May is National Foster Care Month, a time when child welfare advocates strive to shine a light on the part that we each can play in enhancing the lives of children and youth in foster care.
With the widespread ramifications of the pandemic, there is no better time than now to shine that light.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has saturated the news, in the background, there is an urgent need for individuals to care for the anticipated surge of children who will enter an already overburdened foster system.
Prior to this pandemic, Florida had over 23,000 children in foster care, with only 6,355 licensed foster homes. On top of this, 30% to 50% of foster parents do not continue to foster after the first year.
As a result of COVID-19, many states — including Florida — will likely need more licensed foster homes. When local foster homes are unavailable, foster children are often placed in group homes or moved out of their hometowns to find placements. While this issue may not be noticeable to the public, it is a reality for so many children, and it is affecting children in your hometown.
Is there something that you could do to help?
Choosing to foster a child is a deeply personal decision, and there are a number of factors to consider. Many people are motivated by the desire to help children, to increase their family size, to express their spiritual values or to fill the home after adult children move out.
Foster families look like all families — and they can look like your family too. Foster families can be two-parent households or single-parent households. Foster parents can be older, younger, heterosexual, gay or lesbian, and they come from all racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. And they all have one thing in common — they are willing to hold out their hand to love and support a child in need.
There are, of course, a number of challenges about being a foster parent. Anyone who tells you it is easy is lying. Many people have concerns about being emotionally prepared to support the needs of a foster child, about the possible impacts to their biological children, about their age, or about personal health or housing issues.
While each of these concerns are valid, many people don’t know that they can be addressed as part of the screening and training process. The process of becoming a foster parent is straightforward. And, as one of us knows from personal experience, fostering is deeply rewarding.
As researchers at the University of Florida, we have studied foster parent recruitment, with the goal of identifying methods for involving more families in fostering. We suspected that educating families on the need for foster parents and the process of becoming a foster parent would increase public interest in fostering.
With funding from the University Scholars Program and the Preston Haskell Undergraduate Research Award at the Bob Graham Center, we surveyed 472 Floridian adults and found that the general public’s interest in fostering was significantly related to three areas: religiousness, knowledge on foster care issues and the number of sources respondents heard about foster care from.
We also found that exposure to foster care issues increased community interest in fostering — exposure such as this column — which is why during National Foster Care month, we are helping publicize the need for foster families in Florida.
To learn more about fostering, contact Florida’s foster agencies Partnership for Strong Families or One More Child. All potential foster parents complete 30 hours of training which, during these times, is offered online. If you cannot foster right now, consider supporting a foster family by donating time, money, or meals through Foster Florida, a nonprofit that provides wrap around support services to foster families, so that those families can continue to foster.
You could also consider supporting a foster child by becoming a court-appointed child advocate through the Guardian ad Litem Program. In this role, you would provide a consistent supportive relationship to a foster child through one-on-one visits and by advocating in their best interest before a judge. The Guardian ad Litem Program is also offering online training right now.
Florida needs foster families, and Florida needs them now. Florida needs you.
Nicole Davi is a UF alumna, Dr. Martie Gillen is associate professor of trauma-informed care at UF and Dr. Jennifer A. Jones is an assistant professor of nonprofit management and leadership at UF.