Many foster children find themselves becoming advocates, mentors, foster parents, and/or social workers once they age out. This is a difficult transition for many, and something many of us have just stumbled into. A lot of foster children flounder around, wanting to make a difference, but not knowing where to start. Over time, they find their way to others who help them find their spot in the family. To make things a little easier for future alumni advocates, foster parents, and social workers, here are a few tips:

Transitioning to an Advocate for Current & Former Foster Youth

Becoming an advocate is the easiest role to transition into. In most cases, it does not require any special training or skills. It is something that can be done from a local library or school, or even the comfort of your own home. As alumni, you have unique perspectives that can really benefit the cause, and a passion that can inspire others to join in.

There are many different levels of advocacy:

  1. Raising Awareness - This is the role most former foster youth find themselves in. They share their stories, talk about foster care and its impact, and generally try to educate and inform friends, family, and the general public that this is an issue that people should care about. They often end up moving up the scale, but some choose to remain in this stage.

  2. Advocating For One (Or More) Foster Children - Many former foster youth find themselves becoming close to one (or more) current or former foster children (usually relatives or foster children in their church, neighborhood, etc). They usually end up advocating for things in their best interest, such as removal from a bad foster home, better education, better medical care, etc. This can often lead to becoming a foster parent to help an individual child.

  3. Advocating For Foster Children In Their Area - Many former foster youth find themselves called to give back or to make things better for future generations in their area, usually the same area they grew up in. These advocates usually later become social workers, CASA workers, or other professionals in the child welfare field.

  4. Advocating For ALL Foster Children - Some former foster youth feel called to change the entire system. These are the people that become guest speakers, bloggers/authors, radio personalities, and even politicians or lobbyists to accomplish their goals.

Transitioning to a Mentor

Becoming a mentor seems like an easy transition, but it is harder than you might think. In addition to needing to locate an agency or receive permission and training from your local child welfare office, there are several things you need to think about and ensure you are capable of before you decide to take on such an undertaking.

  1. Mentors need to be a safe place. Unless you are concerned about the child’s safety, you cannot breach their confidence to share with another adult in their life. Most agencies (if you are with an agency) have a policy of what must be shared, and ALL people with confidentiality clauses have cause to break confidentiality in cases where there is concern for the client’s safety or anyone else’s.

  2. Mentors have to be reliable. It’s hard to build trust when you are constantly flaking out on the foster child you are mentoring. Be careful to only cancel when there are circumstances beyond your control, such as illness, death, or very severe weather.

  3. Mentors need to be relatable and comfortable. Be prepared for it to take some time to get them to open up.

  4. You may need to share some things about yourself as well. You cannot expect openness if you aren’t willing to be a little vulnerable too.

  5. Find out what skills your foster child needs to work on, and what resources they may need shared. Part of your job is to make sure they have all the tools for success – even if you aren’t the person to provide them all.

Another thing to think about as you decide on whether or not to mentor – will you choose to remain in the child’s life as they age out? Many foster children age out with literally no one to support them and encourage them as they discover just how hard being an adult really is. Decide beforehand if you are willing and able to be a permanent fixture in young adult’s lives… And decide how much of a part of their life you can be.

Are you willing to:

  1. Be a sounding board for decisions?

  2. Be a place to find information and resources when they just don’t know where to go or what to do?

  3. Be a financial resource yourself?

  4. Be a place they can stay if they need that, or a ride to resources?

  5. Be a medical, financial, or legal reference or contact?

  6. Be someone regular in their life – someone that can be their Sunday dinner or Saturday brunch or Monday coffee person?

  7. Just be there when they need someone to talk to or a pick me up?

Make sure that they are aware whether you are available, and just exactly what they can count on you for. Chances are they will second-guess themselves and choose not to call when they really need you, because they are worried it’s just too much to ask of you, and will instead save up their “favor quota” for something dire that they are too desperate to care about keeping quiet about.

