Jennifer Perry (Executive Director, Children's Action Network) gives expert video advice on: Under what circumstances does a child become "custody of the state"?; Are foster parents the same as adoptive parents?; What happens to children who aren't adopted? and more...
What is "foster care"?
Foster care refers to a situation in which a biological parent is unable to take care of their child, for a variety of reasons, ranging from neglect to substance abuse. The child is removed from the biological parent and placed in the custody of the state. The state assumes the parenting responsibilities for that child so that they can be adequately cared for. Foster care is intended to be a temporary process, whereby the child can be removed from the biological parent for his or her safety, and a period of time is set in motion where it can be assessed as to whether the child can be returned to those parents. Those parents' parental rights may need to be terminated and the child would be freed for adoption.
What is an "orphan"?
The term "orphan" is, in the United States, somewhat antiquated. What's changed is that children whose parental rights terminated because they are moving from foster care to being adopted are actually legal orphans for a moment. However, the system tries to avoid creating orphans, as they tend not to terminate the biological parents' rights until the foster child is placed in an adoptive home. They know once they have severed the legal relationship between the child and their biological parents, there is in place the process that will create a new family, and legal family relationship for that child, so that they are not an orphan.
Does the U.S. still use "orphanages"?
There has been a move periodically to try and reinstate orphanages, but the determination was made a number of years ago that institutional care was not the best care for a child. Care in something that approximates a family setting is much more beneficial to the well being of a child. Hence, that is the reason that foster care and foster families arose and you don't see orphanages any more.
Under what circumstances does a child become "custody of the state"?
A child becomes custody of the state when it has been determined that leaving this child in their biological home poses a danger and a risk to the child. So they're removed from that home and placed in foster care. Being placed in foster care means they can live with foster parents and/or a group home that will take over the care of that child until it has been determined what the next step is. The dangers that a child would face that could lead to their removal from their biological home include neglect, the child may not be in school, the child may not be given adequate clothing and/or food and oftentimes it results from a parent who is engaged in drug abuse and is therefore neglecting their parental duties. In some instances a child ends up in foster care because one or both of the parents are incarcerated and physically unable to take care of the child. There's a variety of reasons that a child may end up in foster care.
Can a biological parent regain custody after losing a child to foster care?
A biological parent can regain custody if they lose a child to foster care. There is a specific period of time during which the biological parent can establish that they're willing to undergo certain steps: training, support, treatment for substance abuse, etc. If they express their willingness to undergo those steps, which are mandated by the court, and finish them in a timely manner, the child may be returned to them and they will regain custody.
Are foster parents the same as adoptive parents?
Some foster parents become foster parents simply to foster and to provide a safe haven for the child, whatever the outcome may be. Many foster parents go in realizing that the foster child may go back to their biological parents, and that is in fact their preference of child welfare. Some foster parents have expressed their interest in adopting and therefore will say that they would like to have a child in their home, that is more likely not to be reunited with their parents and therefore made available for adoption.
How has foster care changed over the years?
The system used to be designed whereby there was a clear separation between foster parents and adoptive parents, because it was believed that foster parents should not form an attachment with the child. Now, the current child welfare practice says that permanence is the most important thing for a child. Sometimes, a child can be placed in a foster home, and there's the reasonable assumption that that child will not be reunited with its biological parents, so the foster parents may indicate their desire to adopt. Adoption may be a very likely outcome of the foster care placement.
What type of government support is there for foster children?
People who become foster parents undergo a specific set of training schemes. When a child is placed into the foster carers' home, they are provided a monthly reimbursement for the time that child is in their home. The amount of that reimbursement depends on the needs of the child. It starts at a base level and then goes up incrementally for children that have disabilities and are very medically fragile.
What happens to children who aren't adopted?
Sadly for children who are not adopted, the outcomes are not particularly great. Those children are known as emancipated youth, and in most states youths can emancipate from foster care at the age of 18. That means they're no longer under the guardianship of the state and they're on their own. Sadly, about 3% of them tend unemployed, often 12% of them end up homeless and a number of them end up incarcerated. It's very difficult for these youths because they haven't had a normal family structure or any of the support that have enabled them to gain the life skills they need to flourish. And that's why for many of them, and there are 25 youths each year who emancipate from foster care, the outcomes are bleak.