How Foster Care Works

By: Tom Harris

Mother and Foster Child Holding Hands with Heart in it
Foster care caterers to children's needs and gives them a temporary home. manusapon kasosod / Getty Images

We generally think of childhood in terms of the nuclear family. Mom and dad, or just mom or just dad, take care of their kids. But the reality is things don't always work out this way. For any number of reasons, parents sometimes end up in a situation where they can't take care of their children, either temporarily or permanently. What happens then?

Throughout history, the fate of these children has depended wholly on the goodwill of the community. In the past, if extended family, neighbors or strangers didn't step in as surrogate parents, parentless children would be turned out on the streets. Today, this sort of community childcare is institutionalized, but it still relies on the kindness and compassion of individual members of the community.


In this article, we'll examine one of the cornerstones of modern institutionalized childcare -- the foster care system. We'll find out how children enter foster care, how adults sign on as foster parents, and how social services regulates the process. If you've ever wondered how you can help kids in need of a home, this article will get you started by introducing you to the foster care system.

Foster Fundamentals

When parents are unable, unwilling or unfit to care for a child, the child must find a new home. In some cases, there is little or no chance a child can return to their parents' custody, so they need a new permanent home. In other situations, children only need a temporary home until their parents' situation changes. In any case, the children need somewhere to stay until a permanent home is possible.

Hundreds of years ago, providing this temporary home fell informally to families, neighbors and often to the church. As cities grew larger and more and more children in a community ended up in this unfortunate situation, government institutions took up much of the responsibility.


Up until relatively recently, the prevailing official approach was to put children in orphanages and poorhouses. If the child was lucky, a loving family would eventually adopt them from the orphanage. Alternatively, a less suited family would take the child on, often to use them for free labor, or the child would stay in the orphanage until reaching adulthood.

Over the past hundred years, the trend in North America and Europe has shifted away from orphanages and towards foster homes. The underlying philosophy of foster care is that children are better off, emotionally and psychologically, in a home environment, with someone filling the role of a parent. The logic is that with one or more foster parents taking care of a smaller number of children, the child should have more of the attention and love they need to grow into healthy adults. Today, there are roughly half a million U.S. children in the foster care system.

Foster care and adoption both provide family environments for children who can't be with their biological parents, but it's important to understand that they are very different institutions. While foster parents are encouraged to connect emotionally with the children in their care, foster families are not meant to be permanent replacements for biological families. In most cases, the ultimate goal is to reunite children with their biological families, as soon as the family is able and fit. This could be as short as a few days or as long as a few years.

Failing family reunification, the ultimate goal is to find adoptive parents who will take on all the emotional and legal responsibilities of birth parents. In the eyes of the law, adopting a child is pretty much the same thing as giving birth to them. Fostering a child, on the other hand, doesn't give the foster parents any major authority over the child's life.

On occasion, foster parents will eventually adopt foster children in their care, but more often, the foster home is a means of returning the child to his or her birth parents or a stop on the way to another home. Unfortunately, many children end up bouncing from foster home to foster home, never finding a permanent family. In this regard, the foster care system is clearly imperfect, since it often adds more instability to a child's life.

The fundamental mission of the foster care system, then, is very simple. Actually putting it into action is another matter. Foster care involves a lot of hard work on the part of administrators, social workers, parents and, most importantly, foster children. In the next couple sections, we'll find out a little about life in this world.

The Organization

In the United States, foster care operates on the local level, rather than on the national level. The structure varies somewhat from state to state, as do the specific names for government agencies and programs, but most states follow the same general model.

In most cases, the state's division of social services, part of the state department of health and human services, heads up the entire system. These agents oversee county social services departments as well as private foster care agencies. This is one of the most misunderstood facts of foster care: While government regulations generally direct how foster care operates, independent non-profit organizations (licensed by the state) do a huge amount of the actual work in some areas. These organizations generally receive government funds, but they may also depend on charitable donations.


It's up to the county departments and the private agencies to take care of the details of foster care. Adhering to the state's specific regulations, caseworkers with local organizations train foster parents, place children in foster homes, work with families towards reunification, work with local adoption agencies to find new permanent homes for children and generally keep track of everything involved in each foster child's progress through the system.

Foster care agencies typically consider the group of people working with a particular child as a team. The core members of the team are the foster parents, the biological parents, the court, the social worker in charge of the case and, most importantly, the child him or herself. The team's job is to look out for the best interests of the child and work towards putting the child in a permanent home.

In addition to this core group, several other volunteers and professionals may become part of the team from time to time. For example, an attorney with the state Office of the Child Advocate may represent the child legally, and the court may also assign a Court Appointed Special Advocate, a volunteer who studies the case and supports the child in court.

