The Foster Care Adoption Process

The foster care adoption process can be difficult for parents to understand. Two legal experts break it down, step-by-step, to help you figure out if fost/adopt is right for your family.

A happy family formed through the foster care process

In 2016, there were 437,465 children in the U.S. foster care system, 117,794 of them awaiting a forever home. Every one of these children deserves a stable, loving home — maybe yours?

Parents do not need to be wealthy, young, in perfect health, married, heterosexual, or keep a pristine home to adopt from foster care. You do need to be flexible, patient, and be able to open your heart to a child beyond the newborn stage. Read on to learn more about whether this route to parenthood might be right for you, and how to start the foster care adoption process.


What Is Foster Care?

There are two types of children in foster care — those who are temporarily in custody and will likely be reunified with their family, and those who are likely to have parental rights terminated, and become eligible for adoption. There are also some children who are already eligible for adoption; for the most part, they tend to be older.

Most often, children enter the foster system because of abuse, neglect, or mental health or addiction problems in their original homes. As the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption found in their 2017 National Foster Care Adoption Attitudes Survey, 46% of Americans still “strongly agree” with the misperception that children who enter foster care are “juvenile delinquents,” but that is not the case. Children enter the foster care system through no fault of their own.

Goals for the Foster Child

Depending on how and why the child enters the foster care system, the agency has two goals: reunify the family and make a plan in case reunification is not successful.

First the agency tries for reunification, by providing services to the child’s biological parents and verifying that the home is safe and secure for the child. The agency provides drug and alcohol counseling, if needed, and assesses housing stability, financial solvency, and ability to attend to any special medical or educational needs the child has. The timeframe varies by state, but in some states, a reunification plan must be in place within 18 months of the child’s being taken into custody.

Concurrently, the agency examines other permanent placement options, since it is understood that reunification isn’t always possible. First the agency will look to kinship placements — family or friends who could take custody of the child — and then foster parents who may be open to adoption. There are certain cases that are more likely to be converted into an adoption, such as biological parents who have been convicted of crimes against children or who have failed to meet reunification requirements for a previous child.

Termination of Parental Rights

For a child to be eligible for adoption, parental rights must be terminated after two conditions have been met. First, the agency must have proven grounds for termination. Most frequently the grounds are failing to actively perform parental duties. Rights might also be terminated if the parents have done nothing to improve the conditions that led to the removal of the child.

Then, the court looks at what is in the best interest of the child. Foster parents often have a strong case because the child has already been in their home for as long as 18 months. The agency may complete a bonding and attachment assessment to see if the child considers the foster parents his or her parents, and if it would be taking a risk to reunite the child with a biological parent who has not taken steps to improve.

Find your state’s statutes governing the termination of parental rights by a court in “Grounds for Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights,” a publication from the Child Welfare Information Gateway.


Is Foster Adoption Right for US?

Like any kind of adoption, there are pros and cons to adopting from foster care. They will, of course, depend on your family’s circumstances and desires, but for many the positives far outweigh the potential drawbacks.

Potential Cons

Children adopted from foster care come from homes where living circumstances are not ideal, and they may have been personally abused or neglected. Because adults have failed them in the past, it can be harder to earn their trust.

Families cannot count on adopting a newborn (though it does happen); most children who are waiting to be adopted tend to be older, but children of all ages need loving homes.

Families that adopt from foster care must also be able to handle the heartbreak of caring for and falling in love with a child who ultimately returns to his or her biological parents or another biological relative.


Dedicated foster parents can help children with troubled pasts work through their challenges — and most will say that nothing in their life has been more rewarding.

Additionally, foster-to-adopt is much less expensive than other forms of adoption. In addition to funding and subsidies to help you through the process without worrying about cost, there is ongoing adoption assistance. Parents need to be able to provide food, clothing, and shelter, not demonstrate wealth. The most important thing is to provide a stable home.

Common Misconceptions

Some prospective parents shy away from foster adoption because of misunderstandings about the type of children in the system. These are the most common misconceptions:

All foster children are special needs: Special needs can mean anything from over age three to a race, ethnicity, or language that makes a child more difficult to place. Needing to be placed with a sibling group is considered a special need. A mental, physical, emotional, or medical disability certified by a licensed professional is a special need. Learn more about the child to determine which label applies and take advantage of all the pre- and post-placement services that are available.

All foster children carry “baggage”: All children need love, nurturing, patience, and stability. Children in the foster system may have scars from past experiences, but, when given the opportunity to thrive, they will.


Who Can Foster?

Marital status and sexual orientation: Single parents, unmarried couples, married couples, and same-sex parents can adopt through foster adoption.

Age: Foster parents generally must be 21 years of age or older. There is no upper age limit, provided that the prospective parents can pass a medical exam. We both know several grandparents in their seventies who have adopted their grandchildren.

Health: The health appraisal is not looking for certain conditions. It is an overall evaluation to determine whether you are healthy enough to complete the day-to-day tasks of raising a child. A manageable health condition or disability should not disqualify you.

Income/finances: Foster parents do not need to be wealthy; they must have a reliable, stable source of income, however, and cannot be on public assistance.

