The Benefits And Challenges of Foster Parenting

Parents may adopt an older child out of the foster care system.

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On any given day in the United States, there are nearly 443,000 children in the foster care system. In 2017, over 690,000 children spent time in a foster home.

The amount of time children spend in foster care varies greatly by state. Many states are working to reduce the amount of time children are in state custody by trying to reunify children with their birth families or place them up for adoption sooner.

On average, children remain in foster care for two years. Six percent of children in foster care remain in foster homes for five or more years.

There’s always a huge need for adoptive homes in most states. In 2017, more than 69,000 children were awaiting adoption after their parents’ rights were terminated.

Unfortunately, many children age out of the foster care system without ever getting adopted. In 2017, more than 17,000 teenagers were released from the foster care system due to age (it can be 18 or 21 depending on the state).Children who leave care without being linked to forever families are more likely to experience unemployment, homelessness, and incarceration as adults.

Consequently, there’s a big need for foster parents who are willing to provide temporary placements, as well as foster parents who are looking to adopt.

The decision to become a foster parent isn’t one that should be taken lightly, however. Caring for children in foster care and adopting a child from foster care are both big responsibilities, and they each present their own unique challenges. But adopting a child from the foster care system can also have some advantages over private adoption.

How Children in Foster Care Become Available for Adoption

Children are removed from their birth families when there are concerns about abuse or neglect. They may be placed with family members or put in the care of foster families when the state is concerned about their welfare.

There are many legal issues that need to be addressed once a child is removed from the birth family.

Birth families are usually given the opportunity to try and create positive changes so that a child can return home. Children don’t become available for adoption until it’s clear that they cannot return to live with their birth parents.

The amount of time birth parents are given to try and regain custody of their children varies by state. The process can last anywhere from six months to several years.

Once the birth parents’ rights are terminated, and it’s clear a child can’t return home, the state may look for relatives who can adopt. Keeping a child in the family may be important in some cases. In other cases, it’s not possible.

At that point, the state may begin to look for other adoption options. If a child is staying with a foster family who is interested in adopting the child, they may be given priority over other foster parents who aren’t familiar with the child.

Speed of Foster Care Adoption

It can take about 4 to 12 months to adopt a child in foster care once they’re legally free to be adopted (after the parents’ rights are terminated).

In reality, however, most kids spend a lot more time waiting to be adopted. On average, kids spend about one and a half years waiting for a family to adopt them.

Adopting a child through a private or international agency can take much longer. Many people spend years getting through red tape and overcoming the legal barriers associated with adoption.

Cost

Adopting a baby through a private agency is expensive. The Child Welfare Information Gateway reports that it can cost $20,000 to $45,000 as of November 2016. Legal fees, home study costs, and parent medical services are just a few of the fees associated with traditional adoption.

International adoption fees are similar. Costs vary greatly depending on the country, but fees typically range from $20,000 to $50,000.

Even if you don’t go through an agency, a private adoption can still be quite costly. Typical fees include the birth mother’s medical expenses and legal fees, which can often add up to more than $15,000.

Foster care adoption, however, usually doesn’t cost anything. The state typically covers the cost of the home study and any other fees associated with the adoption. Foster parents who adopt a child with special needs might receive a stipend to help defray some of the ongoing costs.

Training and Support

Part of the process to become a foster parent involves training. The amount and type of training foster parents receive depends on a few different factors, but they’re usually given basic CPR and first-aid training as well as basic training that prepares them for the day-to-day requirements of caring for a child in foster care.

Each state has their own foster care licensing requirements. Some states may have different levels of foster parenting as well.

Parents who choose to become therapeutic foster parents—those who are interested in helping children with special needs—will likely get additional training on how to manage emotional and behavioral problems.

Foster parents also receive support from a team. While a child is in foster care, there’s often a team of people in place, such as therapist, social worker, case manager, and guardian ad litem. Foster parents can ask questions, get professional help in managing academic issues, behavior problems, or mental health issues.

Parents who go through private adoption agencies aren’t likely to receive any training. Even when adopting children who are at a high risk for developmental issues (such as children who are adopted from international orphanages), parents aren’t likely to receive any ongoing support.

Adopting a Baby Isn’t Likely

While it’s often possible to adopt a baby through a private agency, it’s unlikely that foster parents will be able to adopt a baby through the foster care system.

