Families come in all shapes and sizes. Some kids live with both parents. Others live with either just mom or just dad or go back and forth between their parents' homes. Others might live with a grandparent.
And some kids live with a foster family. In the United States, state governments help organize the foster family program. What's a foster family? Let's find out.
What Are Foster Families?
The word "foster" means to help someone (or something) grow and develop. It also means to take care of someone's needs. Foster parents, then, are people — other than a kid's parents — who provide a safe place for kids to be cared for. They take kids into their homes and let them stay for a while.
Kids can do a lot of things for themselves, but they also need someone to take care of them. Kids need a house, a place to sleep, nutritious food to eat, clothes to wear, and toys to play with. Kids also need someone who will take them to the doctor and dentist, make sure they get a bath, and get them up in the morning so they get to school. And just as important, kids need someone who loves them and does not hurt or abuse them.
Most of the time, kids live in homes where they are loved and get all the important things they need. But if a kid's mom or dad can't provide proper care or is hurting or abusing the kid, the state needs to step in and place the child in another home. It's often not forever, but until the child's parents or another relative can care for him or her properly. It might be just for overnight, or it might be for a few months or several years.
Who Can Be a Foster Parent?
Not just anyone can be a foster parent. The office that organizes the foster family program checks out people who want to be foster parents. They need to make sure that foster parents are responsible, law-abiding people who will take good care of foster children. Foster parents can be a married couple or a single or divorced person. They can be young or old, with jobs outside the home or not. They can have young children of their own, grown-up kids, or none at all.
It's common for a person's home to be inspected and for the person to receive training before he or she is allowed to care for foster kids. Foster parents sometimes have to pass a written test! The training they get is important because it helps them understand and work with the kids who are coming to live with them.
It's very difficult for a kid to leave his or her parent, or parents, and move in with a foster family. This is true even if there were a lot of problems and unhappiness in the home. Foster parents need to be especially kind people to help kids feel safe and cared for during this stressful time.
Why Do Kids Live With Foster Families?
Most often, a kid goes into a foster family because his or her mom or dad has a problem with drugs or alcohol. Other times, a parent may be very sick, in jail, or have some other trouble. The parents may need so much help with their own problems that they aren't able to focus on what the kid needs. Sadly, kids may be abused or neglected, too.
Some kids remain in foster care for a long time, but the goal is to limit the amount of time in a foster family. When possible, the same state agency that runs the foster family program tries to help the family get back together. But this can happen only if the parents can fix the problems they had. They need to show that they will take good care of their kid and keep him or her safe.
What Happens When a Kid Goes to a Foster Family?
Going to live with a foster family means a lot of changes — not all of them bad ones. It can feel good for the kid to be in a calm, new place. But there are challenges, too. It may be tough getting adjusted to foster parents and the rules they have at their house. There may be other children in the family to get to know.
Living with a foster family also may mean going to a new school. New classmates, new teachers, and new rules — so many things can be different all at once!
It's no wonder, then, that kids in foster care have to deal with a lot of emotions. They can feel happy and secure when they're in a loving foster family, but also sad and worried about their own moms or dads. They might feel afraid, wondering what will happen next, or angry about the whole situation. All of this can make for a lot of stress.
What Do Caseworkers Do?
To help kids in foster care adjust, every child is assigned a social worker, who might also be called a caseworker. His or her job is to make up a plan for each child. The plan describes what kind of help the family needs so that they can be together again. The social worker checks on how everyone is doing and arranges visits with the kid's mom or dad — and his or her brothers and sisters if they aren't living in the same foster home.
The caseworker helps make decisions about when the child and his or her parents can live together again. Courts and judges also play a part in these decisions. If a kid has concerns, the caseworker is a good person to share them with. A kid might be worried about what it will be like to go back and live with his or her parent. Or a kid might have concerns about the foster family.
It's very important that the kid has a peaceful place to live and that he or she gets the proper care. If that's not happening with the foster family, the kid needs to tell someone. The caseworker can make changes, if necessary.
What Happens Next?
Everyone hopes that the kid can eventually leave foster care and return to his or her family. But sometimes, this can't happen. In those cases, a kid may remain in foster care or go to live with another relative.
But more often, the family is reunited after caseworkers, the courts, and other state agencies agree that the family's problems are being addressed. Parents also must show that they are ready to do their job and care properly for their children.
Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: January 2011
© 1995-2014 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.