There’s now a Sesame Street puppet in foster care. One of this year’s superhero blockbusters involved a child in foster care. One of the most popular shows on TV right now has a main character who was adopted. Fostering and adoption are getting more attention than ever, but even with these efforts, it can still feel like a taboo subject, especially when you have questions. After all, these are children we’re talking about. Who really wants to talk about whether or not you want to keep one?
This is a judgment-free zone, so let’s get started.
I think these might be the most common (and potentially awkward) questions about fostering and adoption. If you’re in a TL;DR mood, I highlighted the simple responses in bold. If I missed any, please feel free to leave me a note in the comments or find The Not-The-Mama Dad Blog on Twitter or Facebook.
Oh, and before I forget, here’s my official disclaimer: While I do include research and other websites in some answers, everything here is from my perspective. Things I mention may not be applicable or true in a different state – or even a different county. If you’re curious about any of this, please contact a local foster/adoption agency to get more information. The website AdoptUSKids.org is a great resource to get started.
What’s the difference between fostering and adopting?
Think of it like the difference between renting a home and buying a home; it’s all about primary responsibility and permanency. Fostering a child is to provide a safe home for a limited period of time, ranging from just a few days to several years. Children in foster care have been removed from their birth families and are in either temporary or permanent custody of the state. Foster parents raise children in partnership with social workers and that child’s birth family.
Adoption is the process of legally transferring parental rights and responsibilities from the birth family to the adoptive family. The child’s birth certificate will even get reissued, naming the adoptive family as his/her parents. Social workers and agencies may still offer support, but parental duties are the sole responsibility of the new parents.
You might also hear the term foster-to-adopt, which refers to fostering a child with the intention of eventually adopting him/her when (and if) it’s possible to do so.
What does “fostering” mean?
By definition, foster care is temporary. Foster parents provide a temporary home for children while social workers, birth parents, and judges work through a plan to reunite them with their birth families. Reunification is always the ultimate goal. Children are placed in a temporary foster home until their parents can take steps to repair the problem(s) that resulted in their removal. The steps are outlined in a case plan ordered by a judge. They might be a combination of anger management classes, rehab, financial classes, parenting classes, therapy, or any other restorative and educational service. If after a designated period of time, the birth parents have taken the correct positive steps, they will earn the right to bring their children home. Of course, sometimes this doesn’t happen, and the parents lose custody completely. In this case, the state will work to find a permanent or adoptive home.
What are some of the reasons children get placed in foster care?
Children are placed in foster care because they are living in an unsafe environment. This might be because there is proof of abuse or documented neglect. Many cases do involve drugs, but not all. The important thing to remember is that children are placed in foster situations through no fault of their own. Social workers rescued them from a dangerous situation.
If parents have demonstrated that they can’t take care of their kids – or worse, that they actually harmed them – why is reunification the ultimate goal?
The state protects our rights as parents to raise our own children. If children are removed, the state gives parents opportunities to correct behaviors, learn new skills and improve living conditions. It can be heartbreaking and frustrating to see a child go back into an environment that caused them harm, but a majority of cases conclude with reunification. If reunification isn’t possible, other permanent placement options are evaluated.
What does it take to become a foster parent?
You must have a state-given license to foster. Many states require a foster license for adoption as well. There are four basic steps to becoming licensed as a foster parent:
- Contact an agency to get information. In some locations, there might only be one option. In other locations, especially bigger cities, you may have dozens of options, from public agencies to private nonprofits to international agencies. You can call AdoptUSKids to get referrals at 888-200-4005.
- Complete an application with the agency you chose. Some agencies will have you complete this step first, step 3 first, or both at the same time.
- Complete pre-service training. These sessions can take up to 12 weeks to complete and provide you with information about child care and strategies for parenting foster children. This training is also a great way to network with other parents on the same journey.
- Complete a home study. All foster and adoptive families must complete a home study conducted by a worker from your chosen agency. This home study is used to build a profile to help identify the type of child that will be the best match for you or your family.
How long does the process take?
