called the VEMAT) that determines reimbursement rate based on the foster child's needs. 

This is the VEMAT that they will go over with you in order to determine what you will get paid:

http://ftpcontent.worldnow.com/wvir/documents/VEMAT.pdf

Another thing regarding reimbursement, you can't negotiate to get more money. You can't justify getting paid more if the foster child keeps the lights on all day and adds to the electricity bill, or breaks your expensive household items or furniture. If you come across like you're in it for the money then the social workers will question your motives and will probably stop placing children in your home. 

What is the difference in becoming a foster parent through my local department of social services vs a licensed foster care placement agency?

When a child comes into foster care, their local department of social services assumes legal guardianship over them. For instance, if a child is removed from his or her home in Alexandria, then the Alexandria Department of Social Services (social worker) is considered their legal guardian. The department's social workers will look through their own pool of foster parents first to see which of their foster families would be a good fit for the child coming into care. If they cannot find an ideal family from their own foster families, they will send an email to a number of foster care placement agencies detailing what type of family they are looking for based on the child's specific needs. These agencies will then have a team meeting to discuss which of their foster families would be a good fit for the child. Then the Social Services social workers will pick a family they think would be a good fit for the child from the suggestions of the placement agencies.  

Every child entering foster care is assigned a social worker from the Department of Social Services. If you become a foster parent through social services, then your main point of contact will be the department's social worker of the foster child. They will come visit you and the foster child in your home at least once a month. They will also sometimes conduct unnanounced home visits.

If you become a foster parent through a therapeutic foster care placement agency, that agency will assign one of their own social workers to work with you and the foster child. That social worker then reports to the child's social worker from the state (social services) who has legal guardianship over the child. The social worker from your foster care placement agency will typically provide more support and may conduct more home and or community visits. 

Can I work and still become a foster parent? I have a full time job.

Most foster parents I've came across all have jobs. Some have full time jobs, some part time, and some are stay at home moms. You can absolutely hold a job and be a foster parent, but sometimes it can get difficult. It helps if your job is flexible as you will probably have to attend a bunch of meetings. There are treatment team meetings, court appointments, visitation with birth families, assessments, therapy appointments, medical appointments etc. The social workers working with you and your foster child will help you manage all of it. There have been many times where I have provided a chauffeur service just to help out the foster parents. Also, if the foster child is not school aged, daycare is almost always paid for by social services.  

Is there any other way I can help foster children without becoming a foster parent?

Yes! You can become a CASA (court appointed special advocate) volunteer. CASA volunteers are great advocates of foster children. They visit the foster child regularly, gather information on the case, interview everyone important in the child's life, prepare written reports for court hearings, and they participate in court hearings and team meetings.

You can also contact your local social services department (find the list below) or any child placement agency (also find below) and ask how you can help children in foster care. Some agencies have different programs that you can volunteer for or have funds you can donate to that directly help foster children. Most all agencies have some kind of Holiday toy drive, and most all would be more than happy to accept donated items that may be beneficial to foster children. Some items in high demand include backpacks, clothes, shoes, bikes, toys, school supplies, etc. Hygiene items are great for donating to teens such as toothbrushes, deodorant, hair brushes etc. Agencies can also really use suitcases. Mini suitcases and also big ones, because there is nothing more heartbreaking than having a foster child moving from foster home to foster home with all his or her belongings in a trash bag. It is bad enough that some kids have to constantly move homes, but doing so with their stuff in a trash bag just makes my heart sink. 

I hope that by reading all this you have a greater understanding of how the foster care process works. There is such a need for foster parents, and while the job certainly comes with drawbacks, I feel like nothing in the world can be more rewarding. If you want to know that your life really amounts to something- then help a child. 

Here is a list of Northern Virginia's social services agencies: 

Alexandria Social Services: https://www.alexandriava.gov/Adoption

Arlington Social Services: http://family.arlingtonva.us/foster-care/ 

Fairfax Social Services: http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dfs/childrenyouth/fca.htm

Loudoun Social Services: https://www.loudoun.gov/index.aspx?nid=1004

Manassas City Social Services: http://www.manassascity.org/195/Foster-Care

Prince William Social Services: http://www.pwcgov.org/government/dept/socialservices/Pages/Foster-Care.aspx

Here is a list of all Northern Virginia therapeutic foster care placement agencies:

Adolescent & Family Growth Center (Springfield, VA): http://www.afgcinc.com/index.php/be-a-foster-parent

ADORE Children and Family Services (Arlington, VA): http://www.adore-children.com/

First Home Care (Alexandria branch): http://www.firsthomecare.com/

For Children's Sake of Virginia (Chantilly): http://www.fcsva.org/

EMBRACE (Annandale brach): http://embracetfc.com/locations/annandale

Northern Virginia Family Services (Oakton): http://www.nvfs.org/