Kaley Eggers and her son. (Molly Winn)

As Foster Care Awareness Month ticks along in May, I love scrolling through Instagram and finding images of families like mine, sharing their stories to bring foster care to light.

But I can’t help but think it’s not enough. Really, what foster families need are public policies that make it easier to say “yes” to a child, beginning with paid leave for new parents.

As a social worker and foster mom, I know the statistics well. More than 690,000 children spend time in foster care each year, with more entering the system than leaving it annually. Meanwhile, the number of foster families isn’t growing at the same rate. In many communities, including my own, there is a growing need for placements, meaning Child Protective Services often has trouble finding homes for children. As a result, kids’ entire lives are uprooted when they are taken into custody. Some are forced to move to new places and change schools because there aren’t open foster homes nearby. Others have to sleep in CPS offices, hotels or makeshift shelters until longer term accommodations can be made.

That’s what inspired me to become a foster parent in 2014. I was 26 years old, single and had just started my career as a school social worker. I worked with kids who experienced significant turmoil in their first years of life, so I wasn’t surprised when a CPS worker came to campus one day to talk to one of my students. Afterward, she told me the child would probably need to move since there were no open foster homes in the area. So I went straight back to my office to research local foster care agencies.

All I could think was, “I can do something about this.” I started the process to get licensed and, six months later, got a call for my first placement -— a newborn baby boy. With two days of notice, an eternity in the world of foster care, I prepared for my entire life to change. I set up a crib, purchased diapers, panicked in the Target aisles over which bottles I needed — a fairly typical, although certainly accelerated nesting process.

By far the biggest challenge in those 48 hours was finding child care. The baby was too young for day care, which usually involved waitlists anyway. As a single parent, taking unpaid leave wasn’t a realistic option. My only option was to use vacation days, then another foster family helped out until he started at an in-home day care at 3 weeks old. Nearly five years later, I still feel sad thinking about that. I’m so grateful we found ways to make it work, but I often think about how he deserved so much more.

In the midst of such a painful and vulnerable time, children who enter foster care deserve time to process, grieve and develop a sense of safety. Likewise, parents deserve relief during this daunting transition. From setting up initial doctor’s appointments and school enrollment, to bonding and establishing a “new normal,” foster families need flexibility to find their footing. But while paid family and medical leave would dramatically change the lives of foster families, most employers and states do not offer the benefit.

With my first placement, I saw firsthand the financial and emotional sacrifices that foster parents shoulder when they welcome a new child into their homes. I can’t help but wonder how many more people would volunteer to foster if they were guaranteed time and resources that supported their decision. Half of foster parents quit within their first year, with 40 percent citing lack of institutional support.

To meet the needs of children in our communities, we need to frame fostering as an attainable goal, starting by providing time and financial stability for parents to create healthy homes. We need employers to consider foster parents in their parental leave policies. We need lawmakers to champion legislation ensuring more vulnerable children have a chance at a healthy future because caretakers are properly supported. If we truly care about these kids, our policies have to reflect that.

Today, I am almost five years, five placements, several respite placements, one adoption, and countless cups of coffee into my foster parenting journey. I could never have predicted this life, and although the challenges are steep, they are consistently eclipsed by the privilege it is to care for these kids. My hope is that more people will step up and support the hundreds of thousands of children who need us. It starts with providing the support that makes it possible for them to say “yes.”

Kaley Eggers is a social worker in Waco, Texas. She’s been a foster parent to several children over the past five years and is hoping to finalize the adoption of her second son this summer. She chronicles her adventures as a single foster/adoptive mom on Instagram, @kaleyeggers.

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