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Foster care is a system by which a certified, stand-in parent, or set of parents, cares for minor children or young people who have been removed from their biological parents or other custodial adults by state authorities, or placed into the system by parents or guardians. Responsibility for the young person is assumed by the relevant governmental authority and a placement with another family is found. Foster-care involves the full-time care of a child outside of the child’s original home environment and can come in a variety of settings. Children may be placed in the care of family members, known as kin placement, non-relatives, foster care facilities, various institutions or group homes.
Foster placements are designed as temporary options, some lasting for days or weeks. Others, however, may last for years. If the biological parents terminate their rights to the child, or if the rights of the biological parents to the child are severed per order of the court, a foster child may be put up for adoption. A child may be adopted by the temporary foster family in which he or she was placed, or may be placed into an adoption agreement within a new environment. Foster care is intended to operate as a temporary stage while a permanent and adequate environment is found in which the child will live. The stressfulness and uncertainty of this situation is perhaps the largest of concerns voiced by activists opposing foster care systems worldwide. While foster care may be an essential transition between their previous environment and a new and permanent family, for the child to experience temporary "parents" is far from the ideal and adds to the emotional trauma of losing their own parents. Efforts to improve the transition from tragedy to new family are essential in saving the emotional and psychological lives of such children.
The aim of foster care systems is to protect and promote the well-being of the child at hand while providing foster parents and biological parents with the adequate resources and available services needed to maintain the child’s healthy development. Foster care environments are intended to be places of safety and comfort, and are monitored by numerous welfare agencies, representatives, and caseworkers. Personal caseworkers assigned to a foster child by the state or county are responsible for overseeing the placement of the child into an appropriate foster care system or home. The caseworker also schedules regular visitations to the home to monitor progress. Other agents involved in a child’s placement into foster care may include private service providers, welfare agencies, insurance agents, psychologists, and substance abuse counselors.
Parents may voluntarily place children into foster care for various reasons. Such foster placements are monitored until the biological family can provide appropriate care for the child, or the biological parental rights are terminated and the child is adopted. A third option, known as guardianship, is sometimes utilized in certain cases where a child cannot be reunified with their birth family and adoption is not a suitable solution. This generally includes some older foster children who may be strongly bonded to their family of origin and unwilling to pursue adoption.
Voluntary foster care may be utilized in circumstances where a parent is unable or unwilling to care for a child; a child may have behavioral or psychological problems requiring specialized treatment, or the parent might have a problem which results in a temporary or permanent inability to care for the child. Involuntary foster care is implemented when a child is removed from their caregiver for his or her own personal safety. A foster parent receives monetary reimbursement from the placement agency for each foster child while the child is in his or her home to help cover the cost of meeting the child's needs.
When a child is taken into foster care, the custody rights of his or her biological parents, adoptive parents or legal guardians are temporarily severed. A child may be placed into foster care by parental consent, or by court order. If a child is removed from his or her permanent home by the relevant authorities, the agency will first seek to place the child within a stable environment belonging to a relative or family friend. Other options include group homes where more than one foster child is cared for by a set of temporary guardians. If a foster child remains in foster care until the age of the eighteen, the child is considered to “age out” and may be released from foster care to live independently.
Children may be placed into foster care for a variety of reasons such as physical or sexual abuse, or general neglect. A smaller percentage of children are placed into foster care voluntarily; a parent may be unable to control a delinquent child and fear for their own personal safety as well as others. Other parents may voluntarily place a child into foster care if the parent himself is unable to care for the child due to substance abuse problems, incarceration, or mental health problems. These children may be placed into temporary custodial care until the parent’s position is improved.
Requirements to be a foster parent vary by jurisdiction, as do monetary reimbursement and various other benefits that foster families may receive. Foster care is intended to be a temporary living situation for children and young people. The goal of foster care is to provide support and care for the young person in order that a reunification with parents or other family members is achieved, or another suitable permanent living arrangement can be facilitated. At times, the bond that develops during foster care will lead to the foster parents adopting the child. In some instances, children may be placed in a long-term foster placement. For older adolescents, a foster care program may offer education and resources to prepare for a transition to independent living.
All foster parents must be licensed by a foster care agency and must pass a set of rigorous inspections in order to temporarily foster an at-risk child. In addition to the foster home passing both an inspection for health and safety, members of the foster family often must attend training sessions in which they are taught how to successfully manage the problems a foster child may encounter. Foster parents assume the role of general guardians and are responsible for feeding and clothing the child, transporting the child to school and appointments, and completing any general tasks that would be required by a biological or adoptive parent. Foster parents may also meet with the child’s therapist and caseworker on a regular basis.
