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Foster parents serve kids from heart

By Kevin Harper

Why do foster parents do what they do? A common misunderstanding is that foster parents are paid to do this difficult work. While it’s true that they receive a “reimbursement rate,” it is just that: a reimbursement. It’s not income. 

Even the IRS agrees. It is not a payment for services rendered; it just helps defray the living expenses of having another child in the home. It makes it so you can buy the food you normally buy, maintain your family tradition of going out for pizza and the arcade on Saturday, or to that sit-down restaurant after church on Sunday.

The truth is that nearly all foster parents sign up for this important mission for one reason: they want to give kids a safe, stable, loving family environment. Foster parenting is a decision of the heart, not the wallet. No one gets wealthy doing this.

When everyone on the team understands that fact, it can improve the relationships of team members across the board. Birth parents, if they know their child is being cared for by someone who truly loves kids, will be much more open to a positive relationship with us. Most social workers already understand that what we do is hard work. We spend many evenings trying to heal the emotional wounds of kids who don’t understand what just happened to them. But using the word “volunteer” may help underscore our role. And when kids in our care understand this, they can better grasp that they are truly loved, with no other ulterior motive.

Relationships are not where the benefits stop. Recruitment efforts can be organized around volunteer recruitment. Communication can be seen as volunteer coordination. Foster parent turnover can be decreased, and retention increased, if all members of the team understand that a department’s mission is fulfilled when their foster parents are excited about stepping up to volunteer for this. Turnover can increase when volunteers find other outlets for their generosity that perhaps require less strain on the family.

Maybe the best reason for viewing foster parents more as volunteers than employees is the effect it has on kids. They need to know we are doing this only because we want to; that they alone are what matters. Our sole goal is to give them one more healthy connection to a caring adult to help mend the brokenness they already feel.

Are there some days foster parents want to hang up their hats, because the stress on family life just got too high? Yes, that happens. This is emotionally intense work. We’ve all had days like that. But what keeps my wife and me in the trenches, getting up another day to do it again, is our love for the kids. We just hope the kids in our home feel that.

Learn more about volunteering as a foster parent with the Idaho Child Welfare Research & Training Center: or call the Idaho Careline at 211. Attend an informal information meeting in your community to learn more:

Kevin Harper and his wife have been foster and adoptive parents for children from infants to teens for 16 years in two states. He helps recruit, train and mentor new foster parents in southwest Idaho, and speaks to groups inspiring others in this important work. Harper can be reached at 208-249-8893 or 


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