How to Foster a Child

Each state has specific requirements if you're considering becoming a foster parent. 

Are you thinking about becoming a foster parent? At its core, foster care (or "out-of-home care") provides children with temporary, safe, and stable housing.

This may be for days or even years until either reunification with their birth families or adoption by a new adoptive family. Sometimes the foster family becomes the adoptive family.

This article provides general instructions on how to foster a child.

Step 1: Decide if Foster Parenting Is Right for You

The first step is deciding whether you want to foster a child. Joining the foster care system as a care provider is no small decision. You need to take honest stock of your parenting skills and limitations.

Some questions to ask yourself include:

  • Do you have a strong support system of family members and friends?
  • Are you a patient person?
  • How is your mental health?
  • Are you willing to have social workers in your home (possibly monthly or weekly)?
  • Have you talked to other foster parents?
  • Have you honestly evaluated your desire to parent?
  • Can you meet the child's needs to ensure their well-being?

Step 2: Decide Which Type of Foster Care Is Right for You

There is more than one type of foster care. Foster homes can be:

  • Group home situations: an organization that houses (typically older) minors
  • Private foster placement: adults with a foster care license can take in any child for any amount of time
  • Non-related kinship care: a non-related adult who knows the child, such as a neighbor, family friend, or coach, gains a foster parenting license to care for the child. This is also called "fictive kin."
  • Kinship care arrangements: relatives of the child can provide informal, voluntary, or formal care. The level of involvement from the child welfare system will vary.

Placing Children in Foster Care

By federal law, CPS is required to place a child in the "least restrictive alternative" when removing children from their biological parents. This means a child must be placed in temporary custody with any appropriate relative.

If there are no appropriate relatives, the next option would be fictive kin, if available.

True foster care, with a foster parent who is of no relation or relationship with the child, is the last resort.

Relatives may now also become relative foster parents to receive other financial benefits. This is a new law within the last couple of years under federal regulation.

Types of Child Care in a Foster Setting

The type of care the foster child needs can include:

  • Specialized or therapeutic care: providing trauma care or using specialized services during the foster placement
  • Medical care: specialized care for medical conditions, disabilities, or developmental delays
  • Emergency care: quick placements with little advance notice until another foster situation is found. Typically the child is in your care for 72 business hours.
  • Respite care: taking a child from another foster home while the original foster parents are on vacation or taking a short break

Every type of placement is important and may be difficult at times. It can also be quite rewarding for the foster child and the foster family.

Step 3: Apply To Be a Foster Parent

Once you've committed to fostering a child, contact your state's foster care agency and apply.

Counties often subcontract foster care to private agencies that place children with families. Check first with your state's Department of Health and Human Services or Child Protective Services for foster parent requirements.

Elements of Foster Parent Application

Filling out the application can be time-consuming. You may need to include the following:

  • Your personal and medical history
  • Income and work history
  • Personal and professional references
  • The type of child (age, race, gender, language, disabilities) you will accept

You may also need to submit to a criminal background check through fingerprinting.

Criteria for Foster Parents

State and local laws determine the criteria for who may become a foster parent. Most states require foster parents to have a regular source of income and no felony convictions.

Most states require prospective foster parents to be over 21. Few states only require foster parents to be over 18 years of age. Again, your state will have the full list of eligibility requirements.

Los Angeles County in California, for instance, allows a wide variety of the population to become foster parents. The following criteria can apply:

  • You can be single, married, divorced, or living with a partner.
  • You can live in an apartment or house and either rent or own.
  • There is no minimum income as long as you can support yourself and provide a safe, stable home for yourself and your child.
  • You can still work as long as appropriate childcare arrangements are made.
  • You can be of any race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or culture (any of which can be the same or different as the child you want to parent).

Other states have more specific requirements. There may also be more requirements if a child has disabilities, such as requiring accessibility tools or a wheelchair-friendly home.

Please visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website for a list of state foster care information links.

Step 4: Foster Home Study and Visit

You must schedule an appointment for a required home study and visit by a social worker with social services.

You'll typically have three visits. One should inspect the home to see that it is safe and suitable. The other two visits will:

These inspection visits are part of the clearance vetting process and are done with the child's best interests in mind.

Social workers inspect the home for stable, adequate, and safe living conditions to reduce child abuse and neglect. They will deny caregiver applicants who fail to meet the criteria.

For more information about home study requirements, see the Children's Bureau resource on Home Study Requirements for Prospective Foster Parents (PDF).

Step 5: Foster Parent Training

You may be required to complete 15 to 30 hours of training in foster parenting skills. Regulations vary by state and agency.

This training is often referred to as "pre-service training." It helps:

  • Prepare foster parents for the responsibility of foster care
  • Allows foster parents to meet other families in similar situations
  • Foster parents learn more about their foster child's background
  • Form a relationship with the agency

Step 6: Foster Parent Certification

Once your candidacy is approved and you have completed your training, you should receive your foster parent certification or license. However, not all caregivers in the foster care system require licensure.

For example, a caregiver in a kinship care arrangement may not need to get a license to provide foster care. Other types of foster parents, such as resource parents, are trained and certified to be both foster/adoptive parents.

For more information about getting started with foster care, AdoptUSKids (operated by the National Adoption Association) provides helpful online resources and guides.

Step 7: Prepare Your Home and Wait for Placement

You will wait for foster child placement when your training and license are complete. You'll want to clean your home, set up the child's bedroom, and purchase any items not provided by the agency.

Once you get a call about placement, you will need to:

  • Lock away harmful substances, products, or medications
  • Purchase food and snacks
  • Purchase any supplies or essentials for the child or their age range
  • Read the child's file and learn how best to support them (if you get time and/or a file -- it's not uncommon to have little notice of placement or not have a file right away)

Many foster children come from traumatic backgrounds or have experienced child abuse and/or neglect from their birth parents.

For this reason, foster children usually crave consistency and stability in their foster homes. It can take them time to warm up to you or adjust to the new situation.

If you're willing to open up your home and have a lot of love to give, fostering a child is a great way to help your community's children.

Have Questions About How to Foster a Child? An Attorney Can Help.

Working with child protective services or state-run agencies can feel confusing. If you have questions about your foster situation or the agencies working with you, consider contacting a family law attorney to answer your questions.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Fostering a child can involve many people and support services
  • An attorney can help you navigate the process and systems
  • You need legal help for any issue that could affect the foster placement

You can hire an attorney at different points in the fostering process. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

Find a local attorney