June 10, 2023

Foster Care: The Hidden Need in Your Community

Guest Opinion
By Emma Smith | May 13, 2023

Most of us shy away from the idea of foster parenting. It’s daunting just thinking about caring for a child who’s experienced neglect and abuse. We worry about the behaviors they’ll have and whether or not we’ll be able to meet their needs. We wonder whether they’ll get along with our own children or if they could disrupt family stability.

And then there’s perhaps the scariest question of all: What happens if we get too attached and the child ends up going back home to their parents?

Having worked in the field of child welfare for over a decade, I’ve been on the receiving end of all sorts of questions and curiosities from people wondering how it all works. Friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike have asked me things like, “Is there actually a need for foster parents in northern Michigan?” Or, “Are you really seeing the effects of the opioid epidemic here?” Many folks can’t believe that homeless families even exist in Traverse City, a tourist destination with seemingly obvious affluence.

These inquiries do not bother me. Rather, they excite me. I am the type of person who not only welcomes discussions about foster care (and the various societal factors to which it can be attributed) but who also relishes the opportunity to talk anyone and everyone’s ear off about it.

That said, these questions do make me realize that those of us in the field of social work, and specifically child welfare, need to do a better job of communicating with our community to help them understand that the need does indeed exist in our own backyard.

There are a variety of reasons why a parent may no longer be able to adequately care for their child, thus resulting in the need for foster care. These reasons could include unmet mental health needs, physical health problems, issues with substance use, a lack of resources, or some combination of the four.

It’s important to note that foster care is not meant to be a long-term solution. Studies show that, in general, when children are raised in the same home as their biological parents, they are significantly more likely to avoid poverty and prison, as well as to graduate from college (Institute for Family Studies, 2021). So, whenever possible, children returning back home to their parents is the preferred outcome of foster care. There are cases, of course, in which this is not possible. And in those instances, a child is often adopted by the foster family.

I’m not here to sugarcoat anything; being a foster parent is a huge undertaking. For the reasons that people think, yes, but also because there’s still a lot of stigma attached to the job. Not only do foster parents have to navigate a confusing, complex hellscape of a legal system while raising children who have significant trauma histories, but they do it for very, very little financial incentive. This is despite the caricatures you may have seen in the media depicting lazy, uncaring foster parents who are “just in it for the money.” It is unacceptable that foster parents have to deal with this stigma, along with all the other ludicrous judgments thrown their way from people in glass houses.

The fact is, foster parents are people—the vast majority are good people. And to circle back to my opening statement, they should (and do) get attached; in fact, that’s the whole point. Allowing yourself to get attached to a child means that you treated them as your own, and you’ve shown them what it means to be loved and cared for in the way they deserve. A foster parent may be the first safe attachment in a child’s life, which paves the way for them to form other healthy attachments later on.

When someone chooses to become licensed for foster care, they’ll receive training, support, and understanding at every step of the way. Potential foster parents are able to list their preferences right from the beginning, whether they want to foster teens or infants, one child or a sibling group. Maybe there’s a potential foster parent out there who has expertise in helping kids with things like LGBTQ+ support, grief and loss, culturally-specific needs, or developmental delays.

No matter what the skill set or background, you could have what it takes to be a great foster parent. I can guarantee that with over 10,000 children in foster care in Michigan alone, there is a child out there just waiting to be matched with a family who doesn’t even know that their particular brand of love, patience, and nurturing is exactly what that child has been waiting for.

Emma Smith is a Leelanau County native who now lives in Traverse City. She works on the development team at Child and Family Services and is also a clinical mental health therapist.


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