The process of getting your license can take a long time. It was about 14 months from the time we signed up to the time we had our license in hand. That’s longer than what’s typical because we took our time filling out the application (which can be very lengthy and detailed). The classes alone can take between four and 12 weeks to complete. The application may require inspections and background checks, which must be scheduled separately. From there, the home study can take between three-to-six months to complete. The total time can fluctuate depending on your ability to speed through the application, but also your agency’s current workload.
Just know that this process is not instantaneous. Before you get put on a list to receive a placement, you have weeks and weeks to prepare, thanks to training and one-on-one time with your caseworker.
What’s a home study?
A home study is used to compile a written report about your family. This report is used to help social workers determine the type of child that would best fit your family. The requirements of home studies vary from state to state, but they generally include:
- Financial statements
- Personal backgrounds, including parenting styles and home life
- Education history
- Employment history
- Parenting experiences
- Reasons for wanting to foster/adopt
- Background checks
- Fire inspection report
- Maps to your house and information on your neighborhood
How much does it cost?
Oh boy, this one is complicated. When it comes to adoption, working with a private agency to adopt a newborn or adopting from another country can cost anywhere between $5,000 to $40,000. That being said, there are lots of ways to get financial assistance, from grants to nonprofit aid to tax deductions, all of which can offset most – if not all – of this cost.
Conversely, fostering incurs little to no cost as most everything is covered by the state. What’s more, while a child is in a foster home, the foster parents will get a daily tax-free stipend to cover the basic costs of raising the child, like food and clothing. In no way is this a money-making venture, but it does help provide the financial means to provide good care for the child. Children in foster care are usually given Medicaid cards, which pays for all medical treatments. Some agencies provide transportation and daycare costs. Many agencies also provide vouchers to pay for clothing, formula, diapers, etc.
Can I foster/adopt a child from another state?
Yes, you can adopt a child from another state. This is sometimes called “sharing a home study.” You can get licensed in your home county and then work with any other agency in the United States. National photolistings like AdoptUSkids.org show you children currently available for adoption (that is, they’re in the state’s permanent custody because their biological parents’ rights have been removed).
Fostering across state lines can be tricky, which is why it’s rare. Fostering brings with it another level of responsibility. Many children in foster care still have visiting rights with their birth family, which may require transportation back and forth to that child’s home county. Keep in mind that the further away you get a child for foster placement, the further you may have to travel each week to go to family visits.
What if I don’t get along with the child that’s placed in my home?
Agencies don’t want to place a child in your home that’s not a good fit. If a child isn’t working well with your family, the agency will look for another foster home for them. That being said, it’s important to understand that any removal adds to the trauma that child experiences. This is why it’s important to go through pre-service and continuing training. In these classes, you’ll learn how to be a trauma-informed parent, and you’ll learn to better understand each child’s perspective on their current situation.
Before your home study is complete, you’ll be asked to complete a very detailed checklist of the characteristics you’ll accept and not accept. Fair warning: this can be an agonizing process. On this checklist (here’s an example), you’ll decide what gender, age, ability, delay, medical condition and history you can accept into your family.
For these reasons, you, your social worker and agency will work together to make sure you get a placement that’s a good fit for your family. Finding another foster home is an option, but it should be treated as an absolute last resort.
Do you have to be married and heterosexual to be a foster parent?
No. There are requirements to be a foster parent, but none of them specify that you should be married or heterosexual. Some private agencies may have more specific requirements, but they are the exception, not the rule.
What if I encounter my child’s biological parents?
Say hello! True, this can be a very awkward situation, but it’s not uncommon. In most cases I’ve heard about, these encounters are quick and painless, like passing each other at the grocery store. Your caseworker – and of course the police – are available as resources if the encounter is hostile, though that is rare. If the parents are going through a case plan to get their children back, they know any hostility toward you as the foster parent could hurt their case. If the parents have already had their rights permanently removed, they generally understand they didn’t do what they needed to get them back. That’s why a majority of these encounters are inconsequential.
While we as foster parents are worried about running into the biological parents, the truth is that these encounters are probably going to be much more difficult for the child, who could experience some strong emotions when seeing their birth parents again.
Do I get to pick what kind of child I get?
