Foster care seems to be a lesson in contradictions in our country. It is lauded as the most noble choice that a couple can make. It’s suggested as an alternative to those who don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on an international adoption or fertility clinic. Foster parents open their homes to children who need a place to stay, kids who are suffering from neglect or abuse. They’re saviors for children who have no where to turn.

And yet, there’s a second perception of foster care that clouds this altruistic endeavor. We talk about kids going into “the system” as if its a death sentence. We hear stories of the foster homes who are only involved to earn government support checks. Media coverage highlights the horror stories and omits the thousands of families who do the best they can to help. Groups come together to fight against the government program who supports and monitors foster families, Child Protective Services.

Foster care has two very different public personas. So I decided to sit down with some people who knew the program best. I spoke with two sets of foster parents, as well as a social worker and CPS employee. They provided me with insight into this often stigmatized and overlooked system. Even better, they talked about the rewards of helping children and why that makes it all worth it.

Here are their tips for becoming successful foster parents: what it takes and why you need to have a plan.

Know the type of care you’re willing to do.

Most states have short-term and long-term foster programs. “Though short-term fostering is a lot less talked about, it’s a great way for families to get used to the process,” says one foster mom who began in short-term and moved on to longer arrangements. Short-term care provides a home for a week or less to a child whose parent in currently in the hospital. If a single mom needs an operation, short-term foster care will allow her kids to stay with someone while she recuperates. “It’s a nice way to get used to having kids come into your home and then leave again,” the social worker adds.

Even better for the uninitiated, with short-term care, the parents are agreeing to have their kids placed in the program. These aren’t children who have been removed from their parents care. “You do with a lot less troubling situations,” the CPS agent confirmed.

But don’t think of this as “foster care prep.” It’s an important service for young kids who need help and you still have to be available morning, noon and night if a child is in trouble.

Foster care isn’t adoption.

One of the foster mothers had a very adamant message on this subject, “To anyone who tells a couple looking to have their own child or adopt that they should consider fostering first, I would like to tell them to stop speaking. Now. Seriously just stop talking. These things are not interchangable and you’re going to create a horrible situation for the parents and the children.”

Our social worker Lynn* clarified, “You can’t walk in to these situations thinking that you’re adding a permanent member to your family. Sure, that happens sometimes. But it’s rare. The majority of the time, you’re going to have children for a short amount of time and then they’re going to leave. You need to be prepared to accept that.”

CPS agent Ashley* added, “The goal of Child Protective Services is family reunification. That’s what we’re looking for. If you’re looking to adopt permanently, you need to go straight to that avenue. Otherwise, there will be a lot of heartache.”

Have a plan.

There was one question that I knew I had to ask, “How do you say goodbye?” It’s the question that I think terrifies most women about the thought of foster parenting. And it’s the answers that made me realize how truly inspiring and strong these couples were.

“You have to go into foster parenting with a plan,” one father tells me. “You need to think about how you can help this child for the time that they’re with you. Whether it’s the opportunity to show them a routine or to introduce them to Church. You’re trying to demonstrate what a family looks like to kids who might not have seen one. So with every child, you need to find a way to help them for as long as they’re in your care.”

One mom adds, “You take things one day at a time. There’s no telling how long a child will stay with you. Planning ahead is a lesson in futility. Take each day as it happens and do the best you can for these kids in that time.”

It’s a step-by-step approach for parents who have to constantly deal with the unstable timeline of their home.

Know what you’re capable of.

Many children introduced into foster care have special needs, whether they are physical or emotional. It’s important for parents to know what they are able to handle and communicate that to Child Protective Services.

“Some of these children need multiple doctors appointments a week. They have to see therapists. They need in-home care. These kids are a lot to handle. And even worse, sometimes their needs haven’t been addressed for years or ever. So foster parents need to be honest with themselves and with us about their limitations,” Ashley tells me.

“It’s a commitment,” one mother says. “It’s time and energy to take care of these kids. It’s not just dropping them off at school every day and getting food on the table, though these things are important to. There’s the possibility of so much more involvement necessary for these kids. You have to know what your limit is.”

Social workers and CPS do take this information into account when they place children with families. “We have a list of available homes and I know who can handle the most difficult situations. I know how many kids they already have in their home. We do what we can to make sure that foster parents aren’t overwhelmed,” Lynn told me.

Let go of the things you can’t control.

“I can still remember the day I found out that my first foster care child had gone back to his abusive mother. I had been obsessively following her court hearings. The little boy had moved from my home to a aunt’s home. But I knew when he went back to his mom. I was furious and upset. I felt like nothing I had done mattered. It was horrible,” the mom’s eyes teared up as she recalled the emotional event. “And honestly, it took me a little time to get past it. But the fact is that I couldn’t control what happened after he left my home. And it’s not my place to say where that child belonged or if that mother is fit. It’s simply not my place,” she concluded, as her husband squeezed her shoulders.

“Even I fall victim to that,” Lynn admitted. “I look up cases that I saw in the ER. I pay attention to what happens to these children. And it can be so frustrating. It can make you sick if you concentrate on it too hard.”

So how do you move past it?

“You leave it up to God,” one father tells me. “You keep helping one child at a time and hoping that you make a difference,” his wife adds. The consensus in the room is that you simply try to move past the things that you can’t control.

In a way, it’s something that all of us as parents have to learn. We can’t control everything that will happen to our children when they leave our sight. And foster parents have to accept this lesson more than others. There is so much that is beyond their control.

Words of advice from those who know the system best.

“What I want to tell foster parents is how much I appreciate them,” Lynn the social worker says. “When I see them walk through the doors of the ER, I know that I’m placing this child with someone who cares. Someone who will help them, even if its just for a short period of time. I know in my heart that this helps children. I think we need to tell them much more often how much we appreciate them.”

“For people interested in foster parenting, I want them to know that it’s a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of emotional strength. And it also cleanses your soul. When you get to connect with a child who needs an adult to care and love them. There’s simply no other feeling like it. These children need you and that’s more important than anything else,” shares a foster mother of ten years.

“Don’t get caught up in the bureaucracy,” is the warning for Ashley of Child Protective Services. I have a feeling she knows this all too well. “It’s so tempting to let the paperwork and the checks and the politics cloud the service that your providing to kids. It can be depressing. But you really have to keep that higher purpose at the top of your mind.”

“Find support,” says my final couple, who happen to host a foster parenting support group once a week. “We realized pretty quickly how much we needed to be able to talk about our experiences with other families. Whether its in your community or online, find other parents to talk to. They’ll remind you to focus on the joy you bring children. They’ll help you through the loss when a child goes away. These are all natural human emotions and you can’t just turn them off. But you do need to find a way to cope. For us, talking with other families has helped.