May is Foster Parent Appreciation Month.
It’s up to all of us to create bright futures for youth in care.
All children need the love and support of a family to grow into healthy, productive adults. When children are abused or neglected and cannot stay safely in their homes, The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) turns to foster parents to become part of a team to help them heal, remain in their communities and receive other supports so they can return home. May is Foster Parent Appreciation Month in Illinois, a time to thank the foster families and relative caregivers who have opened their hearts and homes to our most vulnerable children at a critical time, and to highlight ways all Illinoisans can get involved to ensure every youth in our state grows up protected, nurtured and loved.
Today, there are just over 21,000 youth living in foster care in the state: 8,200 are living with foster families, 11,300 with relatives and 1,200 in group homes and institutions. Illinois, like many states, is suffering from a shortage of foster families, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. To thank and help families during the pandemic, DCFS increased the amount of financial support it offers to foster parents, and that support continues today.
Foster homes are needed for sibling groups, adolescents, African American and Latino youth, children with special medical needs, teenage mothers and their babies and LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex) youth. To see pictures and learn about some of them, visit the Heart Gallery of Illinois at https://greenlightfamilyservices.org/heartgalleryofil/.
Youth in care do best when they are able to remain in their own community, see their friends, attend the same school and maintain connections with family members when appropriate. The more foster parents we have, the more likely it is that brothers and sisters will be kept together in care or that children with special medical needs can continue treatment with medical professionals close to home who know their health histories.
Being a foster parent is a serious commitment to a child who needs stability and love, but foster families do not travel the road alone. DCFS and our network of partners offer a range of supports to foster families, including a monthly stipend to cover the child’s food, shelter, clothing and personal allowance. Each youth in care receives a medical card that pays for most necessary medical care and prescriptions. Other support services may include counseling, physical therapy and medical equipment; and additional payments for daycare services, after-school care and extracurricular activities. Foster families also become part of a team, working with DCFS and private agencies, birth families, counselors, physicians and the courts to reunite children with their families whenever possible.
Everyone benefits when our communities are full of strong families and thriving children. If now is not the right time for you to commit to becoming a foster parent, there are many little things you can do to support families and make a huge difference in the life of a child. Donate school supplies, gloves and hats to your local foster care agency; become a mentor or a Big Brother or Big Sister; tutor a struggling student or coach your neighborhood soccer team. Everyone has something to offer.
To learn more about becoming a licensed foster parent, fill out the online interest form on the DCFS website: https://www2.illinois.gov/dcfs. Click on Loving Homes, then click on Become a Foster or Adoptive Parent.
To schedule a virtual or in-person presentation for your organization to learn about waiting children, the licensing process and supports for foster families, contact the DCFS Communications Office at 312-814-6847.
Youth in care are OUR children, not someone else’s responsibility. Their futures depend on the willingness of our entire state to care for and about them. You have the power to change their lives for the better – and it can also be the most rewarding experience of your life.
Marc D. Smith is acting director of Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.