How U.S. Foster Care Works
Foster care is a system where minors under the age of 18 are placed in the private home of a state-certified caregiver, or foster parent. While the foster parent is responsible (and paid by the state) for the child's day-to-day care, the state stands in loco parentis. That means the state — not parents, relatives, or foster parents — makes all legal decisions for the child while he or she is in foster care. Each state's foster care system is typically overseen by the state department of social or human services, with some monitoring at the federal level by the HHS.
Although a lot of children spend years in foster homes, foster care is actually intended as a short-term intervention. And the first choice whenever possible is to reunite children with their parents.
Adoption is often necessary, though, usually when a child's parents have died or are found incapable of providing a safe, stable home environment. In this situation, it's usually considered best for the child to be adopted by a grandparent or other relative.
If no family member is available to adopt, the next best thing for the child is usually to be adopted by the foster parents or someone else involved in the child's life, like a coach or teacher. The goal is always to maintain as much continuity in the child's life as possible. Foster children are usually only adopted by strangers if neither of the other two options is feasible.
An "Other Planned Permanent Living Arrangement" (OPPLA) may be the only option for children who function poorly in foster care or are unlikely to be adopted. With OPPLA, the child remains in state custody but can live in foster care, if that's possible.
If it's not, the child may go to a group residential facility that helps prepare him or her to return to foster care and hopefully be adopted. Children with developmental, physical, or mental disabilities may go to long-term care facilities as wards of the state.
Although the rules for becoming a licensed foster care provider vary by state, people who want to become foster parents generally have to go through an application process and take classes to help them prepare. Other requirements may include an age minimum, proof of sufficient income, fingerprinting, and a background check at the local, state, and federal levels to confirm there's no previous history of child abuse or neglect.
In addition, prospective foster parents may have to provide references from employers and others who know them. They'll probably also need a doctor's letter certifying that all household members are free from dangerous infectious diseases and the foster parents are physically fit enough to provide a child's daily care.