Foster Care Explained

Parenting a foster care child can be a very rewarding and potentially challenging experience. If you're considering fostering a child, here is what you need to know.
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There are 400,000 foster children in the U.S., and 104,000 of them are waiting to be adopted, representing perhaps the greatest need for adoption today. These kids have difficult family backgrounds, so taking them in comes with important challenges and considerations. But hosting or adopting a foster child also offers big rewards. "It makes you a lot more understanding of kids and gives you more appreciation of life and of the little things you take for granted," says Janet Kerin, a chiropractor in Castle Rock, Colorado, who has been fostering kids for five years. "A few years ago we all went to an amusement park, and one boy I was hosting at the time told me it was the best day of his life. He still sends me a card on Facebook for Mother's Day."

What is foster care?

State foster programs support children who can't remain in their parents' homes because they've been abandoned or mistreated. Foster care takes place in a variety of state-approved settings: the home of a relative or friend, a foster family home, a staffed group home, or, for special-needs kids, an institution that offers professional therapy and treatment. With federal guidance, states and local communities find people to become foster parents by recruiting from the general population and through targeted requests -- for instance, by approaching a specific foster child's neighbor or baseball coach). The average foster child is 9 years old and spends two years in care, according to the National Council For Adoption (NCFA).

Who are the children living in foster care?

Children in foster care often have experienced physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or prenatal drug exposure. "Not knowing where your next meal will come from, having to care for siblings, or witnessing domestic abuse also causes trauma, as does the mere act of being removed from home," says Kathy Ledesma, M.S.W., National Project Director for AdoptUSKids, a foster care awareness and assistance program provided by the U.S. Children's Bureau. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, about half of the kids who left foster care in 2011 returned to the homes of parents or primary caretakers, and 20 percent were adopted; each year, more than 20,000 foster kids age out of the system without any lasting family connection, Ledesma says.

Health insurance provided by the state covers mental health services to address the needs of foster kids. States place an emphasis on creating stability, which is shown to protect child development and mitigate trauma, but the families who take these kids in represent only 54 percent of permanent adoptions from foster care. The Fostering Connections Act of 2010 increased the maximum eligibility age for federal funds from 18 to 21 to give foster kids more time to find families.

After deciding you'd like to foster and attending an orientation meeting at a local agency, you must apply and complete required training. A caseworker will conduct a home study to determine whether you're ready to foster, evaluating factors such as your social life, daily routine, and living environment. The state will perform a background check. A study from the Harvard Kennedy School's Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy found that, in many states, fewer than half of prospective foster parent applicants get as far as completing a home study -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing, as it's important for foster parents to be 100 percent sure of their path. "If the match is good from the beginning, it reduces the likelihood that the child will have to move again," Ledesma says.

Laws and procedures vary, and if you already have a relationship with the child you want to foster, the order of these steps may be different. For more information, check out AdoptUSKids's overview, and Families for All, a foster care advocacy program from the NCFA.

How do you become a foster parent?

After deciding you'd like to foster and attending an orientation meeting at a local agency, you must apply and complete required training. A caseworker will conduct a home study to determine whether you're ready to foster, evaluating factors such as your social life, daily routine, and living environment. The state will perform a background check. A study from the Harvard Kennedy School's Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy found that, in many states, fewer than half of prospective foster parent applicants get as far as completing a home study -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing, as it's important for foster parents to be 100 percent sure of their path. "If the match is good from the beginning, it reduces the likelihood that the child will have to move again," Ledesma says.

Laws and procedures vary, and if you already have a relationship with the child you want to foster, the order of these steps may be different. For more information, check out AdoptUSKids's overview, and Families for All, a foster care advocacy program from the NCFA.

Can you adopt a child from foster care?

Yes. Last year, about 50,000 kids were adopted from foster care, making it the most common route for adoption (compared to 22,000 newborns and 8,668 international children). Like international and domestic infant adoption, adopting from foster care can present challenges. "The bureaucracy associated with adopting a child from foster care is usually caused by inefficiency, an overburdened and under-supported work force, a system that often is not focused on the needs of children, and a host of other problems," says Chuck Johnson, President and CEO of the NCFA.

Eighty percent of foster children are age 5 or younger at the time of adoption, and 54 percent have special health needs, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Around 90 percent of adoptive parents of foster kids receive a stipend to help cover care, and states also continue to take care of medical and mental health expenses. The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a nonprofit dedicated to finding homes for foster kids, offers a wealth of information and resources for prospective parents.

What are the differences between private and public adoption agencies?

A public adoption agency is run by the state or county and generally focuses solely on finding adoptive parents for children in foster care. A private agency is independently run but may be licensed by the state, and offers help with infant, international, and foster care adoption. The cost of an adoption from foster care through a public agency is $0 to $2,500; adoptions through a private agency start at $5,000. If you adopt through a public organization, any costs incurred will likely be reimbursed. To find a local adoption agency specializing in foster child placements, visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway's Directory Search.

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