Transitioning to a Foster Parent

Becoming a foster parent requires a higher level of commitment, and will require you to be careful of your actions from the time you leave foster care until you become a foster parent. You will have to ensure that, at a very minimum, you do NOT:

  1. Destroy Your Finances - You will need to be living at least comfortably if you want to be approved as a foster parent.

  2. Burn Bridges Between Yourself And Positive People In Your Life - You will need people willing to write you letters of recommendation. Letters from teachers/professors, pastors, foster parents, and other pillars of the community, who are positive parts of your life, will carry more weight than just friends living a normal, but less than stellar life.

  3. Fill Your Life With Negative People - Yes, the saying is true... You are judged by the company you keep. While everyone has a friend or relative or two with a less than positive lifestyle, you should do your best to avoid filling your list of friends and family with toxic people, people with severe mental health issues, drug abusers, alcoholics, thieves, etc. Aside from the fact that none of these people should be around your foster children, they could even keep you from getting approved.

  4. Refuse To Learn Basic Living Skills - You will need to know how to do many things in order to not only be APPROVED as a foster parent, but to STAY a foster parent. You will need to know how to keep your finances in order, keep your house clean, organize your time, discipline children, cook healthy meals, wash laundry, drive (or at least use your local bus system effectively and safely with a child in tow), stay healthy physically and emotionally (and help your foster children to do the same) and SO much more.

  5. Put Yourself In A Position To Be Accused Of Child Neglect Or Abuse - In most cases, even an ACCUSATION of abuse or neglect is enough to keep you from becoming a foster parent. If you have children, do your best to ensure that they are taken well care of, and that you do not upset anyone enough that they might place false accusations against you. If you do not have children, make sure that any interactions you have with children do not end with an accusation of child abuse or neglect.

Now that you know what NOT to do, let's talk about how you become a foster parent (when you're ready). In most cases, you'll have to be 21 or older, although in some cases you may only need to be 18 (usually when involving kinship placements only). Requirements will vary by your locality, so your best bet is to visit your local child welfare office and ask for information on becoming a foster parent. You can also usually visit their website to get information on the process and sometimes even apply online. Many areas also have private organizations that recruit foster parents, although generally they still go through the state's child welfare office. This may be preferable to dealing with the state directly, though, as many times you'll find these workers more personable and more likely to share information with you than state social workers.

Sharing Your Foster Care Experiences With a Foster Child

While sharing your history with a foster child can help you to bond, many of your stories may be not only inappropriate to share, but can be triggering for the child or even cause you to get in trouble with the agency. If you would like to share your history with a child, it may be a good idea to speak with the agency and find out what their guidelines are as to what they’d like you to keep private, and abide by them. In addition, if you get a child with a history of physical or sexual abuse, it’s a good idea to speak with their counselor (if they have one) or their worker, to ensure that you don’t accidentally trigger them with your experiences.

Of course it’s always appropriate to use your experience to drive the way you parent, such as avoiding poor parenting you were subject to, or using ideas from foster parents that had a positive impact on you. If you are still in contact with a positive former foster parent, it may even be a great idea (with worker approval and the foster parent’s desire to participate) to expose the child to them on a regular or semi-regular basis, the way you might with a grandparent or other extended family.

Transitioning to a Social Worker Or Other Child Welfare Professional

So, you thought becoming a foster parent required a lot of commitment and training? Most child welfare professionals have to take college courses (and in many cases must possess a masters or doctorate) in order to work in their chosen position. The child welfare professional position requiring the least amount of training or education is a CASA worker, but even they must take a great deal of training, and are required to be available for court hearings, send letters to those involved with the child (counselors, social workers, etc)... So any additional education or training is always a plus. If you are looking to become a social worker, counselor, or other child welfare professional, you should contact your local college and discuss what options they have available. You should also contact your local child welfare office and ask what their requirements are for the position you desire. That will help you make decisions about which training and education to pursue. You may even decide you'd prefer a different position entirely.