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

Updated on August 3, 2021 and originally posted February 6, 2014 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Frequently Asked Questions About Foster Care

Over the years, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has invested considerable resources on improving the nation’s child welfare system and, in particular, foster care. Among our investments in this area:

  • Casey's Family Well-Being Strategy Group: a team which helps child welfare agencies, practitioners and policymakers do better by children and families who experience foster care.
  • Casey's Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative®: a systems-change effort that works at the local, state and national levels to advance policies and practices to most effectively meet the needs of young people transitioning from foster care to adulthood.
  • Casebook: an innovative information technology system focused on results for families and also provides hands-on help for caseworkers and supervisors.
  • CHAMPS: a campaign to spur policy improvements nationally and in states to ensure children and youth in foster care experience the highest quality parenting.
  • Youth Transitions Funders Group: a national network of funders that work together to support the well-being and economic success of vulnerable young people aged 14 to 25.
  • SPARC: a state policy and advocacy center, designed to strengthen child welfare advocacy.

In addition, we continue to mine a rich trove of lessons learned from past child welfare initiatives, such as Family to Family and Casey Family Services.

The Foster Care System: What It Is and How It Works

In this post, we explain what foster care is, how it works and what problems exist within the foster care system today that can be improved to help ensure better outcomes for children and youth in the future.

For all the latest information and data on foster care initiatives, check out our foster care resources and sign up for our Child Welfare newsletter today.

What Is Foster Care?

Foster care is a temporary living situation for children 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, with foster families or in group facilities. Over half of children who enter foster care return to their families.

Why Are Kids in Foster Care?

Children are in foster care because they or their families are going through a crisis. Often these children — from babies to teens — have been removed from their parents because they are unsafe, abused or neglected or their parents are unable to care for them. By law, children in foster care are supposed to have contact with family — their parents, brothers and sisters — through regular visits while they are in foster care.

Foster children report that being away from family and familiar surroundings, and not always knowing what’s next, are among the hardest parts of foster care. On the other hand, while they miss their families, children may realize that being in the foster care system can be a better solution, at least temporarily. Listening to young peoples’ experiences in foster care is a critical challenge for agencies nationwide looking to improve child welfare in foster care.

What Is the Goal of Foster Care?

A key goal of foster care is to ensure that children live in stable, lifelong families, since secure attachment to at least one parenting adult is crucial to healthy child development and well-being. Foster care is meant to be temporary — until a parent can get back on track, or a relative, guardian or adoptive family agrees to raise a child.

How Do Children Get Into Foster Care? Who Decides That a Child Needs to be in Foster Care?

Typically, children come to the attention of the child welfare system, staffed by government officials, through a report of child abuse or neglect. Social workers investigate allegations and the agency must get approval from a judge if they determine it is not safe for the child to stay at home.

While there were an estimated 676,000 maltreatment cases in 2016 (a rate of 9.1 per 1,000 children in the population), only 143,866 of them received foster care services. Another estimated 59,716 children were placed in foster care without a finding of abuse or neglect. Many more children and their families receive supportive services in their homes, provided by the child welfare agency or a community service provider.

The agency must go to court to seek temporary custody of the child. Part of being in foster care is being visited by caseworkers and having judges check on children periodically. Caseworkers are responsible for keeping children safe and getting them into stable, long-term family situations as soon as possible; judges oversee this process. They also need to ensure that children’s needs are being met—that they are going to school, for example, and getting health care and staying in touch with their families.

Child welfare agencies focus on finding permanence, based on federal laws that promote the need for children 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 involve children, their parents and other adults in planning how to achieve permanence for children in foster care.

Foster Care Data and Statistics

How Many Children Are in Foster Care?

In 2018, about 424,653 children were in foster care. Nearly one third of them lived with relatives. There are slightly more boys than girls in foster care.

How Many Babies Are in Foster Care?

In both 2017 and 2018, nationally 7% of youth in foster care were foster care babies. In the states, the percentage of babies younger than age 1 in foster care has little variation. In Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Vermont, foster care babies make up 5% of the population and it reaches a high of 10% in Maine and Oklahoma.

How long do children stay in foster care?

Just under half of kids spend less than a year in the foster care system. Nearly 40% of foster kids spend one to three years. Lengths of stay vary according to the circumstances of children and families, but they also differ because of choices local, state and federal agencies and communities make about how children will be cared for and the kinds of services and programs that will be available to help children return safely to their families.

Visit the KIDS COUNT® Data Center for More Foster Care Data

The Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Center provides the best available data on child well-being in the United States, including data on child abuse and neglect and out-of-home placement. Much of the child welfare data on the site is provided by the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), the best state-by-state accounting of children and youth in foster care, and the National Youth in Transition Database.

Problems With the Foster Care System Today

In many communities, African-American children are overrepresented in foster care; in others, Native Americans or Latinos are. The reasons that children of color are disproportionately represented in some child welfare systems are complex and have inspired much study, activism and efforts to change how communities support vulnerable families.

In the United States, child welfare issues, including those involving foster children, are managed by local and state agencies; this may be one reason for the tremendous variety in the child welfare experiences of children and families in the foster care system.

Evidence indicates there are significant differences in the need for child welfare interventions by race. In many communities, African American children are at greater risk of child maltreatment than white children, largely because of the higher correlation between maltreatment and poverty and the higher poverty rates experienced by African American families. At the same time, one important national study found that, when risk factors such as socioeconomic status and family structure are considered, white children may be more at risk of maltreatment than African- American children in some instances.

Another complex issue: The relationship between poverty and child maltreatment. While research indicates poverty does not cause neglect, poverty, especially when combined with risk factors such as substance abuse and mental health problems, can increase the likelihood of child abuse and neglect. It is important to note, however, that most children living in poverty (regardless of race) do not experience maltreatment.

Common Questions About Foster Care

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

Foster parents are relatives or nonrelative adults who step up to care for children who have experienced abuse or neglect or whose parents are unable to care for them. They try to provide children as much caring and normalcy as possible, while also helping prepare children for a permanent placement, either through a return to birth parents or adoption. Foster parents, sometimes called resource parents, are licensed by the state and trained caregivers.

What Is a Group Home vs a Foster Home?

Some children in foster care don’t live with foster families. They live in group settings, sometimes called congregate care, with several or many other foster children. This includes group homes, where a group of foster children live together with staff members who work in shifts (who are sometimes called “house parents”); shelters; residential treatment centers and other non-family living situations.

While quality residential settings are key features of any child welfare system, in some communities too many children are placed in group settings unnecessarily, 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, increasing resources available for foster care prevention and children living in families and reducing funding for group placements that are clinically unnecessary.

What Happens When Kids Leave Foster Care?

Each year about half of children who leave foster care return to their parents or a previous caregiver. Most do not re-enter foster care; the hope is that issues that brought them into the child welfare system have been addressed. Nearly 42,000 young people leave foster care to live permanently with a relative or guardian. Each year, more than 50,000 children who can’t return to their parents are adopted, most often by the relative or foster parent with whom they have been living while in foster care.

Kids who are teenagers when they first enter foster care often face particular challenges. If they aren’t returned to their parents or adopted by the time they become adults, they may struggle emotionally, educationally and financially. Kids who “age out” of foster care — about 20,000 each year — often don’t have the support they need to launch into adulthood. These young adults are more likely to report being homeless and jobless than others their age or children who achieved permanence. They may struggle to form relationships and are more likely to be incarcerated and to have children before they have sufficient resources to care for them.

Find More Information on Kids in Foster Care

There are many good sources of information on the number of kids in foster care. Here are a few:

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