How the Foster Care System Works

Updated January 27, 2018
hands reaching out to child

As of 2016, around 30,000 babies were in the U.S. foster care system reports the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). The U.S. foster care system consists of agencies following state guidelines to remove children from harmful living situations and place them in temporary homes. The goal of foster care is always to help a child's natural caregiver regain placement of their children in a safe, loving and nurturing environment.

Children in Foster Care

Boy in the car

Children are placed in foster care for a number of reasons, the top two being neglect and parent drug abuse, which can significantly affect a baby's development, according to the most recent AFCARS. Other reasons include physical abuse, poor housing, incarceration of parents, and death of the primary caregiver. If a prenatal investigation determines a newborn would not be safe at home with the biological parents, the baby can be taken into foster care immediately upon birth.


Upon investigating allegations of child abuse or neglect, a local government agency may decide it's in the best interest of the child to be removed from the home. A foster care agency then looks for a temporary home for the child. Whenever possible, agencies look for family members or close family friends who are willing and able to care for the child until the biological parent or legal guardian meets certain criteria to retake placement of their child. If there is no relative or friend who can care for the child, the agency looks in their database of licensed foster parents to find a home with room for the child. Parental rights vary by state but usually, the biological parents are to meet the foster parent within a week of the child's removal from their home. Temporary home considerations include a location nearby so the child can maintain a relationship with their biological family during their time in foster care.

Age Differences

According to AFCARS, about eight percent of kids in the foster care system are under the age of one. The process of placement into foster homes is the same for kids of any age, but the ability and current living situation for foster families often dictate which children are most age-appropriate for that home. reports babies tend to move between about three foster homes within their first few months of care. Babies and toddlers also have the highest chance of any age group of experiencing victimization while in foster care and remain in the system for longer periods.


While the foster care system often comes with a negative connotation and stigma, there are many statistics to show the system is helping a lot of children. As with any nationwide program, there are challenges too.

  • Children spend an average of twenty months in foster care before returning to their primary caregiver or finding another permanent home (AFCARS).
  • One in three babies who leave foster care re-enter the system according to a report by
  • About one in three infants enter the system straight from the hospital.
  • The number of children in foster care is increasing, but in about half of all U.S. states, the capacity to house foster children is decreasing.

Become a Foster Parent

While some children are placed in foster homes with relatives, nearly half are placed in nonrelative foster families according to the AFCARS. To participate in family foster care, parents must participate in an elaborate and rigorous process which is typically free. Each state and agency may follow a different process or set of steps to obtain licensure. Contact a private or public agency in your area and attend an orientation session to find out more about the process in your area which could take anywhere from four to twelve months says AdoptUSKids.

If you're considering opening your home to kids in need, ask yourself these questions to get started:

  • Can my family get by financially now?
  • Do I have a safe home with ample space for more children?
  • Am I able to provide daily care for an infant?
  • Is my daily schedule flexible?
  • Am I emotionally and physically equipped to care for a baby?
  • Am I interested in helping children without any ulterior motive for self-gain?

If you can honestly answer "yes" to all these questions, the next step is to seek out a foster care agency in your area for more information. Check with your local Department of Children and Family Services or similar government agency to find more information about public foster care providers.


Once you've decided to move forward on the journey to foster parenting, you'll start working on the application. Expect to provide accurate and detailed information such as proof of age and verification of income. You'll also need letters of reference from employers or friends and the adults in the home will have to pass a criminal background and child abuse registry check at state and federal levels. The family caseworker in your area will help you fill this out. Until you complete the entire application process and you receive licensure, you won't be able to have any foster children placed in your home.


men and women in classroom

While you're working on your application, you'll also need to take part in a training course that includes ten to thirty hours of class time. In these sessions, you'll meet other parents on the path to foster parenting, learn about the process and learn about the children's perspectives and needs over the course of four to ten weeks. Training programs include Parent Resources for Information Development and Education (PRIDE) and the Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting (MAPP).

Home Study

At some point during or immediately after completing the application and training program, your caseworker will visit your home at least once, but possibly several times, to assess your living environment. This family assessment includes interviews with all household members and a home safety check. The caseworker uses this information to determine if your home is suitable for infants and how many children make sense given your living situation. If there are safety concerns, you will be informed and given opportunities to fix or correct those issues.

Potential Challenges

Becoming a foster parent can be a rewarding experience like no other for obvious reasons. However, it also includes many challenges given the nature of the process. Foster parents should be aware:

  • These children have potentially experienced physical or sexual abuse, neglect, malnourishment and extreme poverty which can result in major medical and behavioral concerns requiring extra care. Babies who can't express their needs, symptoms, or feelings provide the extra challenge for foster parents to identify potential issues.
  • Infants and babies are particularly at risk to experience separation anxiety or an unhealthy attachment to caregivers.
  • You'll need to be available to take children to regular appointments and possibly visits with biological parents. In these circumstances, you may have the chance to form some type of relationship with biological parents, which could be good or challenging.
  • There may be little time to prepare as a baby could be brought to your home within an hour of your agreeing to take in a child. You'll need to have everything from a crib and car seat to clothing, diapers, and formula available upon the child's arrival as they aren't likely to come with any of these resources.
  • Foster mothers who are able to breast-feed need biological parent permission.

Laws on Foster Care

According to the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition, each state can make their own specific laws regarding foster care and adoption, but to get federal funding they must follow federal laws and regulations.

Putting Children First

The foster care system exists to help children a good life starting with the basics of providing for their basic physical and emotional needs. Without the support of selfless foster families, the system could not operate. Every social program, including the foster care system, has strengths and weaknesses, but at the end of the day, it's all about helping others.

How the Foster Care System Works