Though there are differences between adoption and foster care, the systems accomplish two main goals: to ensure that children grow up in safe and loving homes and to match interested potential parents with children who need homes. In both cases, the children are the most important part of the adoption triad. However, adoption and foster care have separate methods and objectives to accomplish these goals. So, what is the difference between adoption and fostering?


In short, adoption places children in families permanently, and those adopted children become legal and emotional members of the family, just the same as if the adoptees were the biological children of the parent or parents.


Foster care can lead to adoption, but at its root, fostering is a temporary placement, with the hope that the child will be reunified with his or her biological parent or parents.


Adoption and foster care may differ in terms of the reason each is needed. Foster care frequently follows a court order to remove a child from a home where he or she is deemed unsafe, based on the parental history of abuse, addiction, or neglect. To restore children to the care of the biological family, the government will ask birth parents to follow steps to show that the family can be reunified in a way that is safe for the child.

If reunification is not possible, then adoption is usually the next step. However, adoption has a number of other possible reasons for use, as well.

If a child is orphaned (meaning, both parents are deceased), there are no biological parents for him or her to return to, so adoption is the only path forward. In other cases, a birth mother voluntarily places her baby for adoption because she isn’t in a position to be able to raise that child herself, based on a number of factors.


The physical origin of children in the foster system and of those available for adoption varies, as well. 

The geographic range of foster care is very narrow, down to the county in which the foster parents live. Rules about foster care administration are so different from state to state, and typically each county’s health and human services department handles local foster cases. This keeps travel costs low and facilitates visits with the biological parents.

Adoption, however, is much broader in the spectrum. Adoptive parents may choose to adopt through the foster system, through a private adoption agency in the couple’s own country, or internationally. An adoptive child could be born on the same street as his or her adoptive parents, or on the other side of the world.


Both adoption and foster care require certain personal actions and qualities in order for a hopeful adoptive parent to be able to pursue in either. Both systems will ask for a background check and a home study, at the very least.

Adoption agencies will want to verify that a hopeful adoptive parent is fit to raise a child, such as by not having a criminal history of abuse or violent crime, and maintaining a safe home environment. 

If adoptive parents are interested in international adoption, requirements vary from country to country. For example, some countries require adoptive parents to be at least a certain age or to have a college degree. Some are specific that the fact that parents must be heterosexual or married. An adoption agent can help determine what is necessary in order to adopt from individual countries.

Because a foster child is technically still a ward of the state throughout a foster placement, and therefore not legally the child of the foster parents, potential foster parents have to take classes that prove the couple has the skills to take care of a child. These classes span a wide range of topics, from car seat safety to racial disparity, to CPR. Usually, at least a few specific classes are required, with the remaining hours flexible. 

Foster care licensing expires periodically, and renewal is contingent upon continuing education. For instance,  my parents have to take at least 12 hours of foster care classes every year in order to renew licenses. By contrast, adoption does not ask parents to keep proving ability after the adoption placement is finalized.


The time from becoming certified to adopt or foster and actually having a child in the home can vary pretty widely between adoption and foster care.

Foster placement timing can be somewhat unpredictable. When there isn’t a foster baby in the home, my parents know that at any given time, my mom and dad could get an email from the social worker asking my family to take another. It’s impossible to guess how much time will elapse between placements. However, as a general principle, a newly certified foster parent could theoretically get placement immediately.

Adoption tends to take a little bit longer. Once the potential adoptive parents have completed all the requirements necessary to adopt, the next step is to find a child who is a good fit for the family. This, too, can be fairly impossible to predict, because the right match is so subjective. 


Adoption and foster care follow different planned durations of time–namely, that adoption is a permanent addition to a family, and fostering is usually temporary. 

“Temporary” could mean a lot of different things depending on the context, however. My parents have had some foster infants for just a few weeks, but my family’s current foster baby has been with my parents for nearly 10 months. The state of Minnesota has planned for the foster reunification process to take an average of about a year, in order to be certain that a biological parent is ready to be present. Since reunification is considered the best outcome, all efforts will be taken to make that happen before terminating parental rights. 


A major difference between adoption and foster care is cost. Adoption can be quite expensive, with some estimates in the range of $40,000. International adoption, in particular, is usually tough on the wallet.

Foster care is funded by the government and comes at a little-to-no net cost to the foster parent. Although foster parents do need to purchase things for the children out of pocket, the state will reimburse the couple for many, if not all, of these expenses. 

If the major barrier to adoption is cost, don’t discount it as an option. There are many ways to pay for an adoption.


