What is foster care?

What is Foster Care? How Does it Work?

What is foster care? What is a foster parent? How does it work? If you have no clue what all this foster talk is about, I encourage you to keep reading. Here is my version of “What is foster care?” From my own personal experiences and insights.

What is Foster Care?
Foster care is a temporary care situation due to local courts removing a child from their home. As a result, a foster parent is needed. A foster parent is a person like you or me, that opens up their home and family to bring foster children into a safe place to be cared for.

Are you interested in being a safe place for a child? It begins with finding a “place” to help you get licensed to be a foster parent. In the United States, you have to be licensed to care and get assistance to help be a raiser of other people’s kiddos. I will be speaking from the perspective of an Illinois resident.

FREE Foster Parent Home Prep Checklist!

Curious about what you should buy before your first FOSTER CHILD placement? Download our FREE Foster Parent Home Prep Checklist. It can help you shop for, the top 10 items to have on hand for your foster child and the top 10 items you need for your home visit.

Agency or DCFS

There are options. Most people think you call DCFS (department of children and family services) and start speaking with them about becoming licensed. However, you can also and would encourage you to do so, call an agency. You can do some searching online for agencies near you. I live in a northern suburb of Chicago, and there is a handful near me. I would encourage you to call more than one.

Things you should know about these two. DCFS is the central intake of hotline calls when a child is in danger or potentially in danger. They are the ones that send out the investigator to interview the family in question. They may even interview family members. If abuse is proven and a child goes into DCFS custody, there is a rotation of agencies. The way I have had it explained to me is that each agency is on rotation for the month. The agency up that month gets the calls first, to try and find a placement for a child. DCFS is on that same rotation.

It seems like there should be a better system for finding placements, but there is no database or anything like that. If you are with an agency, keep in contact with your licensing worker. They can usually tell you when the rotation is or at least to keep your name in their mind.

There are many examples of how children arrive into DCFS custody. Not only are indicators physical, on school-age children, or someone sees someone hurting their child in public. A baby born to a mom that appears high or the baby appears to have signs of drug exposure. Newborns have many different indicators depending on the type of drug or alcohol or amount of exposure.

There are non-profit foster agencies and for-profit agencies. There are pros and cons to both. The first agency we were with was non-profit, and the one we are currently with is for profit. The stipend (amount of money the state gives you to care for your foster child) was the same between both agencies. We didn’t leave our first one; they stopped fostering in our area.

Foster Care Training

Once you decide on agency or DCFS now, you have to get trained. There is specific foster care training, and in Illinois, it is called PRIDE (Parent Resources for Information, Development, and Education). We did the in-class instruction, which I would highly recommend. They now offer it online. However, I HIGHLY suggest any training you do in person. You can meet so many knowledgeable people and ask questions. You can get a feel for what others may be going through and possibly become friends with other families starting to foster. Our trainers were fantastic. One had fostered 20 something kiddos. Her experience and advice were from a background of living what we were about to start, as foster parents.

Our PRIDE training was 27 hours in total. It was like a date day for us since we opted for every other Saturday, 6-hour sessions. It worked out that our bio kids were with our ex-spouses on those days, so it was our “day off.” I don’t even know what that means anymore. Feels like a lifetime ago! Day off!? I want one of those! Do the in class, soak it up, and ask lots of questions.

We completed our PRIDE training in June of 2015 and received our license in the mail in October 2015. Our first placement was on January 7, 2016. It is a day I will never forget, but I am getting ahead of myself.

You are licensed for foster care, now what?

The question that everyone asks, including me when I was waiting, was, “How long is the wait until your first foster placement?” It’s very dependent on where you live, the time of the year, and that rotation schedule I referred to earlier. There is no answer. I am sure you realize, too like I did, that even though I was eager to help kids in need, a family had to be suffering some trauma for me to help. It is hard not to feel sad about that part. However, you are and will be a blessing in those families’ lives even if they never see it. Start to prepare.

Think about adoption.

If you join any support groups on Facebook, please be cautioned. Saying or bringing up adoption concerning foster care is looked down upon. In reality, it happens — a lot in our area. You need to think about adoption in advance. If things don’t work out with the parents, they will ask if you want to adopt. Our caseworkers asked right away with all of our kids, but with our first, it was hard to think long term. Reunification is what we thought would happen.

The goal of foster care is reunification. To help out temporarily while parents get help in whatever way that is to make the lives of their kids safe. A parent will have steps to follow and goals to reach. All of which you are not privy to, so you don’t know how that progress is going. Go to every court date you can, and there is where you will get the vast majority of your information on the case. Your child’s caseworker is the caseworker for the parents as well and cannot give you their progress. You are there for the child. Not the parent. In some cases, you can get to know the parents. Rare, and sometimes hard, but a good thing if it can work out.

