Understanding Foster Care
All families struggle from time to time. However, when those struggles lead to abuse or neglect, then removal from the home and foster care may be needed to put children a stable setting.
Entering Foster Care
Children may be placed in foster care by their parent or legal caregiver if they are not able to care for them. Other times, they are put in foster care when a local social services agency finds that the child is in an abusive, neglectful, or unsafe situation.
Abusive situations may be physical, sexual, or emotional. Physical abuse is when a parent or caregiver injures a child on purpose. Sexual abuse is the sexual exploitation of a child by a parent or caregiver. Emotional abuse happens when a parent or caregiver uses verbally abusive language with a child.
Neglect happens when a parent or caregiver does not provide food, shelter, clothing, medical care, or supervision to a child even when the parent is financially able to do so.
A situation is considered unsafe if there is a high risk that a child will be hurt or abused.
Types of Placement
There are many types of foster care settings. Children may be placed with:
- A relative such as a grandparent–called kinship foster care
- An unrelated caregiver chosen by the local social services agency
- A group home or facility
How children react to these changes can vary. Some situations tend to have lower rates of behavioral and emotional problems in foster children. Studies have shown that keeping siblings together may reduce these problems. Most social services agencies make an effort to place siblings together. Children may also do better when they are placed in foster care with a relative.
When possible, the goal is to return the child to his or her original home when it is safe to do so. In some situations, children in foster care continue to have contact with the parent or caregiver. This may be done to help rebuild the relationship and decrease the trauma of transitions.
Some children in foster care improve once their living conditions change. Others, however, struggle with issues such as:
- Guilt that they were removed from their home
- The desire to return to their home even though it is unsafe
- Feeling unwanted
- Feeling helpless
- Uncertainty over the future
For these reasons, children in foster care may be referred to a counselor to talk about their feelings.
After Foster Care
Foster care is a short-term solution until a permanent one can be made. After foster care, the child may be:
- Reunited with his or her parents if possible
- Adopted by a relative
- Adopted by the foster parent or someone who is involved in the child’s life such as a teacher or caregiver
- Adopted by someone who is unrelated to the child
Children who have been in foster care will need support services that address their unique emotional and physical needs. With these services in place, they are more likely to adjust to life after foster care.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology
Canadian Psychological Association
British Columbia Ministry of Children and Family Development
The effects of foster care placement on young children’s mental health. University of Iowa Health Care website. Available at: http://www.healthcare.uiowa.edu/icmh/archives/reports/foster_care.pdf. Accessed February 10, 2016.
Foster care. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry website. Available at: http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/Facts_for_Families_Pages/Foster_Care_64.aspx. Updated February 2013. Accessed February 10, 2016.
Foster care. Children’s Rights website. Available at: http://www.childrensrights.org/issues-resources/foster-care/. Accessed February 10, 2016.
How do children enter foster care? Child Welfare Organizing Project website. Available at: http://www.cwop.org/PDF/howdo.pdf. Accessed February 25, 2014.
Placement of children with relatives. Child Welfare Information Gateway website. Available at: https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/laws-policies/statutes/placement/. Published July 2013. Accessed February 10, 2016.
Winokur M, Holtan A, et al. Kinship care for the safety, permanency, and well-being of children removed from the home for maltreatment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Jan 31;1.
Last reviewed February 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 4/4/2014