A Bed For Tonight

Written by Brittany Burcham @fostertheteens


In most social services offices across the US right now, you’ll find blanket pallets under desks, coloring books next to the copier, a toothbrush on top of a pile of paperwork. The reason is the same – there just aren’t enough foster homes.

When a child comes into foster care, the placement team gets to work. They call foster homes and ask if they can take a placement, often giving basic information while waiting for the courts to decide whether the child’s plan is to be reunified with their parents, placed with a relative, or some other outcome. The calls go like this:

“ I have a 14 year old boy who came into care today due to allegations of abuse by his stepfather. We think his uncle and aunt will be able to take him but they have to do a home study. Can you take him?”

“ I’ve got a sibling set – ages 3 and 5, coming into care due to drugs. The parents have court next week but they also have pending criminal charges. Are you able to take two placements so we can keep them together?”

“ A 17 year old girl just came back from runaway and there are no group home placements available, can you take her?”

Most often, they are looking for long term placements. Foster homes that can care for the child until the case is closed, which can be weeks, months, or years later. But recently, more and more foster homes are getting calls that simply ask – “Can you just take them for tonight?” More than 250,000 children enter foster care in the US each year, that’s 684 each day. And finding suitable placements for them has become more difficult. COVID-19 put a strain on the system, shutting down foster parent trainings and complicating the licensing process as well as slowing down the court process, delaying kids going home to their biological parents. Inflation and housing difficulties mean that it’s harder to find placements for large sibling groups to keep them together. And staffing challenges at social services offices mean larger case loads and longer wait times for resources and support.
I became an emergency and respite foster parent in 2019 because I wanted to give children a safe place until they were able to reunited with their families or find a long term placement. And I chose teenagers because I knew that’s where the greatest need was. I was single, living in an apartment, with a job that required me to travel every other month so I knew I couldn’t make a long term commitment at that point, but I also knew I had an open bedroom that could be used for teens in foster care.

Teens are the least likely to be placed in a traditional foster home and the most likely to spend days and weeks in hotel and offices not because of anything they did, but because there are simply no beds available. The need for long-term foster homes, especially for teens, is staggering, but respite homes for teens become more in demand as states face federal lawsuits over ‘hoteling’ children in foster care in unapproved places. Most people balk when I tell them I CHOSE to foster teens. They imagine the worst, they think of how challenging teens are already then add on the trauma of foster care and it must be impossible. What they don’t realize is when you foster teens you have a buddy to go eat chips and salsa with at the Mexican restaurant, to stay up late talking about school and life, someone to teach you TikTok dances, to watch movies with, to decide you want ice cream at 10pm and of course they are down for ice cream at 10pm!

During busy times, I often get daily calls for placements. I get a phone call asking for a bed ‘just for tonight’ and then I put together a Welcome Basket and place it on their bed with basic toiletries and some comfort items like fuzzy socks and a new blanket. They show up on my doorstep with their clothes in a trash bag or with nothing but the clothes they have on. We go out for burgers and I ask about their best friend and favorite Netflix shows. ‘Just for tonight’ often turns into multiple nights but that’s ok. We do game nights, take trips to Bath and Body Works and smell all the candles, decide to make brownies just because it’s Tuesday, and you try to be a safe and fun place for however long they are with you. Meanwhile, you get to know this amazing person who happens to be in foster care through no fault of their own, and you get the honor of spending time with them.
It’s nothing magical, being a foster parent. It’s just committing to learning about trauma, learning about the foster care system, and caring deeply for children and their families. And we need more of them, desperately. Maybe you start out with respite or emergency care, or maybe you have the space and routine to be a home for a child for a longer time where you truly get to invest in their lives and build a long term relationship. And sometimes, you start out as respite and then you meet a child that turns you into a longer term placement, at least that’s what happened to me.

Just because you’re a short term, respite or emergency placement doesn’t mean you don’t build relationships with the kids. Even though I have had more than 50 placements, I still keep in touch with several of them even though they’ve aged out or gone back to family or continue to be in foster care. Teens in foster care need someone to cheer them on, someone to be the one they can call when they have a life question, someone who thinks they are amazing and tells them so. Being a foster parent will always be the honor of my life. And if your heart is pulling you to make a difference, I encourage you to go to an information meeting at your local social services office. And if you aren’t able to be a foster parent at this point, consider getting involved in other ways. Become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) and advocate for a child in foster care, volunteer at a local foster closet, or donate to causes that support children in care like Comfort Cases which replaces trashbags with brand new duffel bags or One Simple Wish which grants wishes for children in care. No matter how you choose to get involved, children in foster care need champions who see their value and work to make foster care better. These children come from our community, they go to the schools in our neighborhood and they will one day work in our businesses. They deserve more than a pallet under a desk. They deserve a community who cares about them, even if sometimes it’s just for tonight.

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