Foster Care

Foster care is 24/7 care of a child by a foster parent. It can be temporary until the birth parent can bring the child safely home or be long-term until the child is adopted.

The Foster Care Overview subsection of FindLaw's Family Law Center covers the history and evolution of the foster care system. It also includes articles on the different kinds of foster care, requirements for becoming a foster parent, and more.

Use the links below to find relevant topics, or keep reading to learn the basics of foster care:

The range of possible family units is greater now than ever. Rules surrounding the family unit have been developed to ensure child welfare and safety. Laws also have tried to protect parental rights and the interests of caregivers.

What Is Foster Care?

Some children are newly orphaned or removed from their homes due to unfortunate circumstances. Often, this results from the death of one or both birth parents. It can also result from the termination of parental rights by a court order. Sometimes, it is because of challenges that a child has, such as a physical, intellectual, or mental health disability.

Before foster care and case plans, these situations were usually handled in one of two ways:

  • Reasonable efforts were made to informally place children with family, friends, or neighbors
  • A child's placement was made into community settings, often called orphanages or workhouses

Children under the age of 18 are not ready for independent living. Additionally, all children need a stable, nurturing environment.

Informal placements and orphanages still exist. However, the foster care system has become the primary tool for caring for abandoned or neglected children.

State and local governments take child protection seriously. State laws and the child welfare system reflect this. The federal government may also get involved. For example, with foster care arrangements that cross state borders or involve indigenous children. Titles IV-B and IV-E of the Social Security Act also provide funding for certain child welfare services, which include foster care.

Foster care is a method of providing complete care and support for children usually provided by their parents or legal guardians. A foster care arrangement may be:

  • Ordered and monitored by a court as an out-of-home placement
  • Offered and arranged by a child welfare agency
  • Discussed and negotiated between private parties

A foster care arrangement can be temporary with the goal of reunification or can be a first step towards adoption.

Foster parents often adopt foster children and become their new adoptive parents. A foster family becoming an adoptive family is not always the goal of the arrangement, though. The goal of the arrangement can also be legal guardianship or a permanency plan. The main goal is always to serve the best interest of the child. For that reason, courts tend to favor permanent placement options as they promote stability for the child.

The Basics of Foster Care

Modern foster care generally takes one of three forms: residential, group homes, and kinship care. Each is explained more in depth below.

Residential or 'Community-Based' Homes

One or more parents care for a small group of foster children in the foster parents' home, possibly with the parents' own biological children. A benefit of residential foster care is the childhood experience of the traditional family.

Children in residential foster care will often have their own bedrooms. They also receive supportive programming such as education or in-home mental healthcare services designed for them.

Group Homes

Adults supervise larger groups of foster children in dormitory-style or larger group settings. Group home foster children may also receive their education in the group home setting.

Kinship Care

Kinship care is a subset of residential or community-based foster care. Typically, children in kinship care live with:

  • Relative caregivers
  • Godparents
  • Stepparents
  • Other adults with a prior relationship with the child

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, one-third of children in out-of-home care are placed with relatives.

Courts generally prefer kinship care. Many, if not all, of the regulations, rules, and protections that apply to residential foster care apply to foster care with family members. Informal kinship care occurs when a family decides that a child will live with relatives instead of the child's biological parent(s). Formal kinship care involves the parenting of children by relatives after a referral from a court or a Child Protective Services (CPS) agency.

The Social Security Act funds many foster care programs, although state and county agencies and non-profits usually run the care services programs. Foster parents are often able to receive subsidies and reimbursement for the additional expenses of caring for a foster child.

Who Can Be a Foster Parent?

If you're new to the world of foster care, the prospect of becoming a foster parent can be pretty intimidating. In selecting a suitable foster parent, state agencies go through lengthy decision-making to determine who will be the best fit for the child.

Not everyone can be a foster parent. Lawmakers continue implementing new rules necessary for the safety and well-being of the foster youth and the public's safety.

If the arrangement involves a child under 18 years of age, a criminal background check, including fingerprinting, is required for all adults living in the foster home. The check might also include:

  • A search of the federal sex offender registry and state registries for child abuse and neglect
  • A criminal record check for convictions of violent crimes or financial fraud

Some states also conduct a background study on older children who may be residing in the foster home.

Most foster care agencies will complete a home assessment — also called a home study — to ensure that the home is safe and that the foster parent has the resources necessary to maintain the child's health and make the foster family arrangement successful. This might be completed by an employee of the state, a county social worker or caseworker, or a private company hired by the state.

Some factors agencies may consider during the home study and background check process:

  • Is the potential foster parent stable, mature, dependable, and flexible?
  • Does the potential foster parent have experience with caring for children? Have they ever provided child care for a child with special needs? Can they meet the needs of the child?
  • Can the potential foster parent advocate on behalf of the child? Will they actively participate in advocacy pertaining to child safety, health, and well-being?
  • Can the foster parent be a team player by working with the child, the child's parents, the child welfare worker, the family court, and others involved in the child's life?

Serving as a foster parent generally means working closely with social services on a regular basis. This also frequently means regular contact with a child's biological family and attending court hearings. As challenging as this role is, it can also be highly rewarding.

How a Family Law Attorney Can Help You

Foster care is complex, to say the least. Fostering a child can involve the child's parents or relatives, support services, permanency hearings, and so on.

Consider retaining your own family law attorney who is familiar with the laws in your state — particularly someone familiar with child welfare agency policies and who knows the relevant state and federal laws. A knowledgeable and competent attorney is essential when you must go to court on a matter you cannot afford to lose.

Contact a family law lawyer near you for guardianship assistance, questions about juvenile court, adoptive families, or anything else related to the laws concerning the custody and care of a child.

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