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Understanding Foster Care

All families struggle from time to time. However, when those struggles lead to failure to care for a child, abuse, or neglect, then removal from the home and foster care is sometimes needed to provide children with a stable setting.

Entering Foster Care

Children may be placed in foster care by their parent or legal caregiver if they are no longer able to care for them. In other cases, children are placed 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 the intentional injury of a child by a parent or caregiver. Sexual abuse is the sexual exploitation of a child by a parent or caregiver. Emotional abuse occurs when a parent or caregiver constantly uses verbally abusive language to criticize a child.

Neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver fails to 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:


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:

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:

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

Children’s Rights


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: Accessed February 10, 2016.

Foster care. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry website. Available at: Updated February 2013. Accessed February 10, 2016.

Foster care. Children’s Rights website. Available at: Accessed February 10, 2016.

How do children enter foster care? Child Welfare Organizing Project website. Available at: Accessed February 25, 2014.

Placement of children with relatives. Child Welfare Information Gateway website. Available at: 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