Fostering a child who needs a loving and stable home, whether for a few days or years, is one of the most selfless things you can do. However, navigating the bureaucratic process takes adequate preparation, patience, and paperwork. It may not always be easy, but helping even one child makes it worth it.

If you are interested in fostering a child, you must first become licensed. Here’s how to get started.

Identify the right organization to work with

The most common avenue toward becoming a foster parent is to work with the local branch of your state social services department. There are also a number of private agencies that work in place of or in coordination with social services, though private agencies tend to focus on adoption and not temporary foster care. The best way to find licensed and reputable private agencies in your region is usually through your state social services department. You can also utilize resources published by state or local foster parent associations or groups.

If you are interested in fostering Native American or Alaskan Native children, you may need to work with a tribal organization as well. There are additional federal laws that govern the placement of Native children. AdoptUSKids has a number of links and resources in regard to fostering or adopting Native children.

Additionally, you could consult with an attorney who practices in the field.

“When going through the application process, quite often it’s helpful if someone consults with an attorney who has experience in the foster care system because the application is extremely extensive,” says Robert L. Schwartz, a practice group chair in family law at Dickenson Wright. Schwartz says that an attorney could offer advice on obtaining the license, as well as provide information on available resources and support once the child is in the new foster parent’s care.

Attend an orientation

Once you identify the agency you wish to work with, call the agency about attending an initial meeting or an orientation. Some public or private agencies, like Washington’s Fostering Together, have in-person and online orientation programs. Orientation typically provides basic information, including the agency’s minimum requirements for fostering. Many states require foster parents to be of a certain age, pass a background check, and be in good health. However, private agencies may have additional criteria.

At this point, your research and orientation should have provided all of the basic information you need to make a decision. If you still feel that becoming a foster parent is right for you, then the next step is to apply.

Complete the application process

The specific steps to start the process will depend on the public or private agency you work with. However, to become a foster parent, you typically must complete an application, get fingerprinted, and pass a background check. You may need to pay fees for the fingerprinting and background check.

The next step, according to the National Foster Parent Association, is the family assessment or home study. This process enables the agency to gather information on everyone in the household, observe the home, and assess whether you are capable of caring for a child. The agency may also dive into your finances, personal history, and ask for personal references. Expect to provide at least three character references and, if you are a parent, additional references on how you are with your children. At the end, you will receive a copy of the written study report.

The home study process varies by state and may include a number of home visits over a few months. You can learn more about the home study process through the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a service of the Children’s Bureau, which is part of the Office of the Administration for Children & Families within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

For those unsure of what’s expected in the home study, an attorney can help. “They can explain to [the applicant] what they’re going to look for in the home study, what kinds of questions they’re going to be asking when they come to do the home interview,” explains Schwartz.

Attorney fees will vary, but states do have resources available for low- or no-cost consultations in foster family cases. “I think the important thing for people to realize is, for this process, there are very low-cost resources through the legal system, through attorneys,” Schwartz says. “It’s not like you have to go and spend thousands of dollars to be educated on this. In most states, and I know Arizona is very pro-active in providing low-cost access to attorneys, It’s just a matter of exploring what’s available in a particular state.”

If you work with social services, the fees up until this point may have been relatively low, but can range anywhere from free to a couple thousand dollars. If you are working with a private agency or a certified social worker who has a private practice, you can expect the application and home study process to come with higher fees. In general, becoming a licensed foster parent is not expensive. If you are concerned about costs though, speak with your local agencies about the fees and financial resources available.

Once you pass the home study, many states require you to complete a certain number of training hours. This may include training for caring for a child with special needs, such as sensory deprivation, as well as first aid and CPR training.

Play the waiting game

After completing all of the agency’s and state’s requirements, you may need to wait to obtain your license. When your full qualifications are in place, the only thing to do is to wait for a child to be placed in your home.

Waiting or working to be matched with a child can be a stressful time. AdoptUSKids has a number of resources for you to review during the matching process. If you are interested in fostering in order to possibly adopt, then this site also directs you to your state’s photo listings, where you can review photos of children waiting for an adoptive family.

If you believe becoming a foster family may be right for you, working with a local family law attorney who can guide you through the process can be helpful.