The Differences Between Foster Care and Adoption

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At first glance, foster care and adoption seem very similar — both involve bringing a child into your home to care for and nurture. In fact, many prospective parents confuse the two when they attend foster or adoptive parent training classes. But there are two fundamental differences: permanency and parental rights.


State agencies don't want children to remain in foster care indefinitely, so foster care is temporary. The agency wants to repair the problems that existed in the child's home or with his parents that resulted in him being removed from them. The goal is that he will someday return home, but if that proves impossible, he would be placed for adoption.

Adoption is permanent. It's a legally binding relationship, bestowing on the adopted child all the rights and privileges that a biological child would enjoy. Adoptive parents are the child’s parents forever, just as if they had given birth to him themselves.

A primary difference between adoption and foster care is the type of commitment. Foster care is a temporary commitment. Adoption is a permanent commitment.

Parental Rights

In most cases, a child’s birth parents retain their parental rights even while their child is in foster care. Some of those rights might be supervised by the state, but they're not terminated unless and until the child is placed for adoption. Until then, his birth parents have the final say on decisions regarding the child's care, with or without input from the state.

Foster parents cannot make medical decisions for a foster child. They also cannot make decisions about where the child will attend school or what religious services he should attend without the birth parents' consent. In some states, foster children can't even get haircuts without their birth parents' permission.

If it's determined that a foster child cannot return to his biological parents, the state will move to terminate the parents' rights and will assume those rights until the child is adopted. He would continue living in the foster home, however, until he is legally adopted either by his foster parents or by another parent or couple.

In adoptive situations, the adoptive parents are responsible for all decision-making for their child, just as if he had been born to them. Adoptive parents are responsible for the child’s medical care, financial obligations, and his educational and spiritual development.

The Bottom Line 

If you're considering becoming a foster parent or adopting a child, ask yourself two important questions. Do you want your relationship with the child to be forever or just temporary? And are you ready and willing to assume all legal rights and responsibility for the child?

Both foster care and adoption involve taking care of a child or children who are not biologically yours. A foster child may have special needs due to abuse, neglect or whatever issue led to him being removed from his parents' home. Older children placed for adoption may have the same issues.

Those who are interested in becoming foster parents or adopting a child from foster care typically take the same training classes so they're prepared to meet these challenges.

By Carrie Craft
Carrie Craft been an educator in the field of adoption and foster care since 1996. She has a wealth of relevant personal and professional experience.