As a licensed foster parent, you do have say in your placement. In addition to the characteristics checklist (discussed above), you are never obligated to accept any request for placement. So while you might not necessarily get to pick the child you get, you do have the right of refusal.
When it comes to adoption, you get much more control in choosing your child, though social workers will help guide you to a child that best matches your family.
Can I adopt a child I know through my church or neighborhood?
Yes. Before that happens though, caseworkers will look to find extended family members or other people in that child’s life.
How do I know I have what it takes to foster?
There are so many ways to answer this question, but I love the way the Adopt US Kids website phrases it: “Qualities of successful foster and adoptive parents are similar to all parents. Helpful qualities include being willing to seek out and use support services, learn new parenting techniques, and advocate for your child. Flexibility and humor go a long way as well! Critical to being a successful foster and adoptive parent is understanding the challenges these children have faced and not taking their behavior personally.”
If you have the capacity to love a child that’s not your biological offspring, and if you’re willing to learn how to be a parent to children who have experienced trauma, then you have what it takes.
What does it mean when children in foster care have “special needs?”
This is a term you’ll see throughout the foster and adoption process. “Special needs” is a term given to any child that makes them more difficult to place. They might be an older child or have a certain racial/ethnic background. This term could also apply to a child that belongs to a sibling group being placed together as one unit. And while it does apply to medical conditions or disabilities, it’s important to remember that a child with special needs is not necessarily the same as a child who requires special education. The terms aren’t interchangeable.
What’s the average child in foster care like?
Every child and case is unique, but if we look at the whole spectrum of children in foster care, we get a sense for what’s typical. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a report that summarizes the basic characteristics of every child in foster care. As of 2018, the average child in foster care is eight years old. There are slightly more boys than girls in foster care, but it’s pretty much even. Reunification with birth parents is the primary goal in 56% of the cases. In terms of race/ethnicity, 44% of children are white, 23% are black and 21% are Hispanic. Children are in foster care for an average of 20 months before they’re either adopted or returned to their birth families.
Will I be able to adopt the child I foster?
Yes, but only after the birth parents’ rights have been terminated and there are no other relatives available. This is probably the most significant downside of being a foster parent. After providing a home to a child for months (or years), you may have to say goodbye if their parents complete their case plan or if a relative comes out of the woodwork. As mentioned, reunification is the primary goal any time a child has been removed from their home, so in more than half the cases, foster children won’t be available for adoption by their foster parents.
Do I have to adopt the child I foster?
No, you are never required to adopt the child you foster, although this may be presented as an option to you. If the child is adoption-ready and you choose not to adopt, your caseworker will begin seeking an adoptive placement. The child will remain in your care until they find a family seeking to adopt or they age out of the system.
What happens to a child in foster care that doesn’t get adopted?
This is usually called “aging out” of the system, and it’s typically at age 18. When they age out, children in foster care must move out of their foster homes and into independent living. Some states offer transitional support – like access to safe and stable housing – until the children are 21 or older, but some states offer no support at all.
Frankly, this is a really sad situation. When children age out of the system, they’re ineligible to receive state assistance with housing, food or medical care – all of which they received from the foster care system. On top of that, children who age out have usually lacked a stable home or family connection, which leads to a significantly higher rate of substance abuse, mental illness, teen pregnancy, homelessness and arrests.
This is an area that many states are beginning to address, but there’s still a long way to go. One of the ways to prevent this cycle is to encourage more people to become foster parents. With a stable home environment, children are much more likely to succeed into adulthood. Children who are adopted are even more likely to be successful adults.
Do you have any other questions? If so, feel free to leave a comment below, find us on Facebook or Twitter, or use the Contact form on this website. And of course, feel free to reach out to any local foster/adopt agency for more information as it relates to your county and state.
Catch up on the previous entries in the “All About Fostering” series:
What’s next in the “All About Fostering” series:
- Part 3: Myths About Fostering You Probably Believe
- Part 4: Choosing the Right Agency
- June 18 – “Part 5: How The World Treats Fostering Differently”
For more information on adoption, visit adoptuskids.org.
For more information on fostering, visit childwelfare.gov.
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