Foster Care (Glossary)

Foster care is temporary care, under state or county supervision, of children who are unable to remain in the homes of their primary caregivers. Children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care for a variety of reasons, and their stay in foster care can range from a few hours or days to years.

The main reason a child is placed in foster care is that his/her home environment presented a danger to the child - a physical danger, a health-related danger, or an emotional danger.

Today in the United States, there are over 500,000 children in foster care. They are cared for in foster homes, group homes, or facilities offering specialized levels of care, depending on their needs, and depending on space available. There is a critical shortage of foster parents in the U.S., and foster children are often housed inappropriately because of it.

Foster care programs are funded by both individual states and the federal government.

Foster Care is Child Safety Net

Foster care is the system by which children receive care from extended family, neighbors, or strangers when their parents are unable to provide it. It has existed throughout history, first as informal arrangements and then often arranged through churches. It has evolved over the past 100 years into the present government-regulated system. Foster care - in which individuals open their homes to children in need - replaced the orphanages of the past as people came to realize that a home environment was best for a child.

Traditionally, foster care described a small number of children staying with a family (or a single foster parent) in their home for months or years. This kind of care can also be short-term - a few days to a few weeks - in cases where the child can be returned quickly to the family.

But there are other types of foster care. Emergency foster care homes are open 24 hours a day for short term use, just until social services can arrange for a long-term solution. For example, if a child's parents were arrested or hospitalized, social services might put the child in emergency care until relatives could be contacted or a longer-term foster home found. Respite or relief care families take children for a few days to give their families a short break. Some foster children, usually those who are older or who have special needs, may live in group homes.

Foster care is funded at the federal and state level (though private non-profit agencies may also rely on charitable contributions), and regulated by each individual state. However, it is administered at the county level, where county or private social service workers conduct the day to day work of placing children, training foster parents, and following through on the care being provided.

The heart of foster care is foster parents - married or single individuals or families who open their hearts and homes to children in need. The process and guidelines for becoming a foster parent differ between states, but always involves screening, training and licensing. If you are interested in becoming a foster parent, www.adoption.com offers some useful starting information. Or look in the phone book for your county's department of social services. They will be able to guide you to the next step.