Foster parents are financially compensated for housing a foster child. This compensation is assumed to be used on behalf of the child in order to clothe, feed, and transport him or her. Though legal guardianship of foster children belongs to the state, the foster parent’s responsibilities and obligations to the child for the temporary period of time are often set forth in a legal contract.
The majority of children placed into foster care are victims of abuse. Many of these children stem from low-income communities and may be placed into foster care as a result of homelessness, substance abuse problems, unemployment, incarceration, or disease that plague families in many poor communities. Foster children also include those with physical handicaps, mental illness, or complex medical conditions; this demographic has marked the fastest-growing population of foster children in recent years.
Children from low-income communities are most likely to be placed in foster care as their families have access to fewer resources. Problems such as illness or unemployment may render a low-income family unable to properly care for a child; these children are often more likely to spend a longer time within the foster care system.
Though the majority of foster children are reunited with their biological or adoptive parents, reunification rates have significantly declined within the early twenty-first century. Recent studies have also shown children to spend, on average, more time in the foster care system. In recent years, the average length of stay for a child in foster care has exceeded 33 months. More than half of all foster children are enrolled in a form of foster care for more than two years and change placements an average of three times.
513,000 children were in the U.S. foster care system in 2005. The average age of foster children was 10.0 years, with approximately one-third of the children under 6 years of age, and the average time spent in foster care was 28.6 months. Compared to the general population, higher percentages of minorities (Black and Hispanic) were found in the foster care system.
More than half of all children in foster care are placed with caregivers of no relation. One-fourth of all foster children are placed with relatives, though this number has shown steady growth within recent years. Children of parents battling substance abuse comprise more than 75 percent of all foster-care placements, and are at the highest risk for neglect or abuse.
Reunification rates have dropped in favor of legal adoptions; today, more children are being adopted out of foster care than in the past. Since 1997, most states throughout the U.S. doubled or nearly tripled the number of adoptions from the foster care system. This steady increase is believed to be a response to the Adoption and Safe Families Act passed in 1997 which seeks to terminate the rights of the biological parents if a child has be enrolled in the foster care system for 15 out of 22 months.
Each year around 20,000 older youths "age out" of the foster care system, but many are only teenagers (18 or 19 years of age) still in need of support and services.
According to the British Association for Adoption & Fostering, more than 60,000 English children remained in the care of British authorities in 2006; more than 33,000 boys and 26,000 girls. Of the total number, 5 percent of these children were under the age of 1, 19 percent were between the ages of 5 and 9, and 43 percent were between the ages of 10 and 15.
The British Association for Adoption and Fostering also found that more than 50,000, or about 80 percent of the total amount of English foster children in 2006 were enrolled in some type of foster care, either living with various relatives, foster parents, or group homes. Other enrollees remained with their parents, had been placed for adoption, or were enrolled in other accommodations. More than 3,000 children were also receiving state-funded psychological treatment.
Throughout 2006 more than 1,000 new foster arrangements were created with only 730 terminating by the year’s end. This figure, accompanied with steady decreases in adoption orders throughout England has meant that foster children are staying in temporary care longer, with less of a chance for a permanent home through adoption. In 2006 less than 4,000 foster children placed for adoption were adopted from care; the average age of the adopted children was four years. Only 5 percent of foster children aged 10 to 15 found an adoptive home in 2006, and 0 percent of children over the age of 16 placed for adoption in 2006 were adopted from state care.
In 2006, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering found that more than 12,000 foster children throughout Scotland remained in the care of local authorities. Within the year nearly 5,000 new foster relationships were created with less than 4,000 of these relationships terminating by years end. Of these children more than 55 percent were male, 2 percent were under the age of 1, 35 percent were between the ages of 5 and 11, and 12 percent were over the age of 16.
Of the total number of Scottish foster children receiving care in 2006, more than 80 percent were white, 0.2 percent were black, 0.2 percent were of Asian decent, and more than 15 percent were of an unknown ethnicity. In 2006 more than 43 percent of all children enrolled in foster care remained in the custody of their parents, 56 percent had been placed with family friends, foster families or enrolled in group homes, and 1 percent were living with prospective adopters. In 2006 more than 400 Scottish foster children were adopted from state-care by adoptive parents, a figure slightly lower than the year previous.
