There are many myths and misunderstandings about foster care and how it works. So how does foster care work? Foster parents take care of over 400,000 kids across the U.S., with 100,000 foster children being free for adoption. Foster care is supposed to be the temporary care of a child until they can be reunified with their family. Kids enter foster care through no fault of their own. They are not bad kids. They are in foster care because the adults who care for them have made bad, sometimes terrible choices. Foster children enter foster due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment from their primary caregiver. The average amount of time a child spends in foster care is one year. What is the process? Glad you asked.

  • Child Abuse Hotline Call

When a mandatory reporter (police, school nurse, social worker, etc.) suspects abuse or neglect, they are obligated to call their state’s child abuse hotline. This call goes to Child Protective Services, who rates the severity of the allegation. If it is low priority a well-child check may be made. If the child is in imminent danger, a removal may be made and an out-of-home placement may be sought.

  • Removal

If the child is in imminent danger of abuse or neglect, DCS and sometimes police officers arrive at the home, the school, or the hospital to ensure the transfer of custody goes smoothly. In the meantime, a foster care placement is sought.

  • Foster care placement

Once a removal is made, CPS becomes the legal guardian of the child. CPS searches for a home whose family is a good match for the child. Whether they are familiar with the child, or they are in the same geographical location of the child, or they have the skills to care for the needs of the child, all these things need to be accounted for. CPS or an assigned foster licensing agency then calls the foster parent to provide information and ask for availability. Once CPS transports the child to the home, the foster parent becomes the custodian guardian.

  • Court

Biological parents then go through legal proceedings to determine the appropriateness of reunification. The biological parents are assigned an attorney and the child is assigned an attorney and/or a guardian ad litem, who is supposed to do what is in the child’s best interest. The assigned judge gives direction and makes final decisions for the child.

  • Services

During the time in which the child is in foster care, that child receives services such as counseling, supervised visits, educational support, developmental assessments, and the normal services any normal child may receive. The biological parent receives services as well, such as substance abuse counseling, parenting classes, job coaching, housing assistance, etc. The goal is to promote the well-being of everyone so the child can go back home safely.

  • Reunification

If the parents have fully recovered and back on the right track, the judge may grant reunification. This happens more than 50 percent of the time. The family is still monitored to ensure that the parents stay on course to prevent any re-removals.

  • Adoption

If the biological family does not succeed in their rehabilitation efforts, the judge may grant severance and adoption, which means that the biological parents’ rights are legally removed and the child becomes free for adoption. Foster parents may have the opportunity to adopt. Adoptions occur about 30 percent of the time in foster care situations.

  • Other options

Of course, there are other options in foster care, especially when dealing with teenagers such as guardianship, independent living, and adult foster care.

Foster care can be grueling and challenging. But the light at the end of the tunnel is reunification or adoption. Of course, one of the greatest success stories is when a foster child turns 18 years old, ages out of the system and becomes a productive member of society. Though not perfect, foster care can provide the time and structure that biological parents need to recover. It also provides the foster parents with the opportunity to make a difference in the life of a child, whether for a day, a month, or a year.


Derek Williams is an adoption social worker and has been in the field of child welfare and behavioral health since 2006, where he has assisted families in their adoption journey. He and his wife started their adoption journey in 1993 and have eight children, six of which are adopted. His adopted children are all different ethnicities including East Indian, Jamaican and Native American. He loves traveling with his family, especially to the East Coast and to the West Coast and is an avid NY Mets fan! Foster care and adoption are his passions and callings for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.