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What Is Foster Care?

Foster care is a system that gives children a temporary placement when in situations where their parents are unable to care for them or they do not have any parents or legal guardian. Depending on the situation, parents may be temporarily or permanently unable to care for their child.

A child may end up in the foster care system for a number of reasons, including:

  • Being orphaned or abandoned
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Neglect, including lack of access to medical attention
  • Domestic violence between parents
  • Drug or alcohol abuse in the family home
  • A report to a child welfare agency about the safety of the child and stability of the home
  • Incarceration of parents
  • Juvenile criminal offenses that leave parents unable to care for the child
  • Voluntary placement by parents for the child's well-being

Typically a state child welfare agency has legal custody while the child is in foster care, although there are certain situations that allow the parents to keep their custody rights.

Types of Foster Care

Children in the foster care system may be placed in a number of different living situations, such as:

  • Foster family home: a placement with foster parents or family in their home
  • Group home: a facility housing six or more foster children supervised by professional staff members
  • Formal kinship care arrangement: placement of the child with a relative or other adult who has an existing kinship bond to provides full-time care
  • Informal kinship care arrangement: with or without the help of a social worker, parents maintain legal custody of the child but decide a relative or another adult with a kinship bond that will provide full-time care for the child

Custody Rights and Foster Care

In most cases when a child is placed in foster care, a child welfare agency or the state has legal custody of the child and the parents temporarily or permanently lose their custody rights. However, informal kinship care arrangements allow parents to keep their custody rights until there is formal state intervention or they voluntarily give up their rights.

Since foster care placements may be temporary, some parents may regain their custody rights when they are back on their feet and able to show they can provide better care. In cases where the parents are unable or unwilling to regain custody, the state continues to have legal custody of the child.

Sometimes foster parents wish to adopt the children they foster, giving them legal custody of the child moving forward. An experienced family law attorney can help you determine where your custody rights stand and how to move forward when dealing with the foster care system.

Becoming a Foster Parent

Generally, a foster parent may be a single person or a married couple, although some states do not accept unmarried unrelated adults living together as foster parents. Some individual agencies have been known to discriminate against same-sex couples, but the laws surrounding this issue continue to evolve and provide protections for these couples.

Each state has a different process to become a foster parent. States consider a number of factors and generally require a candidate for a foster parent:

  • Be older than 21 years old
  • Attend all training sessions on foster parenting provided by a government or non-profit agency
  • Have a stable source of income to support the child's needs
  • Have the ability to provide other childcare for times they are working and the child is not in school
  • Have a home with room to house the child
  • Submit to home assessments for all household members
  • Have no prior felony convictions or any misdemeanor convictions involving sexual, child, or elder abuse

Foster Parent Rights

A number of states have enacted a Foster Parent Bill of Rights to protect foster families and oftentimes give foster parents priority to adopt their foster child if the option becomes available. Although each state has different protections and regulations, generally most states afford foster parents the right to:

  • Be treated with respect and dignity as part of the child's professional welfare team
  • Communicate with other professionals working with the foster child
  • Receive training and support while acting as a foster parent
  • Timely and adequate financial reimbursement for related expenses
  • Receive information on the child's life and medical information before or at the time of the placement
  • Refuse or request the placement of a child without reprisal
  • Prompt and fair investigation and adjudication of foster home complaints
  • An outlet to voice their own complaints
  • Be notified of any court proceedings or change affecting the child's placement
  • Assistance with planning visitations with the child's parents or siblings
  • Priority consideration for adoption if the option becomes available

Although foster parents have generally the same power to consent on behalf of the child as a parent would, there are exceptions. Most foster parents cannot consent to their foster child getting married, enlisting in the military, or receiving any life-altering medical treatments. This ability to consent may be further restricted if the child was placed in foster care voluntarily.

Children With Disabilities and Medical Needs

To be a foster parent for a child with different physical or mental abilities or medical needs, there may be additional requirements during your screening process. Your foster child may require special medical or housing accommodations, physical or behavioral therapy, among other resources to provide the best care for the child.

You may be eligible to receive additional funding or support when caring for a child with different needs as well. A family law attorney in your state can help you understand the requirements for becoming a foster parent in your state, as well as any special circumstances that may apply to your situation or your future foster child.

Aging Out of Foster Care

Since the foster care system is for children, generally the children age out of the system when they turn 18 years old although there is no set age. Federal law requires a state to assist a child transitioning out of foster care and gaining independence.

Historically, children aging out of foster care have suffered higher rates of homelessness, substance abuse, pregnancy, mental illness, as well as arrests and incarceration. Under the Foster Care Independence Act, states receive funds to help children transition out of the system by providing assistance like mentorship programs, access to safe housing, education vouchers, Medicaid coverage, among other programs for support.

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