Parenting is a 24/7 job. But it is rarely treated as such and almost never paid. Still, there is a major exception to that rule: Professional foster parents receive an annual salary, intensive support, and regular training to help raise children in dire need of a stable home. For these parents, parenting is paid labor. This does not diminish their emotional investment, but it does give them a singular perspective on their responsibilities.
In Denise White’s capacity as a professional foster parent working with the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division, she is tasked with providing a home for girls between the ages of 13 and 17 who have experienced hardships. These are chronic runaways, children that have experienced violence, and children who have had problems at school. Adversity is a given.
Denise is a stay at home mom by profession, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s a lot of work for a job that pays an average of $40,000 per year. Importantly, Denise notes that the money doesn’t change her behavior as a caregiver. And the kids who go through her home tend to agree. One young lady named Heavenly, who went through Denise’s home and remembers her time with her very fondly. “She really showed me love and support in the best way that a parent figure could,” Heavenly says. “They gave me a chance to try and heal.”
Did she ever worry that Denise only cared because of the paycheck? No.
“Even if her family was doing something like going to a basketball game she’d try and get me to come,” Heavenly says. “Money was never what it was about.”
Fatherly spoke with White about what it feels like to be paid to parent, how her job has affected her life, and what it’s like to deal with new issues her kids didn’t have.
What does a typical day look like for a professional foster parent? What does a typical day look like for you?
I get up around 6 in the morning and get my child up and ready and off to school. Some days it’s easy some days it’s not. I can never say what the day is going to be like. They may not want to get started. They may not want to go to school. They may not want to take their medication. I might get a call that the child has left the school, or that there’s a problem at the school like a fight. That means I have to get myself ready and go to school. I can get called any time. The child themselves might call me and say I’m coming home because they might have been beaten up. It’s different every day. I can have a day that goes smoothly and I can have days that are just … a lot.
Presumably, it would not be feasible for you to do that while holding down a job.
That’s why a lot of the kids we deal with are not in a home. It’s because the parents weren’t able to handle it. And I understand. I had four children of my own and three of them were boys. One boy was ADHD and another was ADD. My husband and I both worked full-time jobs and we had to deal with that. We managed it and they’re doing really good now. But there are a lot of issues and challenges.
When I was bringing up my own children I didn’t have all the time to give them because I did work. I’ve worked all my life. In order to give these children the time and meet the needs they have, I can’t work. That’s the reason I’m compensated.
How much of the fact that you’re getting paid to parent is a consideration in your relationship with the kids you’re working with? Does it even come up or is it something you try to keep on the down low?
I’ve never had a child mention it in my home. But it’s not like it’s on the down-low at all because in the program, before a child even becomes a part of it, they go through interviews and the program is explained to the child. So the child knows it’s my responsibility to take care of their needs and I do a good job with that, so it’s never been a question.
So the kids are aware, just coming into your home, that you are being compensated for giving them support.
Yes, they’re aware of it. They know I’m here for them. Most of the kids, when they come into my home, their purpose for being here is to get that one on one so all of their needs are met.
In some countries, parents are being paid to raise their children and those children aren’t affected by the same issues you see affecting the kids you work with. Based on your experience do you think that something that would work here?
I can’t say how I’d feel about it. In the United States, we have welfare for a lot of parents to help with the support of their family. And that welfare is to help you do better, not to be dependent on it.
When I raised my own kids I did what I had to do to take care of them. I didn’t receive any kind of aid or anything like that. That was just my responsibility to my children. But with this program, I can’t work and still be there.
If you had had the opportunity to receive compensation to stay home and raised your kids, would that have been something you would have done?
Probably so. If I could stay at home and get paid to raise my own kids? To be honest, probably I would have. Still, for me, that’s not a position I’d want to stay in. I’m busy. I like doing what I do. I work with kids even outside of being a foster parent. I volunteer. It all comes from my heart. I don’t do this because I choose to do it. I do it because I was chosen to do it.
Some people fear that paying parents would mean people would want to be parents just to get paid and stay home with kids.
That’s definitely not true in this field. This is not an easy job. It takes a lot of work. You’ve got to pray a lot and pay a lot. You’re not just going to get a check and go sit down. That’s not going to happen. The kids are not going to let that happen.
You’re not going to sit back and get a check. That’s not what this is.
What is it like when the children leave your care?
Heavenly was with me for two years until she was ready to age out. We have an independent living program the young ladies can get involved in. She got into that program and it helped her. We had helped her get a job and get job training. After that it was helping her get an apartment and get on her own two feet. That’s what we did for her.
But, it sounds like that relationship continues.
I see her sometimes weekly when she’s not working and I talk to her on the phone. She calls me when she needs me.
Is the time you put into the foster children similar to the time that you put into your own kids?
I put more time into the foster kids and it’s more intensive than it was when I was raising my own kids because I’m dealing with things that I never experienced with my children. I never dealt with sex trafficking. I never dealt with some of the disrespect. I never dealt with a lot of the school issues that I have to deal with. You can get a call every day from school. It’s different.