Foster parents like us willingly pay a heavy price. The GOP wants us to pay more.
When you tell someone that you’re a foster parent, the response often goes something like: “I could never do that; I would get too attached to the kids.” While superficially admiring, this line takes on an odd ring after a while, with its implication that we must be emotionless creatures. While the idea of an elite corps of radically detached substitute parents may hold a certain appeal, my wife and I came into the system out of a sense of attachment bordering on the maudlin. She had been a chaplain in a juvenile detention center and I used to run programs for at-risk youth in Chicago schools. Children who are afraid of their own homes leave an impression.
Foster parenting had been in the back of my own mind since my family first started telling stories about my grandfather. He went into his first foster home in 1932, when he was twelve years old. The “orphan trains” that brought an estimated 200,000 big-city children to the farms of the Midwest since 1854 had only stopped running three years earlier. In agrarian America, home-based foster care often functioned as a way to match orphaned or abandoned children with homes that needed additional labor. This approach, mercenary though it may seem in our more sentimental age, often counted as a meaningful improvement over orphanages and homelessness. (The population in foster homes did not exceed the population in orphanages until 1950.) My grandfather, whose biological mother had herself lived in an orphanage for five years, did not, however, appreciate the historical dialectic at work. He ran away from a series of foster homes where he had been housed in barns and worked like a hired hand. Then he landed with a pious Roman Catholic family in Kiel, Wisconsin. There, the only woman he ever called “Mother,” whom he met when he was fifteen, prioritized his graduation from high school over farm chores. What they had managed to do for him, I wanted to do for someone else.
A lot has changed since then. The county cold-called local families to see if they would take my grandfather; in the decades that followed, foster homes would increasingly be licensed and professionally supervised. State and federal support for the children in foster care replaced local charities. Abuse and maltreatment became more rigorously defined and aggressively pursued. Perhaps most importantly, children generally stopped providing needed labor for the household economy and began requiring financial and emotional investments unknown to the farm families of Depression-era Calumet County. (I sometimes wonder what my grandfather would think if he saw me diligently encouraging our foster daughter to waltz with a teddy bear at a Music Together class.)
When my wife and I took a nine-week training course as part of our preparation for becoming foster parents, we got a glimpse of our peers in the program. We were not a notably diverse group. Five married couples and two individuals, all of us churchgoers and late-model-car owners, all but one of us white, all but the youngest of us with biological children of our own. No one missed their turn to bring refreshments for the class. We epitomized the combination of genuine earnestness and social privilege that has driven child welfare in America from the start. The sessions took place in a small evangelical social agency’s suburban office, whose pastels and wood accents only added to the facade of gentility. But then the classes started, and we began learning things like how to respond to the behavior of children who had been raped by their parents. The operative lesson seemed to be that our earnest sentiment and social privilege were bound to be tested. “We don’t want you to have problems and call up your caseworker and say, ‘Come pick them up, it’s not working out,’ ” the trainer told us—an acknowledgment that such a temptation would arise, and that nothing short of adequate preparation and commitment would stop us from yielding to it.
Why people choose to become foster parents is something of a mystery. In the sparse literature on foster parents and their motivations, they report unfulfilled desires for biological children and the intention to adopt, a sense of obligation toward a family member entering the system, or the usefully vague “altruistic motivations.” One factor that turns up consistently is knowing a foster parent or being related to a foster child. Despite lingering popular impressions to the contrary, money does not seem to motivate many foster parents to participate. In most states, including Illinois, foster care reimbursement rates lag well behind the average cost of raising a child. This leaves child welfare advocates with a dilemma. Raising the board rates for foster children might attract and retain more foster parents, as well as ensure a better level of care. But it’s hard to argue for this when a substantial portion of the electorate considers foster parents to be in it for the money, and doubly hard to argue for it under conditions of severe austerity for safety net programs. (I have heard that some people do manage to turn fostering into a kind of cottage industry; I find it hard to imagine how.) “A strained economy and the perception among even a portion of the public that some foster parents are motivated by money may make enacting such legislation challenging,” a 2008 study of foster family finances suggested, “and it is likely that some people will continue to be skeptical of increasing payments for fear of incentivizing inappropriate arrangements.”
If the motives that bring foster parents into the system are hard to pin down, much less cultivate, the factors that drive them out are considerably more clear. Overburdened caseworkers and the lack of services for the children in their care are frequently mentioned. Foster parents don’t often cite low stipends as a source of frustration, but reading between the lines, it’s clear that miserly support amplifies the challenges inherent in providing care for someone else’s child. “Parents who want to make a contribution need better training and a better stipend,” Dr. Robert Goerge, an expert on foster care at the University of Chicago, told me. “So many foster parents have one kid and they’re out. They say, ‘I’d like to do it, but I need more support.’ ” A 2002 study by the federal Department of Health and Human Services put it more succinctly: “Every foster parent we spoke with said they had, at some time, considered leaving the foster care system.”
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