When it comes to foster care, there is a child behind every statistic yearning for a loving home. The national foster care system served 690,548 kids in 2017, the most recent year reflected in the latest US Department of Health and Human Services report. That's a figure greater than the population of Washington, D.C., and it's been growing steadily.
The nation's opioid crisis is a major reason for the steep rise, according to a study published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics. From 2000 to 2017, there was a 147% increase in the number of children entering foster care due to parental drug abuse.
Here are some ways you can make a difference for foster children, the families taking them into their homes and the organizations that support them.
Become a foster parent
A foster parent is a full-time responsibility requiring you to open your home and yourself to a child in need. It's challenging, hard work. But it's also one of the most rewarding and impactful volunteer experiences you can have.
Foster parents need to be either licensed or approved, according to each state's specific requirements, which can be reviewed here. Foster care agencies can help you evaluate whether this is something you might be able to do, and this directory can find an agency near you. To help you get started, the National Foster Parent Association provides this helpful guide outlining the process.
Provide part-time help
If you qualify to be a foster parent but can't make the full-time commitment, consider signing up to be a respite care provider.
Respite care covers foster parents who must take a break for a few hours or a few days. In many states, foster children cannot be watched by a neighbor, babysitter or another family member who is not licensed or approved, and respite care is the only option. Respite care is a great way to test the waters before taking the next step as a foster parent. The Child Welfare Information Gateway offers articles that help explain respite foster programs.
Be a foster child's advocate
A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) is an authorized volunteer who gets to know the foster child, the foster parents, birth parents, and anyone else in the child's life. After learning about the child's situation, they become the voice for the child's best interests and speak to the judge on the child's behalf. You can find out more about the CASA program here, and this interactive map can locate a CASA program in your area.
Support your local foster care non-profits
State-run and charitable foster care organizations are always looking for help. Volunteers can sort donated supplies, chaperone events, provide transportation and assist in the office.
Foster care programs in your area will likely accept donations of new and slightly worn clothing and school supplies. Many children enter foster care with very few belongings, and they are not prepared for their new home, school and life. Suitcases and backpacks are also useful. (Some foster children must carry their few possessions in trash bags.)