foster care

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Foster care is a state-run system in which a minor child–called a foster child–is taken into state custody and placed in the care of state-licensed adults who are not the child’s parent or guardian. This might take the form of a group home or ward. Other foster children live in private homes with a foster family (foster parents, foster siblings, etc.) In either case, though caregivers owe a legal duty to foster children, legal custody lies with the state. As such, caregivers might be restricted in making some decisions for a foster child.

Foster care is utilized when a child’s home becomes unsafe or unstable, generally in the event of abuse or neglect. Children might also enter foster care if their parent(s) or guardian(s) can no longer care for them due to illness, death, or incarceration, for example. Generally courts order a child’s removal from their home and placement into foster care. However–though rare–some parents do voluntarily relinquish their rights and place their child in foster care.

Foster care is meant as a temporary measure. Most often, children reunite with their parent or guardian after safety issues have been resolved and the parent or guardian has proven they can properly care for their child. Other times, children permanently reside with a relative or a person of no relation with whom the child is familiar (though kinship and non-related kinship placings are often non considered foster care). Some foster families legally adopt their foster children, at which point the child’s legal relationship with their biological parent is severed. However, some children “age out” of the foster care system, reaching the age of majority before a permanent familial relationship can be established.

[Last updated in August of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]