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U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa

The writer is the senior U.S. senator from Iowa.

People who open up their homes and their hearts to children in need are truly special. They provide a stability, comfort and safety to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have it. They offer support, guidance and most of all, love. The time and effort they willingly give is not only a blessing to the children they care for, but also their communities.

May is National Foster Care Month, and unfortunately the number of youth in foster care has increased for five years in a row, reaching approximately 443,000 in 2017. Each of these kids wants to be part of a permanent, loving family. Sadly, there are more children who need loving homes than there are foster families.

We need to work harder to support families who foster. Many of these families choose to stop fostering after only one year, contributing to the growing shortage. A common reason foster parents quit is because they may not receive the necessary training and support. It’s critical for our communities and child welfare agencies to provide the support and training foster parents need. Without foster homes, children can end up in shelters, or even juvenile detention facilities, instead of with families.

I’ve been working with my colleagues in Congress to prevent children from needing foster care in the first place. Most recently, Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act, which will help keep families together by funding services for families before children are placed in foster care. Sixty-two percent of children are placed in foster care due to neglect, and 36% are removed from their home due to parental drug abuse. The Family First Prevention Services Act helps states fund substance abuse and mental health services, as well as parenting skills programs, so more children can remain safely at home.

Prevention is critical to reducing the number of children in foster care in the future, but the immediate need for help can’t be ignored. There are a lot of ways you can help.

There’s an urgent need for foster parents. If you can open your heart and your home to a child in foster care, I encourage you to learn more at adoptuskids.org.

If you want to help but aren’t able to foster a child, there are other ways you can get involved.

Mentorship can be invaluable to a child in foster care. Whether it’s volunteering with organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, helping teens in foster care as they explore life after high school or being there to listen and provide advice, mentorship can be a lifesaver for children who may not have anyone else to turn to. I’ve spoken to young adults who spent time in foster care, and they’ve told me that having just one caring, consistent adult in their lives made an incredible difference.

Offering respite care is another way to help. Options for respite care are as unique as the person offering it. A volunteer can offer pre-planned or emergency respite for families in need of support, including parents at risk of losing their children as well as foster and adoptive parents.

Donating essential items is also a great way to help. Things like clothes and school supplies can be expensive and are often in short supply for foster children. Providing items like these helps take pressure off foster families and ensures kids have what they need.

Conversations about how to best serve kids in the foster care system should include ways to help and encourage foster parents. Providing a strong support system for these foster parents is a critical way to help kids in need. By supporting foster parents and ensuring they have the resources necessary to give a child a safe and loving home, we can make sure they can continue serving their communities and help put more children on a path toward a bright future.

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