Pairing children with families work quite differently in adoption versus foster care. Adoptive parents carefully vet options, scrolling through availability lists, and/or meeting children in person. The couple may be interested in adopting a child from a certain country or culture, hopeful adoptive parents may have a gender or age preference, and a host of other traits may be factors. It’s also important for children and adoptive parents to feel a “spark” or connection with each other, and that can’t be quantified on paper.

On the other hand, foster care is not as picky in matching, because the situation is designed to be temporary. I can’t speak to how all states do this, but I have seen the matching process for my parents. My folks have decided to specialize in infant foster care, meaning 12 months or younger. Because my parents designated this preference in the application paperwork, my mom and dad aren’t asked to take in older kids. 

However, my parents did go slightly above the age range at one time. The social worker assigned to my parents reached out and explained that a 13-month old was in need of an emergency placement, because of suspected abuse in his current situation. It was right before Christmas, and my parents didn’t feel like they could say no to this boy.

A typical placement in Minnesota follows that pattern: the potential foster parents are given some basic information (e.g. two-week-old with drug exposure) and asked if the family is able to foster the child. The couple is free to say no if the foster parents don’t feel comfortable.

One time, my parents were told that an infant with significant medical needs was in need of a foster home. Although obviously compassionate toward the little one, my parents didn’t feel equipped to manage a series of chronic illnesses. My mom and dad declined the placement. 

While both adoption and foster care offer some choice in placement, the criteria for matching children and families differ significantly between the two systems.

Biological Parents

In both adoption and foster care, biological parents are a critical element of the adoption triad, but the needs may differ widely depending on the situation.

Because foster care is ordered by a judge, sometimes biological parents whose children enter the foster system are not very happy about it. For example, my parents were taking care of a baby of a different ethnicity than themselves, and the child’s biological mother resented the fact that her baby was being cared for by white people. In her mind, white bureaucrats had come into her life and taken her baby away, adding to other perceived racial injustices she had endured. 

This mother’s feelings are understandable and required extra compassion from all the other parties involved in the foster placement. 

In the current placement, my parents are actively involved with the baby’s biological mother. This woman has worked hard to earn twice-weekly supervised visits with her baby, which means she talks with my folks fairly regularly. Although the biological mom is gracious about her role, she is also understandably hurt when the fussy baby reaches for my mom instead of her. This, too, requires compassion from my parents, along with encouragement that the mother can make some life changes and be permanently reunified with the baby.

In adoption, relationships with biological parents can look very different. It is common practice now for agencies to facilitate open adoption, in which the birth mother and/or father is involved in the child’s life after adoption. Again, compassion from all involved is necessary, but the circumstances are often quite different. A biological mother who voluntarily places her child for adoption will likely have many different feelings than a mother whose child was forcibly removed from her. And feelings are likely to change over time. 

Foster/Adopted Children

The emotional consequences for children in foster care and adoption may have different manifestations. Neither system is superior to the other; both are just different. 

Some foster children, particularly those old enough to understand what foster care is, feel resentment toward biological parents for not being able to nurture and provide, or gratitude toward foster parents for helping those children have a better life–or combinations of both.

Adopted children may experience similar emotions in a different way. Some feel abandoned by birth parents. Some feel blessed to be loved by multiple sets of families. 

Either way, members of the adoption triad have unique emotional needs.

How a child is brought up will necessarily affect a child’s view of him or herself and the world. Foster care and adoption are likely to have different results, and therefore, require different emotional skills on the part of both parents and children.

As with birth parents, adoptees’ and foster kids’ feelings about his or her upbringing are likely to change over the course of life, so it’s essential to learn how to process such complex emotions.

Although adoption and foster care have a slew of differences between them, both systems are designed to build families. Both are valuable ways to love children. Both bless all members of the adoption triad.

Hopeful adoptive parents may find that either adoption or foster care is a better fit for a family. There is no one right answer, and both systems are good. Children who grow up in adoptive families or foster homes don’t have a choice in the matter, but a child’s well-being is first priority to both adoption and foster care decision-makers.

If you are an adoptive or foster parent, how did you decide which system was better for you? Are there any differences I missed? Please share in the comments.


Leah Ward is a reporter at southwest Minnesota’s regional newspaper. With her academic background in professional writing, she has found a journalism niche in local crime, education, and politics. Outside the newsroom, Leah enjoys embracing community events like lutefisk suppers and donkey basketball, as well as exploring state parks with her camera. She often spends weekends at her parents’ home helping foster infants.