Michele Foy, a pediatric nurse at the University of California, San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital, dreamed of becoming a foster parent since she was a child, but didn’t think it was feasible. She’s not a stay-at-home mom nor lives in a big suburban house. She and her husband, Sean, both work. They live in a small Russian Hill apartment. Still, they qualified to be foster, also known as “resource,” parents.
Foy’s misconception is common, according to Joan Miller, deputy director of the San Francisco Human Services Agency’s Family and Children’s Services. Resource parents don’t need a big house, though there has to be space for a child; can be renters; and aren’t required to have a full-time job. There’s no minimum salary; the household has to make enough to cover its bills. Marital status, sexual orientation, and gender identity aren’t factors in the approval process. A criminal history precludes fostering.
The application procedure includes a home inspection, psychosocial assessment, and 12 hours of preservice training, with another eight to 12 hours of education a year. The foster parent or parents must maintain first aid/cardiopulmonary resuscitation certification, which otherwise expires every two years.
“The trainings are great,” Foy said. “I’ve had a lot of experience with children, but my husband had not. He picked it up quickly. Someone does not need to be a pediatric nurse to be a resource parent.”
Children may need fostering if their primary caregiver is credibly accused of abuse or neglect and they can’t remain safely in their care. After an investigation by a Family and Children’s social worker, if there’s enough probability a child faces risk or harm, they’re placed with a resource parent.
While many resource parents have positive experience with their charges, and the Health Services Agency, there’s no guarantee that things will go smoothly. Noe Valley resident, Kate Stoia, who fostered a boy starting when he was 11, had a complicated experience when she decided to become a resource parent.
“[The Human Services Agency] placed us with a kid that had a designation of severe emotional disability. They didn’t explain that to me,” she said. “None of us [in my family] had the skills for dealing with it.”
Her youngster, who Stoia is still connected to by choice, pulled a chef’s knife on Stoia’s 12-year-old daughter and said, “I might stab you.” Five years later he’s doing better, but it was a hard road for Stoia and her family. She places the blame squarely on the foster care system.
“I’m a lawyer and I cannot handle the system,” she said. “It sets you up for failure. ‘The system is so broken’ is a mantra repeated in the foster care world and it’s very true. It doesn’t support you getting through rough times.”
Stoia doesn’t recommend fostering, but concedes others might have a different experience, especially if they parent younger kids. While she criticizes the system as deeply flawed and in need of reform, she readily agrees that kids need stable homes.
“I can 100 percent guarantee my foster kid would already be in jail if we hadn’t stepped in,” she said.
“We realize that asking a family, single parent, or anyone to foster is a big ask, but there are so many people who might not think they qualify but who would make great foster parents,” Miller said. “We’re looking for all kinds of San Franciscans: parents, families, renters, LGBTQIA people…There are parents that have come into the system that have amazing personal stories that have made it work.”
The Foys have fostered for the past three and a half years, in part because parenting expenses are reimbursed, and health care is included.
“I don’t think we’d be able or interested in being resource parents if that was not the case,” she said. “I hate to talk about money, but that’s obviously so important. In addition to a monthly stipend for the child’s general needs, childcare is covered.”
On average resource parents care for a foster child for between six to 12 months, according to Miller. The amount of time depends on how quickly the agency finds a relative or non-extended family member to take over responsibilities, such as an adult caregiver who has a familial relationship with a kid’s relative, or a familial or mentoring association, like a teacher, medical professional, clergy member, neighbor, or family friend. The connection is verified through interviews with the parent and child, or with third parties.
“Sometimes fostering can be as short as a few days,” Miller said. “And sometimes you could end up adopting the child.”
The San Francisco Human Services Agency focuses on providing continuity, keeping children in the same geographical location, if possible. The kids have relationships with their school, friends, extracurricular activities, and doctors. If they have to be placed outside San Francisco – the case for about 52 percent of children – their lives can be even more disrupted at a time when they need stability most. A portion are placed with family members who live outside the City; some are consigned out of the County because there aren’t enough resource parents in San Francisco.
“I love being able to provide normalcy for kids in my care,” Foy said. “And to see smiles on their faces, to see them laughing, trying new things, and making friends.”
Three one- to three-year-olds have been placed with the Foys. One, now a kindergartener, is still being fostered by them.
A reward Foy didn’t expect was building a relationship with the birth parents.
“The agency’s goal is generally reunification and one of the kids in our care was reunited with their father,” she said. “We were given a key to his home and he said, ‘You are family now.’ It was really nice.”
Foy admitted that she was skeptical about family members because their children needed to be placed elsewhere, but now understands that some things are out of people’s control. They need time, resources, or support to be able to create a safe and healthy place for their child.
“You are the one in control of saying when you have an open bed and what age you’re interested in taking care of,” Foy said. “You’re in control of the timing too; if you have a vacation planned for next week, you can say no. Unfortunately, that’s part of the reason why there are so many out of county placements; because there aren’t enough resource parents in the City.”
Those interested in becoming a foster parent or respite care provider, contact the Human Services Agency, www.foster-sf.org.