One of the first decisions you have to make after deciding to become a foster parent is how to go about getting licensed.
For us, we thought the state's Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) was the only way to go. But if that was the case, I wasn't too keen. My mom worked for DCFS when I was a child and I remember very clearly the toll it took on her and our family. And what little I knew currently about DCFS did nothing to calm my worries and fears about it.
Whenever the hubs and I make a big decision like this, I go into Information Overload Mode. I try to learn as much as I can as fast as I can. So I started joining foster parent support groups on Facebook. I also reached out to a few friends I knew who were current foster parents and asked for their stories and insights. That's when I learned that we didn't have to go through DCFS to do foster care, that there were many different private agencies we could work with to get licensed and placed with children.
We were comforted by this fact because our region's DCFS program was overloaded, overwhelmed, understaffed, and under-resourced. Our DCFS doesn't provide a lot of support or advocacy and those were things we both felt was super important to us as we ventured into this as wide-eyed newbies. We wanted to have as much support and as many resources as possible. We needed someone to hold our hand and do the grunt work for us. And that's what we found in our private agency.
Now, that's not all you should take into consideration when you're deciding between a private agency and the state. DCFS is considered "traditional" foster care, in that they place children who are without significant medical needs. Private agencies are the ones that absorb the medically complex children as they are able to provide further training and resources for the families willing to care for those children.
That was another factor in us choosing a private agency. I was going to have the ability to stay home and provide as much care to our future placements as needed. Many of the children we've been told about aren't eligible for day care because of their needs, further justifying my ability to stay home and our desire to go with a private agency.
Every person we've come in contact with at our agency has been superb. They not only care about the children, they care about us. Things have not been handled perfectly, but the fact there is so much concern for our welfare helps to ease our frustration. That may make it sound like we are weak and insecure, but I think it points to the opposite. I think it points out the fact that we know we will need help and instead of forging on ahead only to later falter and fail, we are taking the step now to ensure as much of our future success as foster parents as possible.
While we are set on working with our agency, I have heard from many other foster parents that they prefer and love working directly with DCFS. Working with the state removes the middle man the agencies provide. You are working directly with the source and don't have double the rules and regulations to wade through.
But let it be known, that which ever way you decide to go, a large part of your experience with foster care depends on your case worker. They are the ones you're in contact with the most and can either become your biggest advocate or your worst enemy. There is bound to be exhaustion and burn out and high turnover wherever you look. It's the nature of the foster care game. There is stress, there is heartbreak, there is trauma. A person can only take so much of that before breaking. It is my hope and pray for us and for you that our case workers will be upstanding and helpful, and that we will all be given the opportunity to speak into their lives and make them just a little bit brighter and easier.
While this was not a comprehensive overview of DCFS vs. Private agencies, I do hope our personal experience is beneficial in your decision on how to do foster care. I can only speak from what I know and, at this point, it isn't much. But I felt like our experience was one that should be shared.
This has not been an easy road. We are a year out from our initial decision to pursue foster care. The road has been physically and emotionally painful. It's been bumpy with lots of roadblocks and speed bumps. It's already been ravaged by heartbreak and dashed hopes. But it's also been a journey of healing, hope, beauty and love. And that is what makes this journey worth it.