Foster care

Foster care is an arrangement by which children live temporarily with peopleother than their own families, who for various reasons are unable to care forthem; often, the reason for foster care is abuse or neglect by the child's parent.

Perhaps more than the young of any other species, human infants are dependenton others for their physical well-being. And so, recognizing that children are dependent on social interaction for their physical survival, human societyhas always found ways of caring for dependent children. In primitive societies, children who lose their parents are usually incorporated into the families of others, or into larger social groups as servants, apprentices, or simplyas unwanted children. Until recent times, under British and U. S. poor laws,foster children were frequently placed with families that supported them into adulthood, while teaching them a trade. In some rural areas in this country, children have been boarded by their parents with foster families to providethe children with greater educational opportunities. And in some Third Worldcountries, it has not been not uncommon for parents, in hopes of providing greater economic opportunity for their children, to arrange for a better-off family friend or some other interested party to assume responsibility for their education and support.

There are more than half a million children living in foster homes in the United States at any given time. Neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse are the primary reasons that children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care. Substance abuse by one or both parents is a factor in more than 75% of all foster home placements.

Since 1985, there has been a significant increase in the number of children in need of substitute family care. Much of this increase can be attributed tothe rising epidemic of drug abuse. In many inner city hospitals, infants mustbe treated for drug abuse because they have been born to addicted mothers; many of these children have no homes to return to upon discharge from the hospital. The AIDS epidemic has given rise to a more complicated and pathetic setof circumstances, with children either being afflicted by the disease themselves or having need of being cared for by ill parents. In addition, the children of unwed teenage mothers are at high risk of growing up in poverty and homelessness.

There always has been an informal system of foster care in the United States.Earlier in this country's history, neighbors or relatives would come forwardto care for children whose parents (for whatever reasons) were unable to doso. However, there was little government effort to care for children before 1912, when the U.S Children's Bureau was established to protect the health andwelfare of children. In the early days of government-run foster care, children were usually placed in foster families because their own parents were sick, unable to care for them, or dead.

Since the turn of the century, changing circumstances and an increase in theneed for foster parents have made it necessary for foster care programs to become better organized and regulated. In the 1960s, the foster care of children in this country came under the supervision of governmental and private child-care agencies. Prior to this time, it was not uncommon for children to be shuttled from one temporary home to another, for children to be kept too longin temporary placements, or for children to be subjected to uneven and inadequate supervision. Today, especially with the passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, there are programs in place to match fosterchildren with families, and to carefully monitor the children and homes in which they are placed.

Foster children can be any age, but about 25% of children entering foster care for the first time are infants, and 60% are under 4. Youngsters between theages of 13 and 18 account for about a third of all children in foster care.

Because children placed in foster care often have special physical, emotional, behavioral, educational, or social needs, it can be very challenging to serve as a foster parent. It is estimated that more than one-third of all licensed foster parents are without foster children at any given time, either because they are unwilling or unable to care for children with difficult problems.

The current difficulties in finding suitable foster homes for these childrencomes at a time when some experts believe that there is a shortage of peoplewilling to share their homes with even healthy children. There are now more children in need of foster care than ever, but there are also more children inneed of specialized care for such problems as drug addiction, health problems, and psychological scarring due to family disruptions.

As a result, many children who could be living with foster parents are warehoused in group homes, or shuttled from one foster home to another for unsuccessful, short-term stays. To combat this problem, child welfare workers today turn more often to relatives of the children in need of foster care, appealingto them to take over the care of the child. This form of foster care is called "kinship care."

There are at least three major problems confronting foster care. The first, and perhaps greatest, has to do with the increase in demand for, and changingnature of skills required of, foster parents. A growing number of the children in need of foster homes come from nonwhite families of low economic status,making them unattractive to more well-to-do segments of the population.

The second problem has to do with foster care management and policy-making. More and better legislation is needed to focus states' attention on case planning and monitoring, charting of care, reducing the time a child spends in temporary care, and evaluating the possibility of some children returning to their biological families.

The third problem has to do with the length of time a foster child spends ina home. Experts tell us that when children are denied the experience of consistency in the people and places in their lives, they are likely to become confused about many of the things that occur around them, and to experience profound difficulties in making real sense of their lives. The shortage of smallin-home and home-like settings for these children has resulted in children being gathered together in larger and larger groups, making it difficult to protect them from further abuse and neglect.

One of the great paradoxes facing social scientists is that despite the factthat many of these children are overwhelmed by feelings of abandonment, solitude, and disconnection, some foster children do survive to become stable andproductive adults.

People who want to become foster parents are first screened to determine whether they are eligible. Those best qualified to be a foster parent are patientand empathetic, attentive, and determined to succeed. They should have an ability to love and then let go, and a willingness to grow and learn from the fostering experience. Applicants do not need to be married or live in a single-family home--or even be stay-at-home parents. Foster parents include retiredpersons, working parents, apartment dwellers, and single or divorced persons.

Qualified applicants receive training in how to be good foster parents. Theyare reimbursed for the cost of caring for their foster children, and they receive extra funds if there are special needs that must be met or unusual health problems that require treatment. Social workers oversee and supervise foster parents' work. In most cases, counseling and support are available to foster parents.

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