There are a number of different types of foster care. In traditional care, a relatively small number of children stay with a family or a single foster parent in their home for a matter of months or years. Traditional foster care may also operate on a short-term basis, of a few days to a month, for children who will be reunited with their families quickly.

Emergency foster homes are available 24 hours a day to take children in until the social services system can figure out a longer term solution. If a child's parents were arrested, for example, social services might put the child in an emergency foster home until they could locate relatives or find another place for the child.

Respite foster care families take children in for a couple days at a time, to give stressed families a periodic break. Relief care families work similarly, taking foster children for a short period of time to give their regular foster families a break.

Some foster children live in a group home instead of a traditional foster home. Foster care group homes function less like conventional families, and more like dormitories. While foster care agencies prefer to place children with families, a shortage of foster parents means many children end up in this sort of home. Additionally, foster care agencies may place children with special needs in group homes where they can get the professional assistance they need.

The predominant form of foster care is still ordinary people serving as foster parents. In the next section, we'll look at the typical process of becoming a foster parent.

Becoming a Foster Parent

If you're new to the world of foster care, the prospect of becoming a foster parent can be pretty intimidating. Foster parents are often called "parents plus" because in addition to providing the food, shelter, care, and love a good parent would provide for their own kids, they also have to deal with the special circumstances of a foster child.

Serving as a foster parent generally means working closely with a foster agency on a regular basis, and often means regular contact with a child's biological family as well. Foster children may also have special psychological needs. Many come from abusive environments, and all are in the stressful situation of being apart from their birth family. Additionally, foster parents generally take care of the children for a short time, which can be very difficult emotionally.


But as challenging as this role is, it can also be highly rewarding. Good foster parents know they've provided a home for a child in dire need, and the best ones may even turn a child's entire life around. And nobody in the U.S. foster care system goes in completely unprepared. To take in foster children through a foster agency, you have to go through a screening, training and licensing process.

Foster parents don't have to be married, and prior child-rearing experience is not a necessity. But in most states, they do have to meet the following criteria:

  • They must be 21 years or older. Additionally, some states do not accept foster parents who are older than 65.
  • They must have room for a child in their home. Some programs require every foster child have his or her own room, while some only require that they have their own bed and personal storage space.
  • They must already have the financial resources to provide for their own family.
  • They must provide a home that meets certain safety standards
  • They must be in good physical and mental health

If you meet this criteria, you can proceed through the process of becoming a licensed foster parent. State foster care systems vary, but the process typically goes something like this:

  • The first step is to call the state Division of Social Services and request an information packet on becoming a foster parent. The information packet outlines what is expected of foster parents and includes specific instructions on how to proceed through the licensing process. You may also be able to attend an orientation session organized by the local foster care agency.
  • If you decide you're interested in becoming a foster parent, the next step is to fill out a foster parenting application. The application gives the foster care agency an idea of your suitability as a foster parent.
  • If they are satisfied you meet the basic criteria, the foster care agency social workers will begin a home study. The home study includes visits to your actual home, for various safety inspections, as well as fairly extensive background checks into you and your family. In most cases, the agency will fingerprint everybody in your home over 12 years old and check their criminal record. This process can take several months, and it requires a lot of work from you and your family, but it is crucial to protecting foster children in the system. When it works correctly, it weeds out applicants who would make poor foster parents.
  • While the home study is in progress, you will enroll in a foster care training course taught by the local foster care agency. The most popular course curriculum today is the Model Approach to Partnership in Parenting (MAPP). In this 30-hour, 10-week course, instructors cover a range of issues, focusing on good parenting, dealing with children with special needs and working with the foster care agency.
  • If the home study goes well and you successfully complete the training program, you will become a certified foster parent. The agency will try to find a child that is a good match for your home, and they will come to live with you.

The foster parent does not carry all responsibility for the child, as a biological or adopted parent would. The foster parent is not legally responsible for the child, and may request that the child be removed from the foster home at any time. Medicaid covers the child's medical expenses, and the foster care agency provides a monthly check to help cover the child's room and board. The monthly sum is not by any means extravagant, so foster families may end up supporting the child with their own funds as well. As a point of reference, the recommended monthly rates in North Carolina are:

  • $315 for children up to 5 years old
  • $365 for children 6 to 12
  • $415 for children 13 and up

Even though the state maintains true custody, foster parents do have a definite responsibility for children in their care. Their ultimate responsibilities are to care for the child and to look after his or her daily well-being. In a very real sense, their job is to provide parental love to children without parents.

If you are interested in becoming a foster parent, or you'd simply like to learn more about the foster care system, check out the links on the next page.