There were more than 400,000 young people in the U.S. foster care system in 2021Trends in Foster Care and Adoption: FY 2011 - FY 2020. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Trends in Foster Care and Adoption. . Many older adults—given their emotional maturity, broad life experience and parental wisdom—can be great resources to help these kids thrive.
Not everyone is cut out for the challenge of foster parenting, says John DeGarmo, founder and director of The Foster Care Institute and author of The Foster Care Survival Guide. But opportunities abound for seniors to get involved in foster care in some capacity.
“Every single community in this country has children in crisis, and foster care agencies would love for people to step up and help,” says DeGarmo. “The average agency is overwhelmed, understaffed and underpaid, and, as a result, foster parents are undersupported.”
Here are some of the ways older adults can provide much-needed support for foster children, teens and parents in their area.
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What Is Foster Care?
Also referred to as “out-of-home care,” foster care provides children and adults with a safe, stable home temporarily if their parents or guardians are unable to care for them. Most kids in foster care were previously neglected, and many suffered abuse.
Foster care might be provided in a home, residential treatment facility, shelter or some sort of supervised living arrangement. Relatives and, in some counties, close family friends provide what’s called “kinship care.”
Foster parents need to be trained and licensed, and if children are placed with them, they receive stipends from the state to help pay for their care. Kids in foster care, who often have significant health care needs due to trauma and/or neglect, are also eligible for Medicaid coverage. In some areas, foster parents might receive additional funding to pay for daycare as well.
What Is Adult Foster Care?
No national standard or precise definition exists for what adult foster care entails, but broadly, it refers to in-home, non-medical care of one or more elderly or disabled people by one or more caregivers. Adult foster caregivers provide seniors or disabled adults with assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs) but might not offer the nursing or physical care provided by staff in assisted living or skilled nursing facilities. Like foster care for kids, adult foster caregivers need to be licensed by the state and receive training. What adult foster care looks like in terms of care provided and training requirements vary by state and county.
Seniors as Foster Parents
Adults of all ages can be wonderful foster parents, and foster parenting can be one of the most meaningful and rewarding experiences. With that said, it’s typically also quite challenging, says DeGarmo. Foster parents need to have a lot of love to give kids, as well as patience and a commitment to children in great need of consistency and stability.
Older adults should think about whether they’d be comfortable interacting with other parents who might be decades younger than them or whether they can manage the online aspects of today’s schooling. Importantly, they should also consider how effective they can be in policing kids’ time spent online—where foster children are particularly vulnerable to online predators, says DeGarmo.
“Kids go online to find acceptance and love, and that’s where predators are,” he says. “That’s partly how so many foster kids fall prey to trafficking, so foster parents have to be very cognizant of that.”
A desire to help kids in need is a great start, but potential foster parents should consider other important questions as well, says David White, licensed master social worker and CEO and founder of Fostering Great Ideas, a foster care advocacy and support organization based in Greenville, South Carolina.
“You have to consider whether you’re a quitter or tend to stick to things,” says White. “You also need to know what your stress points are and what your support systems look like during times of difficulty.”
Many same-sex and gender-diverse couples foster children in the U.S., but in some areas of the country, such couples might find foster care agencies less than welcoming. There are resources online for LGBTQ seniors interested in fostering, such as the Human Rights Campaign’s State Scorecards, the Child Welfare Information Gateway of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) Equality Maps.
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Foster Care Requirements, Rules and Guidelines
Rules and guidelines governing foster caregiving vary by state and county, but typically, foster parents must:
- Be legal adults over 18 or, in some states, at least 21 years old
- Not have a record of criminal convictions for child, elder or sexual abuse
- Have enough bedrooms in their home to accommodate a foster child or children
- Submit to a police background check and drug test
- Pass a home inspection
- Complete a foster parent training program. The program is similar to parenting classes and typically covers trauma-informed parenting, guidance on how to welcome a foster child into your home and how to work with birth parents, explains DeGarmo.
