Three Illinois legislators teamed with a local foster agency Feb. 17 at the Center on Halsted for a free seminar on foster parenting.
"For me, it's very personal because I was adopted and I understand the complexities of waiting for a permanent 'forever' home," said U.S. Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-12), who co-hosted the event. She noted that many avoid becoming foster parents because they find 'the system' too daunting.
"But when you get an organization to explain the fundamentals and connect the dots for people," Feigenholtz said, "they get a better idea of how they can help."
Staff from Lawrence Hall Youth Services, a nonprofit foster care agency, explained everything from licensing to adoption at the Sunday afternoon event, which openly gay state Reps. Greg Harris (D-13) and Kelly Cassidy (D-14) co-sponsored.
Tracy Levine, vice president of foster care & family support at Lawrence Hall, said finding LGBT-friendly foster homes is especially important.
" We have older kids who have come out or are questioning that need safe homes," Levine said. "And we have openly transgender youth, as well as those who are gay and lesbian."
According to Levine, there are 15,000 children in the state's care in Illinois. Of these, 12,000 are in foster care.
"Our children come in for various reasonsabuse, neglectand they're all ages," Levine said. "[A lot] don't know what a quote-un-quote normal childhood is. Maybe they grew up thinking stealing is okay. Maybe they grew up thinking violence is okay. We look… to help them learn what's really okay."
Foster parents provide children with "a normal childhood" until their permanent housing situations are settled, Levine said. This can entail taking kids to school, visiting the dentist or celebrating milestones.
"You may be 17, but if you've never celebrated a birthday, that's a tremendous joy that you need to experience," said Mary Hollie, Lawrence Hall's CEO.
The state provides a stipend to help facilitate costs, and Lawrence Hall often connects parents with vouchers for summer camp or daycare.
To become a foster parent, one must undergo Illinois licensinga process that takes about 90 days and includes 27 hours of classes (available on nights and weekends), Levine said.
Licenses are typically awarded to single parents, married couples or those in a civil union. For couples that are not legally partnered, Levine recommends each person become licensed separately.
"You're still a family," she said, noting that Lawrence Hall works with unmarried partners.
While foster parents cannot specify the race, ethnicity or religion of a foster child, they can request certain genders or ages. This is common for those who already have children, Levine said.
Once an application is processed, it can take anywhere from several weeks to several years to be matched with a foster child. That child will then remain with a family for several weeks or years. In some cases, he or she may even be adopted.
"We are asking people to open their homes and their hearts to a lot of unknowns," Hollie said.
For about 40 percent of youth in foster care, Levine said, the goal is to reunite them with their biological families. About 28 percent look to be adopted, while another 20 percent (usually those aged 15 or older) seek independence.
Despite the uncertainty, Hollie said, foster parenting is incredibly rewarding.
"You will have made a tremendous impact on that youth, and you will forever be in their heart," she said.