Background clearance: All adults in your household will have to complete the child abuse and state police clearances. If you have had past run-ins with the law, like a DUI in college, it’s best to be up front about those from the beginning.

Parent training: As part of your foster certification, you will need to complete a certain number of hours of parent training. Yes, it can feel like a lot to have to go to classes in the evening or on the weekends after you’ve worked all day, but we hear from so many families who say things like, “I dealt with this problem in this way because I learned it from training or another foster parent at the support group.” Going forward, parents must meet annual parent-training requirements.

Home study and safety check: As part of the home study you would need to have for any type of adoption, someone from the agency will check your home for general safety measures, like fire extinguishers, childproofing, and water testing if you have a well. It is not a white glove test. The basics are the ability to provide food, clothing, and shelter. Generally the children must have their own bedroom, unless they are sharing with a sibling group of the same gender and there are no special behaviors that would require them to be separate.


How Should We Get Started?

So, you’ve decided foster adoption is the right choice for your family. The first step to the process is to contact your local office for the welfare of children. Parents can search the National Foster Care & Adoption Directory to find the closest office. It’s often an acronym, like CYS or DCYF or OCY.

Local offices tend to like placing children with local families, so making a connection and developing a relationship with them can work in your favor — you will be at the front of their minds when a child is available for adoption. Ask your office about foster care training and resources. There is often a central person who is devoted to recruiting foster families, and can conduct in-person consultations to help determine if foster care is the right fit for you and your family.

Be clear right from the beginning that you’re interested in placements in which it’s likely the child will become available for adoption. The agency has ways to analyze each case as to the likelihood that it will end up in an adoption versus a reunification.

In most states, you’ll also need an attorney. You should be able to receive a reimbursement to cover legal fees, but it does make sense to hire your own lawyer. He or she will help you finalize the adoption and, as part of that, negotiate the subsidy agreement. [To ensure experience with adoption, look for a fellow of the Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys.]

You can also visit a national photo listing such as AdoptUSKids, The Adoption Exchange, or Children Awaiting Parents and view children who are available for adoption in different geographic areas. If you’re interested in an interstate adoption, proceed with your home study. Start by calling agencies in your area and ask if they prepare home studies for families adopting from the foster system. Because the state will pay for home studies for foster adoption, keep in mind that you won’t be able to use that home study to complete a private adoption.

Then, if you’re a home study ready family and you find a photo listing that speaks to you, you can say, “Hey, look, we’re approved, we’re ready. Pennsylvania has approved us. We have all of our clearances and references and we’re ready to go,” when you contact the case worker who’s referenced.


What Resources Can We Take Advantage of?

Resources Available During Foster Care and the Adoption Process

Child welfare offices provide a monthly payment for services as a foster parent, and families may receive additional stipends to cover expenses like clothing or mileage, if you need to take the child to appointments. Foster parents can take advantage of many other resources, including: short-term respite care, mental health services, medical health services, transportation cost reimbursement, and support networks for parents and siblings. And, if the goal for the child becomes adoption, the process shouldn’t cost you anything. You can receive a one-time benefit of up to $2,000 to cover legal fees, travel for the adoptive parents, and related expenses.

Resources Available After Adoption

When a child has gone through the foster system, there are sometimes challenges that crop up after the adoption is complete. As such, there are additional free-of-charge resources that families can take advantage of even after fostering has become permanent parenting. There are support groups for parents, and foster parents who have experience caring for children from adverse backgrounds who can provide respite care for an evening or a weekend. Continuing education is available to help parents cope with any new issues that come up. Finally, there is therapy for children who have questions as they get older, to help them work through any areas where they struggle. When it comes time to apply to college, former foster children are eligible for all kinds of different federal benefits, so be aware of that as you fill out the FAFSA.

Adoption Assistance Agreements

There used to be a disincentive to adopt children from foster care because the family would lose their monthly foster care benefit. Adoption assistance agreements minimize this financial obstacle. Families may receive direct assistance in the form of monthly payments until the child reaches age 18, or, in some states, age 21. The payments come from the state of origin, but can continue even if the family moves out of state. Most children eligible for adoption assistance are also eligible for another big benefit — a medical assistance card.


The Foster-Care Mindset

Foster care is not perfect, and it is important to simply be open to whatever may come your way. To be successful at foster parenting, you must begin the process with:

• Stability

• Patience

• An open heart

• The ability to nurture a child

• The ability to love a child

In addition, foster parents should be flexible. While you’re fostering, the county agency still has legal custody of the child, so you’re part of this bureaucracy. You’ll need to shuttle the child to therapy sessions, doctor appointments, visits with family members, and you’ll need to be prepared for the fact that plans and times will change, and you’ll have little control over that. If you’re part of a couple who wants to adopt from foster care, make sure you have a solid marriage that can meet those challenges. Finally, have a sense of humor. Foster children may be behind developmentally. They may do wacky things because they haven’t had adults in their lives to help them make good decisions. You need to be able to laugh with them at life’s troubles, and help model for them how to be good decision-makers.

Understand that you won’t have all of the answers all the time. Still, don’t give up. If you hit a hurdle or barrier, search for a way around it. With patience and devotion, most barriers can be overcome.

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