The protection and nurturance of children is a universal goal shared by all human cultures. Children thrive best when they live in safe, stable, and nurturing families. However, many children in the United States lack this type of home environment. For these children whose families are not safe havens, a caring society needs to find alternative foster care placements.
Foster care refers to the system that provides protection for minor children who are unable to live with their biological parents. Currently there are over 500,000 children in foster care in the United States. The goal of the foster care system is to provide abused and neglected children with an environment of safety, permanency, and nurturance.
The Purpose of Foster Care
In many states the foster care system makes provisions for both voluntary and involuntary foster care. Voluntary foster care involves circumstances stemming from parental problems that render parents unable to care for their children (e.g., illness, substance abuse, AIDS, incarceration, or death) or from situations when a child’s behavioral or physical problems require specialized treatment and parents are unwilling to care for their children.
Involuntary foster care requires the removal of children from their parents to ensure the children’s safety. The children are usually victims of abuse or neglect whom the court removes from their homes and places in the state’s custody. Young children tend to be placed in homes with foster families, while teens tend to be placed into residential facilities or group homes.
Children in Foster Care
Removal from their homes and placement into a foster care setting is both difficult and stressful for children. Although they come into foster care because of their exposure to serious abuse and maltreatment, family problems, and any number of risk factors, many children struggle with feelings of guilt and blame for being removed from their homes.
Many children also experience a sense of confusion, anxiety, stress, and loss. In addition, they may feel unwanted and helpless about their placement in a foster care setting; they may have difficulty attaching themselves to the many different foster parents they encounter as they move from one placement to another; and they may be insecure about their future. Prolonged and multiple foster care placements can contribute to negative outcomes for some of these children. For example, children—especially adolescents—who have been in foster care for an extended time have difficulty developing self-sufficiency and independence in adulthood.
Children need consistency, connectedness, and a sense of belonging to have a successful, healthy development. Providing a safe, stable, nurturing environment can bolster resilience and the short- and long-term adjustment of children.
The foster care system provides only a temporary living arrangement for vulnerable children to ensure their safety and well-being. Children remain in foster care placements until the problems that caused their removal are solved. Decisions made about the future for foster care children are called “permanency planning.”
A successful resolution enables children to return home. However, if no successful resolution to the problem occurs, the court may terminate parental rights and free the children for adoption, or else provide long-term care with foster parents or relatives. Fortunately, more than half of children in the foster care system get reunited with their birth parents or primary caregivers. In addition, more than 2 million children live with grandparents or other relatives because they were not able to return to live with their parents.
Approximately half of the children in foster care spend at least 2 years in the system and one in five children remains in the system for 5 years or more. Some children in foster care move between families as many as seven times during their stay.
The Foster Care System
The number of children in the foster care system continues to increase. While the foster care system is essential in helping abused, abandoned, and neglected children, many children remain in foster care for long periods of time when family reunification or adoption is planned. Court delays can often extend the time between when children enter the foster care system and when they are placed into permanent homes.
Significant differences exist in the quality of care and outcomes for children depending on their race and ethnicity. The percentage of children of color in the foster care system is larger than the percentage of children of color among the general U.S. population. However, the occurrence of child abuse and neglect is at about the same rate in all racial/ethnic groups.
The foster care system tends not to be a cohesive system; it is a combination of many different intertwining agencies whose responsibilities include the provision of services, financial support, and other services to children and families. Many foster care agencies find themselves unable to provide adequate, accessible, and appropriate services for these children and families. In addition, many of these agencies have high caseloads and high staff turnover.
Over the past 40 years, an evolution occurred in the development of the U.S. policy that influences the protection, placement, and care of children in foster care. However, serious gaps still exist in areas such as the provision of adequate, accessible, and appropriate community-based services for families; the development and implementation of individualized service plans for birth parents; the provision of supportive training programs for foster parents; and the high caseloads of caseworkers. As society continues to struggle with problems such as poverty, violent crimes, substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, homelessness, and racism, the need for foster care services also continues to grow. Although the foster care system is not the most desirable parental option for a child, the system is an alternative that usually provides a safe, stable, and nurturing home for children who otherwise would be exposed to detrimental and traumatic circumstances.
- Courtney, Mark E., Richard P. Barth, Jill D. Berrick, Barbara Needell, and Linda Park. 1996. “Race and Child Welfare Services: Past Research and Future Directions.” Child Welfare 75(2):99-137.
- Kortenkamp, Katherine and Jennifer Ehrie. 2002. Well-Being of Children Involved with the Child Welfare System: A National Overview. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.
- Roberts, Dorothy. 2001. Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. New York: Basic Civitas Books.
- S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. 2003. “Child Welfare Outcomes 2000.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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