In 2006, according to the British Association for Adoption and Fostering more than 4,500 foster children throughout Wales remained in the care of local authorities. Of the nearly 1,700 new foster relationships created in 2006, only about 1,500 were terminated by years end. In 2006 about 4 percent of children receiving state-care were under the age of 1, 16 percent were aged between 1 and 4, 23 percent of these children were between the ages of 5 and 9, more than 42 percent of these children were between the ages of 10 and 15 and 13 percent were over the age of 16.
In 2006 more than 88 percent of foster children enrolled in Wales foster care system were white, 2.6 percent were of a mixed racial background, 0.7 percent were black, 0.5 percent were of Asian decent, and nearly 9 percent were of an unknown ethnic background. Nearly 75 percent of these children were in the custody of foster families, while more than 12 percent remained with their parents, and more than 4 percent awaited adoption. Nearly 250 children were adopted from state care during 2006 at an average age of 4 years old. Only 7 percent of children placed for adoption between the ages of 10 and 15 were adopted. 14 percent of all adoptions taking place in 2006 were by former foster parents.
In Northern Ireland, according to the British Association of Adoption and Fostering, more than 2,400 foster children remained in state care in 2006. Of the 814 new foster relationships created during the year, all were terminated by years end. Of the children enrolled in care, 2.5 percent were under the age of 1, 34 percent were between the ages of 5 and 11, and more than 18 percent were over the age of 16. In 2006 nearly 60 percent of foster children were in the care of foster parents, nearly 25 percent of children were living with various family members, and more than 15 percent of children were living in other types of placements. Of the 140 children adopted in 2003, only 79 were adopted in the year following. In 2004 the average age of adoption was five years old, and 70 percent of these adoptions were from former foster parents.
According to the Society for Orphaned Children in Canada, in 2006 there existed more than 80,000 children enrolled in foster care services in Canada, of which nearly 50 percent constitute crown wards, or children fully cared for by state services. Statistics also showed approximately 25,000 children remained in state care awaiting the termination of a parent’s incarceration, more than 43 percent of all foster children were violently abused, and more than 22,000 of these children await adoption, a number that shows significant increases each year.
According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Australia began implementing foster care systems shortly after the continent’s first white settlements. Children who had been abandoned or neglected, or whose parents were deemed unable to care for them, were boarded out to live with appropriate families. Children were also placed in orphanage institutions, the first of which was established on Norfolk Island in 1795. Throughout the 1800s, Australian children placed in foster care could be housed within an institutional setting, or a family environment.
In the late twentieth century, a preference for institutional settings emerged as the number of residential homes declined. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in 2003 there existed more than 20,000 children housed in foster care facilities throughout Australia. 51 percent of these children live with foster parents, 40 percent of these children are cared for by various family members, and the remaining 9 percent of children have been placed in other arrangements. One particular problem that Australia faces is the placement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in foster care. Though these children make up only 2.7 percent of the total number of children in Australia, more than 20 percent of these children are enrolled in some form of foster care. In 2003 there existed nearly 5,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children enrolled in foster care services.
Foster children face a number of problems both within the foster care system and outside of it. Generally, foster children are more prone to neglect, abuse, family dysfunction, poverty, and severe psychological conditions. In addition, the trauma caused to a child when removed from their home is also severe and may cause depression, anger, and confusion. Though studies have shown the psychological conditions of abused and neglected children to improve when placed in foster care, the traumatic separation experienced by a child taken from their parents is often severe.
Children with histories of maltreatment, such as physical and psychological neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse, are often at risk of developing severe psychiatric problems and may be described as experiencing trauma-attachment problems. The trauma experienced may be the result of abuse or neglect, inflicted by a primary caregiver, which disrupts the normal development of secure attachment. The U.S. National Adoption Center found that 52 percent of adoptable children, meaning those children in the U.S. foster care system freed for adoption, had symptoms of disorganized attachment. This lack of a coherent attachment strategy is evidenced in young children in the form of contradictory, disoriented behaviors such as approaching their caregiver but with the back turned.
The effects of early chronic maltreatment can be seen in various domains; the result is often complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which requires a multi-modal psychological approach that directly addresses the underlying causative trauma. This approach also seeks to build healthy and secure relationships with permanent caregivers. These children may require specialized treatment, such as Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy.
Periodic transitions can also be traumatic for foster children as many of them move foster homes more than once throughout their entire period of enrollment. This instability and uncertainty may prove to further inhibit the child’s development and may cause him or her to withdraw, act out, become aggressive or delinquent. This may cause subsequent problems among the foster parents as caring for children with severe medical or psychological problems often proves a challenging experience. These problems may lead to the failure of a foster placement as the foster parent may not be able to handle the delinquent child. Within the United States, children found to be unable to function in a foster home may be placed in Residential Treatment Facilities. The focus of treatment in such facilities is to prepare the child for a return to a foster home, to an adoptive home, or to the biological parents when applicable.
