Foster Care Explained: What It Is, How It Works and How It Can Be Improved

Updated April 7, 2024 | Posted February 6, 2014
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A male youth looks intently at a woman, both are seated.

This post explores what fos­ter care is, how it works and how we can improve the nation’s fos­ter care sys­tem to help sup­port bet­ter out­comes for chil­dren and young people.

What Is Fos­ter Care?

Fos­ter care is a tem­po­rary liv­ing sit­u­a­tion for kids whose par­ents can­not take care of them and whose need for care has come to the atten­tion of child wel­fare agency staff. While in fos­ter care, chil­dren may live with rel­a­tives, fos­ter fam­i­lies or in group facil­i­ties. Near­ly half of kids who enter the fos­ter care sys­tem will return to their par­ent or pri­ma­ry caretaker.

What Is the Goal of Fos­ter Care?

A key goal of fos­ter care is to ensure that kids are liv­ing in sta­ble, life­long fam­i­lies. Fos­ter care is meant to be a tem­po­rary solu­tion that ends once a par­ent can get their life back on track or a rel­a­tive, guardian or adop­tive fam­i­ly agrees to raise the child involved.

Research has shown — again and again — that every child needs a sol­id and unshak­able attach­ment to at least one par­ent­ing adult and that this rela­tion­ship is key to a young person’s devel­op­ment and well-being.

What Is a Fos­ter Child”?

A fos­ter child” is a minor child who has been tak­en into state cus­tody and placed with a state-licensed care­giv­er. These chil­dren are of every race, age and gen­der. Because chil­dren in fos­ter care have been removed from their homes due to safe­ty con­cerns, they all have expe­ri­enced some degree of loss or trauma. 

Why Are Kids in Fos­ter Care?

Chil­dren enter fos­ter care because they or their fam­i­lies are in cri­sis. Often­times, these chil­dren — who range in age from new­borns to teens — have expe­ri­enced unsafe con­di­tions, abuse, neglect or have par­ents who are unable to care for them. As a result, these chil­dren are removed from their par­ents’ care.

The absence of fam­i­ly, famil­iar sur­round­ings and pre­dictable next steps are some of the great­est hard­ships that kids in fos­ter care face. For­tu­nate­ly, by law, chil­dren in care are sup­posed to main­tain con­tact with fam­i­ly — includ­ing their par­ents and sib­lings — via reg­u­lar vis­its. Lis­ten­ing to young peo­ple in care is a crit­i­cal strat­e­gy for agen­cies look­ing to improve child wel­fare expe­ri­ences and out­comes in fos­ter care.

How Do Kids End up in Fos­ter Care? Who Decides That a Child Needs to be in Fos­ter Care?

Chil­dren often come to the atten­tion of a child wel­fare agency via reports of child abuse or neglect. Social work­ers inves­ti­gate the alle­ga­tions involved and — if a child’s cur­rent liv­ing sit­u­a­tion is deemed unsafe — the agency must obtain a judge’s approval to remove the child in ques­tion from their cur­rent liv­ing situation.

There were near­ly 615,000 con­firmed vic­tims of mal­treat­ment in 2020 (8 in every 1,000 chil­dren). Most of these vic­tims were young chil­dren up to age 10 (72%) and expe­ri­enced neglect (76%). Not every child who expe­ri­ences mal­treat­ment enters fos­ter care. In fact, near­ly 207,000 chil­dren entered care in 2021, a fig­ure that has been declin­ing in recent years.

Case­work­ers are respon­si­ble for the safe­ty and needs of chil­dren in fos­ter care. This work can include keep­ing kids in school, obtain­ing med­ical care and main­tain­ing their con­nec­tions with fam­i­ly. Case­work­ers are also respon­si­ble for secur­ing sta­ble, long-term fam­i­ly sit­u­a­tions for kids in care as soon as pos­si­ble. Judges over­see this process.

This focus on find­ing per­ma­nence is sup­port­ed by fed­er­al laws that pro­mote the need for kids to grow up in fam­i­lies who will always be there for them. Child wel­fare agen­cies and judges, as part of the deci­sion-mak­ing process, should engage chil­dren, their par­ents and oth­er adults in plan­ning for per­ma­nence for kids in fos­ter care.

Learn more about fos­ter care statistics

Com­mon Ques­tions About Fos­ter Care

What Is a Fos­ter Par­ent? What Do Fos­ter Par­ents Do?

Fos­ter par­ents are adults who tem­porar­i­ly step in to raise chil­dren who have been abused or neglect­ed or whose bio­log­i­cal par­ents are unable to care for them. Fos­ter par­ents try to give each child in their care as much nor­mal­cy as pos­si­ble while also prepar­ing them to be reunit­ed with fam­i­ly or adopt­ed. Fos­ter par­ents, also called resource par­ents, are state licensed and trained. They are some­times — but not always — relat­ed to the chil­dren in their care.

What Is the Role of a Fos­ter Parent?

The role of a fos­ter par­ent is to pro­vide tem­po­rary care for a child, meet­ing their needs and assur­ing their safe­ty until they can be reunit­ed with par­ents or oth­er fam­i­ly. Fos­ter par­ents provide: 

  • love and support;
  • food and shelter;
  • cloth­ing;
  • trans­porta­tion; and
  • med­ical, behav­ioral and den­tal care.

