What Is Foster Care?

Learn how foster care programs support children in need, and how the process of adopting a child from foster care works.
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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).

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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.

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Children Adopted from Foster Care

In 2016, about 57,000 kids were adopted from foster care according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, making it the most common route for adoption. But 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 over fifty 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.

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How to Become a Foster Parent

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 about becoming a foster parent.

RELATEDBecoming a Foster Parent: Everything You Need to Know


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