How Respite Foster Care Works

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When one foster family temporarily cares for another family's foster children, this is respite foster care. It gives the children's original foster family a bit of a break—a respite. Respite foster care is sometimes called "short-term" foster care.

When Respite Care Might Be Necessary

This type of foster care is especially helpful when foster children display the challenging behaviors that are often seen in many therapeutic foster homes. These kids may have special medical, emotional or behavioral needs, as well.

The original foster parents may need to get away for a bit for some much-needed restorative personal time, or maybe they have other obligations that take them away from home for a period of time.

Other parents can call a babysitter or drop the kids with their grandparents so they can grab a night out alone. This isn't always an option for foster parents, particularly for those who are fostering children with challenging behaviors and/or special needs. In fact, according to the National Council on Disability, between 30% to 40% of kids in foster care received special education at school.

State Laws 

Many states' laws require that if parents expect to be gone for more than a few hours, a respite foster care provider must step in to take over for them. Other states allow family or friends to serve in the role.

Some state agencies include provisions for respite foster care in their contracts with parents as an incentive to help place children with special needs, as well as in homes where multiple foster children have been placed. Studies show that access to respite care can help reduce caregiver stress and improve general well-being.

Some states—notably Virginia—offer respite care not only to foster parents but to adoptive and biological families as well, depending on their and their children's needs.

The service is rarely free in these cases and the cost is typically more than they'd pay a traditional babysitter. But it can be a lifeline for parents who desperately need a break for one reason or another and want to know that their children will be well cared for in a home setting.

Providing Respite Care 

If you've been thinking about fostering but you're nervous about it, providing respite foster care at first may be a way to test the waters. Respite care usually takes place over a weekend, and it rarely lasts more than two weeks.

You can choose when you're available to take in children so the schedule can be very flexible—it's up to you. Ask your local agency for more information if you think you might be interested.

Many state agencies indicate that they don't have enough respite foster care providers to meet their needs.

Respite care requires licensing and classes in some states, just as becoming a "regular" foster parent does. During training, you'll learn what types of behaviors you can handle. You'll get an idea of what works best in your home before you take in long-term placement.

It may also be easier to care for children who have been in foster care for a while rather than those who are being newly placed. A learning curve exists for every child—what's the best way to meet their specific needs? These issues have already been largely ironed out by the time a foster parent seeks respite care, so fewer surprises are in store for respite foster care providers.

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6 Sources
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  1. National Council on Disability. Youth with disabilities in the foster care system: barriers to success and proposed policy solutions. Published February 26, 2008.

  2. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Respite care for resource families.

  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Child Welfare Information Gateway. Evaluation of respite care services.

  4. Department of Health and Human Services: Fairfax County, Virginia. Service profile: respite care children.

  5. U.S. Department of Human Services. Licensing for foster parents.

  6. Goemans A, Geel MV, Vedder P. Foster children's behavioral development and foster parent stress: testing a transactional modelJ Child Fam Stud. 2018;27(3):990-1001. doi:10.1007/s10826-017-0941-z