Being a parent is a tough job. Raising children is expensive, and can be stressful, exhausting, and at times downright frustrating. Even having just one child can keep you busy from morning ’til night. But what if you had six hundred children? That is the case for the woman who fostered 600 kids over 50 years.
A Real-Life Super Hero
If mothering was a superpower, Linda Herring would be the most prolific hero of our time. The 75-year-old of Johnson County, Iowa, has fostered more than six hundred children across five decades, providing them with all the food, clothing, medical care, and of course, love, that they need since the seventies .
During that time she also ran a daycare, worked as a night custodian at a local high school, and was a volunteer first responder for fifty years .
Many of the children Linda fostered had medical conditions and special needs that required an even greater level of care. While many people would turn these children away, Linda accepted every child who needed a home, regardless of their health status.
“Linda mostly fostered young children and children with special medical needs and kept bins of clothes in her garage, stacked to the ceiling, labeled by size and gender,” read a statement from Johnson County officials. “No one had to worry about a child going without clothes at Linda’s, even if they arrived with nothing but what they were wearing.” 
But Linda is not only a foster mom- she has five biological children and three adopted children as well.
“It’s hard to say in words her impact. She was always available and ready for a child in need. These kids were usually taken from a traumatic situation and she’d take them in, provide a warm bed, clean clothes, warm meals, and love,” explained her 39-year-old son, Anthony, who was adopted by the Herrings when he was three years old .
“She always makes sure a new child in her home was given a professional photograph that was placed on the wall in the living room,” he added. “That seems like a small thing, but it helps them feel like they’re at home.” 
How Many Children are in Foster Care in the United States?
Every day, there are nearly 443 thousand children in foster care in the United States, and more than 690 thousand children spent time in the foster care system in 2017. These children remain under the care of the state for an average of two years, with some staying for five years or more .
In 2017 there were more than 69 thousand children who were waiting to be adopted, and more than 17 thousand children were “aged out” of the foster care system (meaning, they turned 18) without permanent families .
How Does the Foster Care System Work?
The first step in the foster system is a report and an investigation with Child Protective Services (CPS). If a claim is filed that a parent or guardian is unfit to take care of their child, a social worker will come in to evaluate the situation and determine if it is safe for the child to remain in the home.
Next, the social worker will determine if there is another family member who is able to care for the child. If there is no one who is able or willing to do that, the child will then be placed in the foster care system.
Reasons a child would enter into the system could be neglect, abuse, or abandonment by their parents. Regardless, the goal of the foster care system is to reunite the child with their biological parents. The child is removed from the home to keep them safe, while the parents work to make the necessary changes so their child can be returned to them.
A permanency hearing is held at a minimum every twelve months to reevaluate the situation and determine if the child can return to their parents. More than half of all children who enter into foster care return home, but if reunification is not possible, the child will be eligible for adoption.
While in the foster care system, a child will maintain a normal life as much as possible. He or she will go to school, live with a family, and receive social and medical services. The child’s social worker checks in regularly to see how they are doing, and the foster family a monthly subsidy to cover costs, including Medicaid, WIC, SNAP, and free school breakfast and lunch programs .
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
At its best, foster care provides children with a safe family setting during a time of crisis, provides their parents with the necessary support to resolve the issues that are putting their child at risk, and helps them to eventually reunite with their biological parents and return to living a safe, healthy and happy life .
Many foster parents are loving and caring individuals who are willing to step in and help a child in need, even though they may arrive at their doorstep hungry, scared, dirty, bruised, and traumatized .
At its worst, the foster care system can completely fail a child. They can be shuffled around from family to family, never truly experiencing the stability they need or end up in an even more abusive situation than the one they left .
The Dark Side of Foster Care
Unfortunately, not all foster parents are like the Herrings. The sad reality is that in a system that is meant to protect children, thousands of sexual abusers and predators manage to find their way to cause harm to children.
About eighteen percent of children in the foster care system are removed from their home because of physical or sexual abuse. By contrast, one out of three children in foster care is abused, which means that when a child is placed in the system, even if they weren’t being abused at home, their risk of abuse actually doubles .
The problems only get worse for these children. Youth who grew up in the foster care system are significantly more likely to develop alcoholism and problems with substance abuse. A study from 2007 found that forty-five percent of foster care youth reported using alcohol or illicit drugs within the last six months, almost half of them had used drugs at least once in their lifetime, and thirty-five percent met the criteria for substance use disorder .
Children in foster care experience higher rates of chronic illnesses and depression, and are more likely to get involved in criminal activity, especially those living in group home settings [9,10]. Unemployment, missed school, length of time in care, and the instability of the child’s placement are all significant risk factors for juvenile delinquency .
Children in the foster care system exhibit lower test scores and have a higher dropout rate than their non-foster care peers, and children who are “aged out” of the system are at a much greater risk for unemployment and homelessness when they reach adulthood [12,13].
The Challenge of Being a Foster Parent
Parenting is tough, but being a foster parent can often present even greater challenges over what a normal parent would experience. Children entering into the foster care system are coming from negative situations and therefore have often experienced significant trauma. This can come out in the form of negative behaviors. Despite sometimes being hit, scratched, and yelled at, foster parents need to provide support and love for these children, which can at times be incredibly difficult .
Older children have even more trauma, and fostering them can mean dealing with issues like drug abuse, mental health issues, anger management, and other serious problems. Some children may also have disabilities, which may provide a greater challenge than what the foster parent feels they are equipped to handle. Sometimes these kids require a tutor, a physical or occupational therapist, or a speech therapist, and it is often up to the foster parent to schedule these appointments and get the child to them .
While a child is in foster care, there will usually be scheduled visits with their biological parents. Sometimes, these parents who are dealing with their own struggles, like poverty, addictions, and criminal behavior, will take their frustrations out on the foster parent. This can be difficult for the foster parent to navigate and cause stress and resentment toward the biological parents .
Many foster parents also feel like they aren’t given enough support to deal with the many issues that their foster children face. They can easily become overwhelmed and exhausted, and may even think about quitting the foster care program altogether .
A New Family Legacy
Despite all of these hardships, Linda Herring fostered children for fifty years, putting her heart and soul into caring for the most vulnerable children in the surrounding communities. Due to health issues, she has now retired from her role, but some of her children have taken up the torch from her. Four of her biological children have fostered children, and three have adopted kids of their own .
In her own words, her inspiration to foster children came simply from love.
“I would just love (my foster kids) just like they were my own, probably more than I should,” Herring said .
This love, however, always made it difficult for her to say goodbye to her foster children.
“I cried when the kids would leave my home, no matter how long they had been there. It was so hard for me to say goodbye to them. I always questioned, ‘Why do I keep doing this?’ because it was never easy to say goodbye to a child. But I kept doing it because I had so much love to give to these children in need.” 
Linda still receives photos and cards from the kids she has fostered and is often visited by them as adults. In a system that is broken in many ways, Linda Herring is a shining example of how love can change people’s lives and produce a ripple effect that improves our communities as a whole.