The Unique Challenges Foster Families Face

Children in foster care require a special approach to parenting.

Raising children in foster looks similar to raising birth children.
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While some parents intend to become foster parents, other families sort of fall into the role when a relative can no longer live with their birth parents.

Raising children in foster care looks a lot like raising biological children. Children in foster care need structure, discipline, love, and guidance like any other child. They also have after-school activities, friends, and homework.

But raising children in foster care presents a few unique challenges. And it’s important for foster parents to understand the challenges they may face so they can be equipped to help kids in foster care thrive.

Licensing Process

Foster parents must go through an extensive licensing process. The process varies by state, but in most cases foster parents must attend classes, complete a home study, and ensure their homes meet licensing standards.

The home study process may involve extensive interviews about everything from the foster family’s financial situation to the foster parents’ upbringing. This process is meant to ensure that foster parents are stable in terms of their health, finances, and relationships so they can provide a safe home.

Background checks are likely to be part of the requirements. Foster parents may also need to provide references from people who can attest that they’re able to give a child a stable, loving home.

The home inspection is another important part of the process. Homes need to meet specific safety standards. Depending on the state, a fire marshal may conduct an inspection as well.

If a home doesn’t meet specific requirements, repairs may need to be made to the home. Getting bigger windows or replacing railings to meet the minimum standards can be quite costly.


Most foster families find it’s difficult to plan too far into the future because there’s so much uncertainty about a child’s living situation.

About 51% of children in foster care eventually reunify with their primary caregivers. But often it takes many months or even years for children to be reunited. And foster families are often left feeling like they’re in a holding pattern as they wait to see if judges and advocates feel it’s in the child’s best interest to reunify with their birth families.

Other children may be placed with relatives, put up for adoption, moved to group homes, or remain in foster care. Sometimes, families receive a lot of notice about what is going to happen in the future. At other times, a move may feel like it happens abruptly.

Throughout the process, there are often many court dates, meetings, and changes to the plan. This can be stressful for everyone in the family.

Foster parents often find themselves in a tough position—do they make future plans that include a foster child?

Additionally, they usually have to answer difficult questions like, “When can I live with my Mom again?” or “Will I get adopted?”

Birth Family Visits

Children in foster care who are potentially being reunited with their birth families may have visits with their parents or siblings.

Visits may take place in a neutral, supervised location where a professional will oversee the interaction. Or they may occur in the birth families’ home (this is often the case if it looks like reunification will happen).

The visitation schedule can be disruptive to the foster family’s routines. Birth family visits may be several hours long, and they may take place several times per week. Or they may involve longer weekend visits.

Some foster families have to deal with inconsistent visits. For example, a birth parent who has a mental illness or addiction may not show up to scheduled visits. Or they may show up only to be sent home because they aren’t in a good enough emotional or physical state to have the visit.

Foster parents may have to deal with the fallout when visits are suddenly canceled or when visits don’t go very well.

They may also have to help kids deal with the emotional rollercoaster they experience when visits do go well. Saying goodbye to birth parents until the next visit can be very difficult.

Foster parents may be responsible for transporting kids to their visits. And the visitation schedule may change often with little notice.

Rules and Regulations

Rules and regulations for foster parents vary by state. But the rules can be quite restrictive for some foster families, and they may take some getting used to.

For example, medication and alcohol may need to be stored in locked cabinets. Children in foster care might not be allowed to go on boats or attend overnight visits at other people’s homes.

Children in foster care also might not be allowed out of state. And they may not be able to be left with a friend or family member, even for a short period of time. They may have to be placed in a licensed daycare only—which may make an out-of-state vacation impossible as foster parents may not have childcare.

Sometimes, foster children can go to other people’s homes without the state guardian conducting a background check. Before attending a birthday party or a play date, the guardian may need the names and addresses of the other child’s parents.

This can make spontaneous play dates impossible. It can also be embarrassing to older children in foster care—not to mention confusing for other families who don’t understand the foster care system.

Getting Permission From Guardians

Foster parents aren’t legal guardians. This means they usually can’t sign legal documents.

Foster parents may have to contact a child’s state-appointed guardian to sign forms for the physician or even to gain permission for a child to go on a field trip.

Sometimes, reaching the guardian can be difficult, especially during evenings and weekends. This can make simple tasks feel complicated sometimes.

Frequent Appointments

Many children in foster care have special needs that require frequent appointments. Speech therapy, occupational therapy, medication management, and psychotherapy are just a few types of treatment children may require.

Others have had their healthcare neglected for many years, and they may require frequent trips to the dentist or the doctor.

Foster families may need to have flexible schedules that allow them to be present for all the appointments. This can be difficult for foster parents who work full-time.

Foster parents may also be responsible for transporting children to and from all of their appointments.

Emotional and Behavioral Challenges

Not only have children in foster care been removed from their primary caregivers, but they’ve also likely experienced abuse or neglect that led to their removal. Consequently, many children in foster care exhibit emotional and behavioral problems.

Children in foster care may require special discipline strategies or therapeutic interventions to help them manage their emotions and their behavior.

The strategies that work for other children may not work well for them. Some foster parents receive specialized training to deal with specific issues, like aggressive behavior, ADHD, or reactive attachment disorder.

Unknown History

While child protective services will attempt to gather as much information as possible about a child’s history, there are often major gaps in information.

Birth parents may be incarcerated, abusing substances, or unwilling to provide information. Or a child may have undergone many changes in caregivers, which means that no single adult is aware of what a child has gone through.

One major unknown often involves the birth mother’s pregnancy. It’s often uncertain if a child was exposed to drugs or alcohol in utero.

Developmental history may also be missing. Foster parents may not know if a child walked, talked, and hit other developmental milestones on target.

A genetic history may be unknown as well. It may be unclear if a child’s family has a history of physical or mental health issues.

A child’s trauma history may be uncertain as well. Adults may not be aware of child’s history of neglect, sexual abuse, physical abuse, or exposure to domestic violence.

The gaps in information likely mean there will be questions about a child’s attachment history. Children who don’t bond with primary caregivers may develop attachment disorders, like reactive attachment.

Some mental health issues, developmental delays, or physical health problems may not emerge until after a child has been living with a foster family for quite some time.

Saying Goodbye

Whether a child is returning to their birth family or they’re being adopted, saying goodbye to a foster child can be quite difficult for everyone.

Sometimes, foster parents aren’t able to maintain ongoing contact with a child who was in their care. And quite often they don’t know what happens to a child after they leave their home.

This can create a lot of distress for the entire family. Other siblings may not understand the situation, and they may struggle to manage the grief associated with the loss.

Foster families who take in several children in foster care may experience frequent disruptions to their family life. Children in foster care may constantly come and go—and sometimes kids who previously moved out may move back in if their new placement doesn't work out.

This can take an emotional toll on everyone. Burnout can be a big concern for foster families. And it’s important for everyone to take care of their own mental health as they deal with their emotions.

A Word From Verywell

There’s no question that foster families face many challenges that other families don’t. Raising children in foster care requires a slightly different approach to parenting as well as a willingness to work with a team on raising a child.

But, despite those extra challenges, giving a home to a child in transition can be quite rewarding. Many foster parents feel good about their ability to give a loving, stable home to a child who cannot live with their birth parents.

1 Source
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  1. American Society for the Positive Care of Children. Get the Facts - Foster Care & Adoption.

Additional Reading

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.