How to Fos­ter a Child

To fos­ter a child, fos­ter par­ents must lead with empa­thy. Because they play such a vital role in help­ing the chil­dren in their care heal, they must be respon­si­ble, lov­ing care­givers. Sim­ply see­ing to chil­dren’s phys­i­cal well-being is not enough. Fos­ter par­ents must also con­sid­er aspects of chil­dren’s emo­tion­al and social devel­op­ment, like: 

  • rela­tion­ship skills;
  • respon­si­ble deci­sion making;
  • self-aware­ness;
  • self-man­age­ment; and
  • social aware­ness.

Addi­tion­al­ly, fos­ter par­ents must meet and main­tain the spe­cif­ic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion require­ments of each state.

How Does a Group Home Com­pare to a Fos­ter Home?

Some chil­dren in fos­ter care live in a group home — some­times called con­gre­gate care — instead of liv­ing with fam­i­lies. In this arrange­ment, staff mem­bers work in shifts to care for a group of chil­dren liv­ing togeth­er in a shel­ter, res­i­den­tial treat­ment cen­ter or sim­i­lar shared setting.

While qual­i­ty res­i­den­tial set­tings are key fea­tures of any child wel­fare sys­tem, some­times too many chil­dren are unnec­es­sar­i­ly placed in group set­tings, spark­ing reform efforts at the state, local and fed­er­al levels.

A fed­er­al law — the Fam­i­ly First Pre­ven­tion Ser­vices Act, passed in 2018 — aimed to restruc­ture how child wel­fare funds are spent. This law has increased sup­port for fos­ter care pre­ven­tion and keep­ing chil­dren liv­ing in fam­i­lies while reduc­ing fund­ing for clin­i­cal­ly unnec­es­sary group placements.

What Hap­pens When Kids Leave Fos­ter Care?

In recent years, slight­ly less than 50% of chil­dren who leave fos­ter care return to their par­ents or a pre­vi­ous care­giv­er. In each of the last four years on record — 2018 and 2021 — at least 1 in 4 chil­dren were adopt­ed out of fos­ter care and around 1 in 6 chil­dren exit­ed fos­ter care to live with a rel­a­tive or guardian.

For­tu­nate­ly, the major­i­ty of chil­dren who leave fos­ter care do not return to it. For exam­ple: Just 19.4% of chil­dren enter­ing the fos­ter care sys­tem in 2019 had been in care before, accord­ing to data report­ed by the Admin­is­tra­tion for Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies.

When kids age out” of fos­ter care — which is the fate of about 20,000 young peo­ple annu­al­ly, though this is declin­ing — they often lack the sup­port and con­nec­tions need­ed to thrive in adult­hood. Eman­ci­pat­ed youth are more like­ly to report being home­less and job­less when com­pared to peers who have achieved per­ma­nence. They are also more like­ly to expe­ri­ence incar­cer­a­tion and ear­ly parenthood.

A Long­stand­ing Com­mit­ment to Improv­ing Fos­ter Care for Kids

Casey Foun­da­tion Ini­tia­tives and Investments

Over the years, the Casey Foun­da­tion has invest­ed in improv­ing the nation’s child wel­fare sys­tem and, in par­tic­u­lar, fos­ter care. Key invest­ments in this area include:

  • Casey’s Fam­i­ly Well-Being Strat­e­gy Group helps child wel­fare agen­cies, prac­ti­tion­ers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers do bet­ter by chil­dren and fam­i­lies who expe­ri­ence fos­ter care.
  • Casey’s Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive® works at the local, state and nation­al lev­els to advance poli­cies and prac­tices that effec­tive­ly meet the needs of young peo­ple tran­si­tion­ing from fos­ter care to adulthood.
  • Case­book, an inno­v­a­tive infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy sys­tem, focus­es on results for fam­i­lies while pro­vid­ing hands-on help for case­work­ers and supervisors.
  • The CHAMPS cam­paign spurs pol­i­cy improve­ments at the state and nation­al lev­els to pro­vide chil­dren and youth in fos­ter care with the high­est qual­i­ty parenting.
  • Youth Tran­si­tion Fun­ders Group sup­ports the well-being and eco­nom­ic suc­cess of vul­ner­a­ble young peo­ple ages 14 to 25.
  • SPARC, a state pol­i­cy advo­ca­cy and reform cen­ter, aims to strength­en con­nec­tions between state child wel­fare advo­cates and pro­vide resources to enhance their efforts.

The Foun­da­tion has also amassed a trove of lessons from past child wel­fare ini­tia­tives, such as Fam­i­ly to Fam­i­ly and Casey Fam­i­ly Ser­vices.

More Fos­ter Care Resources From the Casey Foundation

The Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter offers 60+ mea­sures of child wel­fare, cus­tomiz­able by state and demo­graph­ic group, as well as a sum­ma­ry of nation­al trends.

Much of the data on this site is derived from the fed­er­al Adop­tion and Fos­ter Care Analy­sis and Report­ing Sys­tem and the Nation­al Youth in Tran­si­tion Data­base.

Check out Casey’s col­lec­tion of fos­ter care resources and sign up for the Child Wel­fare newslet­ter to stay cur­rent on fos­ter care data, updates and news.

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