What Is Foster Care ? And Why Might a Child Need It

Sometimes families experience a crisis where they can no longer care for their children. Foster families can give a child a stable, loving home until they can reunite with their birth family or get adopted. During that time, the foster parents care for the child’s physical, mental, and educational needs.

Here’s what you need to know about what foster care entails, and why children might need foster care.

What Is Foster Care?

Foster care is a temporary living situation for children whose families can no longer take care of them. A foster parent or family welcomes a child into their own home to live with them.

Foster care is usually a temporary arrangement, although in some cases it leads to a permanent adoption. Sometimes, the foster parents are relatives of the child (e.g., an aunt, uncle, or grandparent). Sometimes they are not related to the child.

A court of law will decide when a child should go into foster care. A judge will assign a child welfare caseworker to each child. That caseworker communicates with both the foster family and the birth family.

Both private and public agencies (state, county, and tribal) provide foster care. There is a great need for foster families in this country. There are currently almost 400,000 children and youth in foster care in the U.S.

The goal of foster care is a reunion with the child’s birth family, if possible. About half of all children in the foster system eventually get reunited with their birth family. Others get adopted or age out of the system at 18.

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Why Might a Child Need Foster Care?

The reasons a child might need foster care vary widely. It usually involves a family crisis, abuse, or neglect.

The child may get placed in foster care because a parent died. Other reasons include a parent’s substance use disorder, poverty, or homelessness.

Children placed in foster care range in age from newborns through teens. Sometimes sibling groups get placed in foster care.

How Does Foster Care Work?

A child gets placed with a foster care agency after a court determines their living situation is no longer safe. This often happens after reports of abuse or neglect. The agency then reaches out to a foster family to care for the child.

Foster families are couples or individuals who provide a safe, loving home for the child. They receive hands-on training to prepare for the challenges of foster care. The training includes CPR and other first aid instruction.

Prospective foster parents go through home inspections and background checks. They must provide character references and agree to work with child welfare agencies. They must always have the child’s best interest at heart.

Throughout the time a child is with a foster family, a child welfare caseworker checks on their well-being and progress. The caseworker also keeps in touch with the child’s birth family.

Foster parents receive a monthly stipend to reimburse them for the child’s expenses. This financial support varies from state to state. It is not “payment”, but is for food, clothing, school supplies, and other costs they may have in caring for the child.

Who Can Become a Foster Parent?

Many different types of people become foster parents. There’s no one set model for a foster family.

Some foster families are couples with children of their own. Others are single people without children, or older people whose children have grown. The state of Pennsylvania welcomes same-sex couples as foster parents.

According to the National Foster Parent Association, some of the basic requirements for becoming a foster parent are:

  • Being able to provide a child with 24-hour care and supervision every day.
  • Being able to work as part of a team.
  • Being at least 21 years old.
  • Being flexible, patient, and understanding.
  • Having a home free of fire and safety hazards.
  • Having a sense of humor.
  • Having a stable family life.
  • Having the financial ability to care for yourself without the child’s stipend.
  • Providing character references.
  • Submitting to a background check, criminal history check, and fingerprinting of each adult member of the household.
  • Undergoing a home inspection and personal interview.

Finally, foster parents must realize they are making a major commitment to the children they foster. They will share their home with children who need a safe place to stay, for as long as they need it. It’s a big life change, and it comes with challenges.

Foster children have usually been through trauma, and don’t always respond in a loving way. Moving out of their home, no matter what the situation, is stressful. They may have more physical issues, learning disabilities, and mental health problems than most other children.

Foster parents need to expect some tough times along the way. But most find fostering children to be a rewarding, meaningful experience.

What Is the Process to Become a Foster Parent?

To become a foster parent, you must go through a series of steps. They may vary depending on where you live. Each state has different rules, procedures, and licensing requirements for foster care.

But in general, if you’re interested in becoming a foster parent, you must:

  • If you live in Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington, or Fayette county, contact UPMC Western Behavioral Health at Mon Yough’s Specialized Foster Care Program. Otherwise, locate public and private agencies in your area. You can start with the National Foster Care & Adoption Directory. You should talk to people at different agencies and find one your feel comfortable with.
  • Attend an informational meeting at the agency or in your home.
  • Submit to a family assessment, or “home study”. You’ll complete lengthy questionnaires about yourself and your family. They will touch on your relationships, interests, and motivations for becoming a foster parent.
  • Provide at least three personal references.
  • Submit to a background check. A previous charge or conviction doesn’t necessarily disqualify you, depending on what and when it was. The background checks are to eliminate people who have a history of harming children.
  • Submit to a home safety check.
  • Go through up to 30 hours of training, including first aid training.
  • Wait to receive your license. You’ll receive a written report from the licensing worker about the children that might be best for your family. You need to receive the license before an agency can place a child in your home.

Becoming a foster parent is a major commitment. You can find out more at the Child Information Gateway, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

UPMC Western Behavioral Health provides a range of support services for foster families and those who might be looking to foster in the future. For more information or to learn how you can become a foster parent, visit our website.

National Foster Parent Association, Foster Parent Information, Link

National Foster Parent Association, Becoming a Foster Parent, Link

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, How do I become a foster parent? Link

Children's Bureau and Child Welfare Information Gateway, Key Facts and Statistics, Link

AdoptUSKids.org, Who can adopt and foster? Link

American Academy of Pediatrics, Foster Parenting, Link

American Academy of Pediatrics, Foster Care Frequently Asked Questions, Link

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.