Reasons Children Enter the Foster Care System

At any one time, there are several hundred thousand children within the foster care system in the United States. Some children spend days in foster care, while others spend years. Below, we explore the most common reasons children enter the foster care system.

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Why Children Are Put in Foster Care

There are multiple grounds for children to be removed from their family homes and placed in foster care. Each case is unique and includes many factors for the court or social services representatives assigned to each family to consider. Decisions are made based on what is in the best interest of the child or children involved. Some of the most common reasons for a child to enter the foster care system include one or more of the following:

  • Physical abuse: Physical abuse can include a wide range of physical harm. Child abuse is often discovered and/or documented due to bruising or other visible signs of injury on a child. Numerous attempts are usually made to help a family learn alternative means of discipline before a child is removed. Each state or country determines how physical abuse is defined and what standard is used for when to remove a child from their home. Physical abuse can also include restraining a child or placing them in a locked closet or other space.
  • Sexual abuse: Sexual abuse can mean many different things. Sexual abuse is often viewed as a continuum of acts with the viewing of pornographic material or sex acts on one end of the continuum to fondling, penetration, or other sexual acts on the other.
  • Neglect: Neglect encompasses several areas, including not fulfilling a child's needs for food, a clean living environment, or emotional well-being. It is extremely difficult to prove emotional abuse but it often plays a part in physical and sexual abuse.
  • Medical neglect: Sometimes a birth parent's decision to not seek medical attention for a child can put a child's health in danger. These cases may be considered medical neglect and grounds to place a child in foster care. Parents with religious objections to certain medical care may be given exemptions to these rules.
  • Incarceration: A child may be placed into foster care when there are no family or friends available to care for the child during a parent's incarceration in prison or jail.
  • Abandonment: Children may also enter foster care due to abandonment, which occurs when their parents have dropped them off somewhere, such as at school or with a babysitter, and don't return, or children are left home without supervision for extended periods of time.
  • Truancy: Truancy (absence from school without a good reason) is another cause for removing a child from their home. Parents are responsible for making sure their children attend school regularly. Some children also regularly skip school or refuse to attend school.
  • Death: While family members usually step forward to care for a child after the death of their parent, there have been cases when children need to enter foster care after the death of a parent because a suitable family member is not available.
  • Voluntary placement: In rare circumstances, usually due to a child or parent's mental health issues and/or health conditions, some parents have requested to have their children placed into foster care.
  • Juvenile offenses: A child that has been adjudicated a juvenile offender by the court system may be placed into foster care, particularly if the home environment is deemed to be a part of an ongoing problem with breaking the law. This is especially likely if the parents are unable to properly manage the child's behavior.
  • Runaways: Some children engage in dangerous runaway behavior that parents find difficult to control. Running away may also be in response to unsafe circumstances in the home. In these cases, children may be placed in foster care.

Statistics on Child Maltreatment

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 9 out of every 1,000 children are subjected to substantiated maltreatment. This child abuse may include physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. Children up to age 3 fare the worst, with 15 out of 1,000 experiencing proven abuse of some kind.

A Word From Verywell

We often think of the parent's shortcomings when a child enters foster care, but the truth is that many complex issues create the circumstances that lead to a child being removed from their home. In all cases, it is a tragedy for all involved.

Most families are trying to do their best for their children. The foster care system is intended to help them (both the parents and children) get back on track. Blaming or shaming the parents or children does not serve any of the people impacted. Instead, focusing on compassion, providing needed support, and building up lacking skills for the parents may help them get ready to safely welcome their children back into their homes—and will help these children thrive, whether they are in foster care or their forever homes.

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Article Sources
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  1. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect. Published March 2019.

  2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. Child Maltreatment 2018. Published 2020.