What Social Workers Need To Know About The Foster Care System
Foster care protects and defends some of the most vulnerable members of society. The foster care system in the United States provides safety and protection for hundreds of thousands of children who enter the system as wards of the state and remain in the system until they are reunited with their family or adopted. The main difference between foster care and adoption is that the state maintains all legal rights of guardianship for the child. Foster parents are transient providers of shelter and care, but the child remains a ward of the state while in the system. After adoption, the rights and responsibilities of guardianship are assumed by the adoptive parents. According to the National Association of Social Workers, it is not uncommon for prospective parents who are interested in adopting a child in state custody to begin by becoming the child's foster parents. The child remains in state custody until the prospective parents are approved to adopt the child, provided they make the decision to move forward with the adoption process. Social workers who are employed as foster care caseworkers play a key role in the foster care system. They are called in when child abuse or neglect has been reported and are present when a child is removed from a home. They determine the best placement option for the individual child, weighing the risks and benefits of returning a child to the home of origin compared to placement with a foster family. They determine if a prospective foster home is a safe environment for foster children and help prepare prospective foster parents for the responsibilities they will assume. Caseworkers also monitor a child's welfare while in foster care and work with local adoption agencies to find permanent homes for children. In the United States, foster care services are administered at the state level. Each state establishes its own rules for foster care and has its own agencies to process reports of suspected child abuse and neglect. In most states, the state government includes a department of social services that oversees county social service agencies and private foster care organizations. Licensed non-profit organizations frequently provide a large portion of local foster care services. These private non-profits may receive government funding or may be funded on charitable donations. Social workers are employed at every level of both public and private foster care organizations. Foster care is meant to be a transitional solution, but the reality is that many children grow up in multiple foster homes and are never returned to their families or adopted. There has always been a shortage of qualified foster parents and willing adoptive parents. This has led to the establishment of foster care group homes. Children in group homes live in a dormitory-style setting rather than in a traditional home. Children in group homes often have mental or physical special needs that require additional social services that are not available in an individual foster home. Unlike children who are adopted, a child who turns 18 while in foster care is essentially on his or her own. Each year, about 20,000 children who have spent some portion of their life in foster care "age out" of the system. One of the most challenging responsibilities for foster care caseworkers is preparing these children to live independently and to find employment, housing, health care and education as adults.