I am just asking to think about it. Hard. Because it is important for the child’s stability. I do realize sometimes you don’t know. We didn’t know initially. Sometimes the path is presented as a temporary case, and it turns out to be an adoption case. If you realize that you are fostering only temporary and have no intention of adoption, just be clear with your licensing worker so they can try their best. Open communication is the very best thing.

You have your first foster child!

Congratulations. You are a foster parent. You are in the world of establishing a routine, figuring out foods, caring for hair, dry skin, and maybe even potty training or breaking some bad electronic habits. There are just too many things to list. Therefore, my biggest tip is to keep moving forward, keep working on a routine. All of our kids seemed to kick into the family routine about week 4-6.

Give yourself and the kids lots of grace, especially in those first few months. It’s probably new and strange to all of you. I do want to mention some of the benefits that are provided to licensed foster parents. Again, I am in Illinois, but I hear similar benefits from other states just varying amounts or types. Make sure, that you have placement papers. In Illinois, it is a 906 “Placement / Payment Authorization Form.” This form is what you will need to prove to anyone that this child is in your care. Keep a copy on you at all times.


  • This is the amount of money that the state pays for you to care for the child. Currently, for our 19-month old foster daughter, we receive $447 a month (she is not specialized). $46 is allocated for clothing, and $15 allocated as allowance and the balance is for us to use towards housing and utility costs. In the grand scheme of child-rearing is not a lot, but it helps! Honestly, when we were in PRIDE training, they talked about the stipend being so small that we thought maybe it was $50 a month. Consequently, we didn’t expect anything, and it isn’t why you become a foster parent. If it is, you shouldn’t be one.


  • Your foster child will be given state insurance at no cost. In Illinois, our kids receive Medicaid. Medical, dental, and vision. It is sometimes a challenge to find providers. We were lucky and found a good one and as a result, we have been able to use for all our foster kids so far. Just be careful when traveling. Since each state has its policies about using out of state hospitals or doctors.

First-time kids in care:

  • If your child is in state care for the very first time, your agency or DCFS will provide vouchers or reimbursement, or some will go and purchase items for them and bring to you. Check with them. Our foster daughter was the only child we have fostered out of the six that was new to DCFS. We received approximately $400 reimbursement from the agency, likewise, the state reimbursed us for another roughly $200. For items like a crib, car seat, diapers, swing, bottles, and other needs. Not formula, because you will receive WIC.

WIC (Federal Program):

  • Taken from the WIC site. The WIC Program aims to safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, and children up to age five who are at nutrition risk by providing nutritious foods to supplement diets, information on healthy eating, and referrals to health care. Foster children automatically qualify, but you have to call and set up an appointment. Therefore, do this as soon as you receive a placement that is under five years old. WIC was especially helpful to us with our current foster daughter. Because she required a special formula, and WIC provided it. Eventually, she ate more than we received through WIC. Still a considerable help financially with costly formula. You do need a pediatrician note for unique formula or foods.

Daycare and After School Care:

  • If you are single and work full-time. Likewise, if you are married and both work full-time, you will receive your daycare/after school care paid in full. You must use a DCFS licensed daycare to receive this benefit and fill out all the appropriate forms. Provide two check stubs each and renew every six months. The state will pay the daycare direct. In the state of Illinois, this goes through grade school and includes school days off and summer programs.

Other things to note:

  • Some agencies will help or find help with sports programs. Ours would pay our foster daughters gymnastics every other month, and we would pay the other. However, we paid for all the extra activities and sports. We also applied and was provided with a significantly reduced YMCA family membership for our whole family of nine (three foster children, four bios) at the time. It never hurts to ask.

You are their stand-in parent:

You are now the one that is there for them. Therefore, advocate for them. There will be visits with bio family, case review meetings, monthly home visits from your caseworker. If your area has CASA workers, they would want to visit every month. GAL’s sometimes visit as well as possible early intervention programs or school meetings. Take them to appointments, enroll them in, and watch their sporting events. Hold their hand (or whole-body) when they have to get a shot (or 6, yes, this happened). Attend parent-teacher conferences and reading days at daycare.

You will be their biggest fan at this moment for however long this moment lasts. Pray for them, every day, and show them big people can be kind and loving. Show them that they matter and are seen. For however long you may have them. Trust me, it matters.

Another post that may be helpful: Why in the world did we become foster parents?

FREE Foster Parent Home Prep Checklist!

Curious about what you should buy before your first FOSTER CHILD placement? Download our FREE Foster Parent Home Prep Checklist. It can help you shop for, the top 10 items to have on hand for your foster child and the top 10 items you need for your home visit.