Foster children who “age out” of the foster care system also face significant problems. Many children are unprepared to live independently as adults and find themselves battling unemployment, poverty, or lesser education. Studies have shown nearly half of foster kids throughout the United States become homeless when they turn 18. Many of these children fall victim to influences of the street, may become involved in organized criminal activities, or may be unable to care for children of their own. Like their parent, these children often find themselves in the care of the social welfare system.
Foster children also face severe financial challenges which may prove to effect their progress both emotionally and developmentally. A 2004 study performed by the Child Welfare League of America found that foster children experienced more health and developmental problems than biological children who lived in similar economic conditions with their parents.
Though foster care presents a number of problems for both the foster child and parent, studies have shown such systems to achieve significant success. Legislation regarding welfare reform has aimed to further solve the central problems inflicting the child welfare system by making foster care operations more efficient.
On November 19, 1997, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed a foster care law known as The Adoption and Safe Families Act. This legislation dramatically reduced the time children are allowed to remain in foster care before being available for adoption. This law required the state child welfare agencies to identify cases where "aggravated circumstances" make permanent separation of child from biological family the best option for the safety and well-being of the child.
One of the main components of The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) is the imposition of time limits on reunification efforts. In the past, it was common for children to languish in care for years with no permanent living situation identified. Many children were moved from placement to placement with no real plan for a permanent home. ASFA requires that the state identify a permanent plan for children who enter foster care.
The Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, also known as The Chafee Program, helps foster youth who are aging out of care to achieve self-sufficiency. The U.S. government has also funded the Education and Training Voucher Program in order to help youth who age out of care to obtain college or vocational training for free or at a reduced cost.
The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 extended various benefits and funding for foster children between the age of 18 and 21 and for Indian children in tribal areas. The legislation also strengthened requirements for states in their treatment of siblings and introduced mechanisms to provide financial incentives for guardianship and adoption.
According to Canadian legislation, a child may become a Crown ward and placed under the care of the provincial government, usually through a local or regional agency known as a Children's Aid Society. If the government does not terminate the parent's rights, then the child will remain a "permanent crown ward" until 18 years of age. Crown Wards are able to apply for Extended Care through a Society which enables them to receive financial services from the Provincial Government as long as they remain in school or employed until they are up to 25 years of age.
The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) of Canada is one such agency responsible for the safety and protection of foster children. The CAS seeks to place foster children into a family environment as quickly as possible. Members of the foster family often work closely with CAS affiliates in order to promote the development and wellbeing of the foster child while he or she is temporary displaced from their home. Because no Canadian legislation exists to emplace various time limitations, children may be enrolled in long-term foster care which ultimately terminates at the age of 18.
Many children remain "permanent crown wards" and are not adopted as there is no legislation mandating permanency within a specific time period. The amended Child and Family Services Act provides children and young people with the option of being adopted while still maintaining ties to their families.
In 2002 British Parliament amended the Adoption and Children Act to create a new court order designed to provide better permanency for foster children who cannot reunite with their families. By mandating a Special Guardian Order, the act allowed for a legal guardian of any foster child to assume the parental responsibilities of the foster child until the age of 18. Unlike adoption, the order does not terminate the legal rights of the birth parent but temporarily limits them. This order allows for the special guardian to have more responsibility in the daily life of the child including major decision making such as education. The order also allows for the foster parent to make various decisions regarding the life of the child without consulting the birth parents only under exceptional circumstances. Special Guardianship Regulations were enacted throughout the whole of England and Wales in 2005.
The Special Guardianship order was passed with the intention of providing a more stable environment of long-term foster care if adoption practices are undesirable or unlikely. Advocates believe the order to create more permanency within long-term foster care by enabling foster parents to hold the responsibility of birth parents without legally terminating the rights of such parents. Many legislators believe this order to provide the security and sense of belonging that many long-term foster children seek, as well as clearly identifying the roles and responsibilities that foster parents hold.
According to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle, passed in 1997, foster care authorities must assist in the placement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children back into the homes of family members, community members, Indigenous caregivers and finally, as a last resort, non-indigenous caregivers. In 2003 more than 70 percent of Indigenous children enrolled in foster care remained in the custody of family members.
The National Child Protection Clearinghouse, operating throughout Australia and funded by the Government Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, also assists in the protection and placement of foster children by the state. The operation acts as an advisory and research unit focused on the prevention of child abuse and neglect, and oversees the healthy placement of children into more suitable homes.
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