Seniors as Respite Caregivers
Respite care is available for the elderly, disabled and foster parents as well. Respite caregivers give longer-term caregivers a break, whether for an afternoon, a weekend, a week or more. Medicare might cover the costs of senior respite care if it’s provided in a health facility. Sometimes the caregivers are paid and sometimes they are volunteers, depending on the program and area.
Disruptions in foster care placements put more stress on both the kids and the foster care system, so respite caregivers can be an enormous help in helping ensure placements are successful by taking in kids for short periods, says White.
Whether seniors are themselves foster parents in need of a break—or if they’re the ones providing short-term care—respite caregivers play an essential role in the continuation of care.
Seniors as Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) and Guardians Ad Litem (GALs)
Another option for seniors to get involved in foster care is to train to be Court-Appointed Special Advocates, or CASAs, says White. CASAs represent children in court and speak to the judge on behalf of children’s best interests. Their relationships with kids in foster care are much like long-term mentorships, explains White. They usually meet with kids at least once a month and investigate a child’s situation, interviewing birth parents and other relatives, teachers, doctors, their foster parents and social workers so they can make informed recommendations to judges deciding on issues like custody and visitation.
Serving as judges’ eyes and ears in each case, CASAs have an opportunity to make a positive impact on kids’ lives as a consistent and reliable means of support to the child, says White.
In Los Angeles, CASA volunteers must complete 35 hours of training before working with a child in the program. Their job is to provide trauma-informed and culturally responsive support for children to determine their best options for a long-term and safe home, whether it’s with their parents, a legal guardian or an adoptive home, says CASA Los Angeles CEO Charity Chandler-Cole.
“Seniors make amazing CASAs because they normally tend to have more time, resources and wisdom, and they provide a unique intergenerational lens that our youth can benefit from,” says Chandler-Cole.
Because CASAs aren’t burdened with case management or day-in, day-out foster caregiving, they provide a vital function, says White. “They can take a step back and see the entire situation, which enables them to make thoughtful recommendations. This is why CASAs receive much validation and appreciation in the judicial system,” he says.
Guardian ad litems (GALs) are very similar to CASAs; how they differ depends on state and county jurisdictions. Both are appointed by courts to advocate for children, but GALs might be paid and are often required to be attorneys, whereas CASAs are unpaid volunteers who are not necessarily lawyers. GALs focus more on providing kids with legal help than CASAs do. CASAs might spend more time with the child and getting to know everyone on their care teams, says DeGarmo.
Seniors as Tutors and Mentors
Kids in foster care typically fall behind in school for many reasons, according to DeGarmo, so tutoring can be a great way for seniors to get involved. Look for opportunities in your area online or on Facebook, or try calling your local foster care agency for suggestions.
Mentors also can have a great impact on a child or teen in foster care by becoming a reliable and loving part of their support system as they grow into adulthood. Mentors should be prepared to make a long-term commitment to a child or teen in foster care, says White.
In-Kind and Monetary Donations
Foster care agencies sometimes get overwhelmed with donations of teddy bears or used toys, so it’s best to call first before sending them, says DeGarmo. As far as opportunities to volunteer time go, there are myriad ways to donate your services to help support kids in the foster care system.
Many agencies and advocacy groups need high chairs, laptops, new hygiene products (including items designed for Black hair care), new shoes, beds and school supplies.
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Where to Find More Information About Foster Care Opportunities
Ask about programs supporting foster families at local churches or faith-based organizations, or call your state, county or city foster care agency and ask what they need, suggests DeGarmo. Reach out on Facebook to people in your network, or find the group pages of your local foster care support and advocacy organizations. Research nonprofits serving foster care families on GuideStar as well to find reputable ones.
Finding groups in your area in need of help should be easy, says DeGarmo.
“We’re seeing awareness growing as more people recognize that the foster care system is in crisis,” he says. “There are so many wonderful ways seniors can help.”