That’s not to say infants are never removed from their parents at birth—they certainly are. And the foster parents who begin caring for an infant at birth may be first in line to adopt that baby if it becomes an option later on.

The average age of children entering foster care is 8. That means there are more older children available for adoption, rather than babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.

Trauma History

While an effort is made to gather as much information about a child’s history as possible, sometimes very little is known about what a child has endured. Birth parents may not be forthcoming with information. A child may not have had contact with physicians, daycare providers, or teachers. And frequent changes in caregivers may also make history-gathering difficult—if not impossible.

Children in foster care are removed from their parents’ care for a reason. Neglect, exposure to domestic violence, parental substance abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse are just a few of the reasons children are placed in foster care.

As a result, they may experience mental health problems, developmental delays, behavioral disorders, and learning disabilities. Sometimes, problems don’t surface right away. So the extent of a child’s issues may not be evident at the time of the adoption.

Special Needs

It’s common for children in foster care to have special needs. Children who were exposed to drugs or alcohol in utero, for example, are likely to have developmental delays and medical issues.

Some children in foster care experience other issues, like exposure to lead or malnourishment. Consequently, they may experience ongoing health problems.

Mental health issues can also be common. Children who have been removed from their birth families may experience attachment issues, or they may develop mental illnesses like anxiety and depression.

Foster families who plan to adopt need to prepare themselves to care for a child’s special needs. A child may require frequent medical appointments, which can be expensive and may require parents to take a lot of time off work. Additionally, there may be a lot of meetings with school departments, or there may be obstacles to finding appropriate childcare.

Trial Placement

Sometimes, foster parents adopt the child who has been staying in their home. At other times, they may discover a child who isn’t living with them has become available for adoption. That child may live in another foster home, a group home, or other institution.

Before the adoption, the foster parent often has the opportunity to learn whether the child is going to be a good fit with their family. They may begin having visits with the child to get to know one another. Over time, visits may be extended to overnight or weekend visits to help them build a bond.

This can be especially helpful to foster parents who already have a child—biological or not—living in their home. The child can get to know the other child, and parents can consider how likely they are to get along.

Eventually, the child may transition into their home full-time through the foster care system. If the trial placement goes well, everyone may decide to proceed with the adoption.

This gives foster parents an opportunity to consider whether they can commit to being a child’s lifelong family—something parents don’t usually get to do if they’re adopting through a private agency. If foster parents discover a child’s needs are too extensive, or that the child isn’t a good fit for them, they may decide to forgo the adoption.

Approval Process

Before being allowed to adopt through the foster care systems, parents must go through an extensive approval process. It may be similar to the approval process that parents endure when they want to do a private adoption.

There are usually interviews, a home study process, classes, and background checks. Depending on the state, this can take anywhere from six months to a year.

Most states don’t cover the cost of any home improvements that need to be made to meet safety codes. These changes may include anything from getting bigger bedroom windows so a child can escape in the event of a fire to adding new railings to stairs.

Adopting a Child Through Foster Care May Be Less Restrictive

Some private adoption agencies have strict policies regarding the “type of family” who can adopt. They may have specific income or marital status requirements, for example.

Foster parents usually are not subject to such strict rules. Single parents and non-traditional families are welcome to adopt.

The foster care system is looking for safe and loving homes. As long as parents can show they are able to meet a child’s needs, they’re usually free to adopt.

Choosing the Child You Want to Adopt

Since most foster parents adopt older children, they get to have some say in what type of child they adopt. Do they want an energetic child who loves sports? Or are they better suited for a low-key child who likes drawing and reading?

If they want to adopt more than one child, they may also be able to pick a set of siblings. The state usually prefers to keep siblings together, but it’s usually difficult to find homes looking for multiple children, especially when there are three or more kids who need a home.

So while parents looking to do a private adoption may have to be chosen by the birth parents, parents who choose to adopt through the foster care system are usually able to choose a child or sibling group that is best suited for them.

A Word From Verywell

If you think you may want to become a foster parent, regardless of whether you want to provide a temporary home or you think you may want to adopt, contact your state’s child welfare system to inquire about the process. You might find that giving a child in foster care a loving, stable home is right for you and your family.

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. US Department of Health and Human Services. The AFCARS Report. Published August 10, 2018.

  2. Children’s Rights. Foster Care.

  3. Adoption Exchange Association. Frequently asked questions about adopting from foster care.

  4. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Planning for Adoption: Knowing the Costs and Resources. Published November 2016.