What is Foster Care? A Breakdown of the Foster Care System

Mar 10, 2023

In the United States, not every child can live in a household with their biological parents or guardians. Instead, sometimes children may need to be placed in foster care, an intricate safety net that consists of various programs working in tandem with the U.S. government to provide a safe environment for youth. Keep reading to learn more about the foster care system and its impact on children today.

Foster Care Definition

Foster care is a temporary arrangement where kids live with relatives, foster parents or in designated facilities for a short or long period of time. This occurs when their biological parents cannot meet their basic needs. This allows parents time to “press pause” and regroup with the ultimate goal being reunification.

In the U.S., there are nearly 400,000 children in the foster care system. Children might get adopted by their foster parents or move from home to home, which can cause a great deal of distress and trauma, leading to poor outcomes.

How Do Children End Up in Foster Care?

Children end up in foster care because their parents are going through an emergency situation that renders them unable to take care of them. Parental circumstances can include anything from incarceration and eviction to struggling with mental health issues or drugs. Death and other tragic situations can all be a catalyst for placement as well.

Most children enter the foster care system at the average age of 7 and a majority stay in the system anywhere from 12 to 20 months. Foster care is for newborns, as well as those 18 years and older, depending on the state. In DC, this age limit is extended to 21.

In 2022, of the foster youth in Washington, DC, around 80% were Black and more foster children were female (54%) compared to male (46%).

How Does Foster Care Work?

The foster care system is a complicated web that consists of local, state and federal agencies that support the well-being and safety of children. Children can be connected to programs and services after a report of suspicion of abuse or another form of child neglect.

The Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) in DC, follows evidence-based strategies and will remove children from the home as a last resort. The agency aims to place children with relatives before seeking an outside option. The CFSA seeks to provide children with a nurturing environment and safe reunification with their biological parents once possible.

Certain children may also be a good fit for a group home. A group home is a program where children in similar situations live together under supervision. Many group homes have an emphasis on building life skills and helping older youth prepare for adulthood and success.

Common Questions About Foster Care

What is a Foster Parent & How Do You Foster a Child?

A foster parent typically needs to undergo some sort of training and certain requirements to be eligible. They can be relatives of the child or simply members of the community who want to open their homes up to children in need. If you’re considering becoming a foster parent, you can speak to a social worker from the Child and Family Services Agency to see if it’ll be a good fit for you.

Foster Parent Requirements

Foster parent requirements may differ depending on the state, but in DC there are several eligibility guidelines foster parents must meet, such as:

  • A minimum age requirement of 21 with no maximum age
  • Foster parents must complete 30 hours of training
  • Foster parents must be legal residents or U.S. citizens

It’s also important to note if you’re adopting or plan on fostering a child, there may be certain legal fees involved. Financial assistance may be available if you foster through CFSA.

How Long Do Children Stay in Foster Care?

According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System’s September 2021 data, there are nearly 400,000 children in foster care. Foster youth spend anywhere from as little as one month to as much as two years in the system. This varies greatly on the child’s unique situation, with some children spending three to four years or more in the foster care system.

What Happens When Kids Leave Foster Care?

Once children “age out” of the system they face more obstacles than their peers. Children who leave the system lose their support services, which can create major challenges like finding stable employment, housing and a sense of community. Unfortunately, foster youth are more likely to experience homelessness and end up in prison. They are also less likely to be employed than their peers by the time they reach the age of 24, according to Alternative Family Services.

How Else Can You Support Foster Children?

If you are not in a position to become a foster parent but are still looking for ways to get involved, there are plenty of organizations and programs that could use your support. Organizations like Best Kids connect foster care children to mentors to help them learn teamwork, social skills and more. Of the 45 programs hosted in the National Capital Area, 45% of participants experience a boost in their self-esteem, creating lasting change.

You can also give, advocate and volunteer with United Way of the National Capital Area, which reduces disparities and barriers to much-needed health, education and economic opportunity resources to increase equity for all community members.

More Child Welfare Resources from United Way NCA

Looking for ways to volunteer in your community and create a positive impact on foster children? Learn how action starts with you and the powerful ways simply take action by advocating for equity or volunteering your time can make a huge difference in the greater DC area.