Growing up I didn’t find myself around many foster or adopted kids. I was unaware of the experiences of kids who were placed into different families either temporarily or permanently. I had a few foster friends here and there, but I never took the time to learn how fostering impacted their lives. Because of this, I began to assume that once a child is placed into foster care, they will either remain with that family or in the system until they are adopted or turn 18. That isn’t correct.
A Quick History
The goal of foster care has changed over time. According to the National Foster Parent Association, the general history of foster care dates from centuries ago, and included practices that allowed for poor or orphaned children to be placed in families, often under conditions of indentured servitude. In the 1800s children’s aid societies were formed, and providing for needy children and families remained primarily in the hands of private and religious organizations. Through the late 1800s and early 1900s state and federal governments started to recognize the need for an organized solution and began a shift in focus to protecting children rather than guardians. Laws were enacted granting authority of the state to step in and remove a child in situations of abuse or neglect, and setting up systems to supervise and pay subsidies to foster parents. In 1980, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act required state agencies to provide assistance and services to families to help prevent the removal of a child from their home and to make it possible for a child to be reunited with their family. In 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (AFSA) set stricter limits to the amount of time a child was allowed to remain in foster care before reunification or adoption. However, concerns remained that “too many children are unnecessarily separated from parents” and in 2018 the Family First Prevention Services Act included reforms to help keep children safely with their families and avoid the traumatic experience of entering foster care.
The Goal of Reunification
Today, foster care is not designed to give children new parents. It is designed to create space— space for the children and the parents to get the services and support needed to recoup and eventually be reunified.
Reunification is the goal in most foster care cases. In fact, reunification is the most common outcome for children leaving out-of-home care. In Washington, 57% of children reunify with their parents within 3 years, compared to 14% of children who were adopted.
When children and their parents are able to reunify, families thrive.
How does reunification help families thrive? The benefits of reunification include improved outcomes for safety and stability, better development outcomes for children, positive impact on parents because they received help, and less stress for children, promoting better mental health, reduced anxiety and happier lives.
Misconceptions Around The Goal of Foster Care
Unfortunately there are a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about the purpose of foster care. Media tends to highlight stories that show a foster family as a new, often permanent, family for the child—while subtly or explicitly demonizing the birth parents. What kind of message does this send? As a society do we place faith in the ability of families to heal and come back together once more?
Changing the conversation around how we talk about foster care as a support for reunifying parents and children will infuse hope into the situation rather than assume separation is permanent. The Manning’s are foster parents who have worked through this question frequently while loving kids who aren’t staying with them for good. Listen to their story.
As foster parents it’s best to keep heart and hands open to the possibility of the case going either direction. If you are interested in fostering, it’s good to ask yourself questions ahead of time to prepare for the journey ahead—keeping in mind the hope for the children is to return to a safe home with their parents. Foster care specialists, social workers, and foster parents are hard at work to change the misconception that adoption is the only happy ending.
Fostering vs. Adopting
Here are some of the key differences between adoption and fostering.
Foster parents are assumed to be a temporary placement for the child versus permanent placement with adoption. Foster parents are required to fulfill training hours in order to maintain their licenses and receive regular stipends from the government for essential expenses of raising the children placed in their home. Fostering can feel like a long list of requirements, especially when you’re just starting out, but the process is demystified in our ebook: Becoming A Foster Parent In Washington State: Everything You Need To Know.
To put it simply: in foster care, the child’s legal guardian typically maintains parental rights for the child. These rights are managed by the state and they remain intact unless a court terminates those rights. With adoption, full legal custody and rights are granted to the adoptive parents.
When reunification is not possible, adoption is a great option to provide a child with a steady, safe, and loving home. Older youth (ages 11-17) are the most in need of permanent homes, as well as adoptive parents experienced in trauma and therapeutic parenting.
Whether you are looking to provide a safe and loving home for a child by fostering or by adoption, it’s crucial to do research ahead of time to understand their differences. When you choose to foster, you play an important role in helping children reunite with their families. There are many ways that foster parents can support the goal of reunification, including building connections with parents, supporting family visits, and encouraging a positive relationship between children and their parents.
We understand reunification is hard when coming to love a child that will not stay forever, but it’s the best outcome for everyone involved. And, for foster parents, there are abundant resources to support you through this process and when your child transitions back to their home.
Are you ready to foster reunification for a family who needs you? If you live in Washington State, we can help. Get more info on becoming a foster parent.