What to Know About Foster Care

Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on May 04, 2022

Foster care, also known as out-of-home care, is provided for children who can't safely live with their parents. Approximately half of all children who are placed in foster care will eventually be reunited with their families. Foster care is meant to be temporary, and the ultimate goal is for the child to be in a stable, lifelong family. 

What Is Foster Care?

Foster care is a temporary living situation for children whose parents can't take care of them. Children are placed in foster care if their current living situation is deemed unsafe by a judge after being investigated by social workers. Each child placed in foster care has a caseworker who is responsible for ensuring their needs are met, including: 

  • Keeping them in school
  • Maintaining their connections with family
  • Obtaining appropriate medical care
  • Reuniting them with their parents or placing them with a permanent family as quickly as possible

How Does Foster Care Work?

When Child Protective Services (CPS) investigates an allegation of abuse or neglect and finds that a child is in an unsafe living situation, they will go in front of a judge to obtain an order to remove the child from their home. The child will then be placed in foster care until their parents can take care of them again. If their parents can’t take care of them again, CPS will try to place them with a permanent family. 

There are several different kinds of foster care, including: 

Family foster care. In family foster care, a child is placed with related or unrelated adults who have been approved to provide care for them. 

Treatment foster care. Children with significant emotional, behavioral, social, or medical needs may be placed in treatment foster care. Also called therapeutic foster care, it's provided by foster parents with specialized training. Treatment foster care provides a more structured home environment than traditional foster care, while also providing safe and nurturing care. 

OPPLA/APPLA. Other planned permanent living arrangement (OPPLA) or another planned permanent living arrangement (APPLA) replaced the term "long-term foster care" in 1997. OPPLA foster care occurs when the child welfare agency maintains custody of a child in foster care until they're an adult. This situation is a last-resort option and only occurs when all other options have been ruled out. 

Foster Care Requirements

State agencies are responsible for children in foster care and monitoring their placement. Prospective foster families undergo an assessment of their personal characteristics and home environments to ensure they're capable of providing nurturing, safe homes in the best interests of the children in foster care. The requirements for foster care parents vary considerably from state to state, but some common requirements include:

Personal qualifications. Most states require that prospective foster parent applicants: 

  • Have reached a certain age, either 18, 19, or 21, depending on the state
  • Have sufficient family income apart from foster care benefits to meet their financial obligations 
  • Are healthy enough to take care of young children
  • Don't have communicable diseases, illnesses, or disabilities that would endanger the child or prevent them from taking care of them
  • Don't have mental health conditions that would prevent them from caring for a child

Training requirements. Most states have laws that outline the training prospective foster care parents must complete before becoming licensed to provide foster care. This training typically includes:  

  • The responsibilities and roles of foster care parents
  • Licensing requirements
  • Policies and procedures of state agencies
  • Child development
  • Appropriate discipline methods
  • Behavioral management
  • Child and home safety
  • Cultural sensitivity
  • How fostering will affect the foster parents' families
  • Issues due to attachment, separation, and loss

Minimum standards for foster homes. Foster homes have to provide a safe, healthy environment for children. An on-site inspection will occur before a foster home is licensed. Most states require that foster homes:   

  • Comply with state and local zoning, building, and fire and safety codes
  • Are kept clean and in good repair 
  • Are free from hazardous conditions
  • Store hazardous materials such as firearms, chemicals, tools, and medications where children can't reach them
  • Have working fire alarms near sleeping areas
  • Having fire extinguishers 
  • Are large enough to provide adequate space to play, sleep, study, and live for everyone who lives there
  • Have working telephones and appliances
  • Have adequate heat, light, and ventilation
  • Have a working bathroom with hot and cold running water
  • Have enough bedrooms and beds to give each child adequate space for safety, privacy, and comfort

Grounds for withholding approval. If the home visit doesn't meet the state's standards, licensing will be denied. Some reasons for denying approval include:  

  • The applicant provided misleading or false information
  • The applicant isn't capable of providing safe and appropriate care
  • The home is unsafe or inadequate to provide for the care of children
  • The applicant has a physical or mental health condition that would interfere with caring for children
  • The applicant has a criminal record for behavior that could harm a child
  • The applicant doesn't meet the requirements for training or required income

Kinship Foster Care

Almost all states give priority to relatives when placing children in out-of-home care. Some states allow variations from the standard guidelines by performing an abbreviated home study or waiving requirements that aren't related to safety, such as age, training, and size of the home. 

Adopting Foster Children

Most states have procedures for foster parents to adopt foster children when they become legally free for adoption. Regulations vary widely from state to state regarding adoption of foster children. Some states require a completely new application and home study, while others use the foster care home study. Four states give foster parents preference if there are no relatives who want to adopt the child. 

Show Sources


The Annie E. Casey Foundation: "Foster Care Explained: What It Is, How It Works and How It Can Be Improved."

Child Welfare Information Gateway: "Foster Care."

Children's Bureau: "Home Study Requirements for Prospective Foster Parents."

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