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Foster Care


What is foster care?
When the government believes that children are being abused or neglected and cannot safely live with their families, it asks a Family Court judge to place the children in foster care. While in foster care, children may live with licensed foster parents, in group homes or with extended family.

The “foster care system” or “abuse and neglect system” refers to the family court and the government agencies that decide whether children should be in foster care, takes care of children in foster care, and works to get children out of foster care.

Foster care is designed to be temporary. When the system works properly, social workers help parents resolve the problem that brought their children into foster care and the children can go home. If reunification with their parents is not possible, children can leave foster care through adoption and guardianship to live with relatives or adoptive parents.

When is foster care necessary?
The law recognizes that removing children from their parents can be more harmful than helpful. Children can often stay safely with their parents – even after they have been abused and neglected – if their family is provided with the right support services. Unless staying with his or her parents would pose an “imminent risk” to a child’s safety, the government is legally required to make “reasonable efforts” to prevent removing children from their families. This means that social workers must work with families to help them solve the problems at the root of suspected abuse or neglect. For example, when parents needs help managing their children’s behavior, social workers can help develop parenting skills and secure necessary therapeutic support. Or, if a family is at risk of homelessness, the government can provide emergency rent assistance through programs such as Rapid Housing.

Who decides if a child should stay in foster care?
Only a judge can decide to keep a child in foster care. The government must appear in front of a judge within 72 hours of removing a child from his or her parents. The judge will appoint lawyers to help the child and the child’s parents. The child’s lawyer is called a guardian ad litem

The judge is required to hold periodic hearings while the child is in foster care. There will be a trial to decide if the child has been abused and neglected. There will also be hearings to ensure that the child is being treated properly. For example, is he or she receiving necessary medical care, receiving visits with his or her family, adequate health care and going to school? The judge will also decide whether the child can go home to his parents, stay in foster care or leave foster care to live with relatives or in an adoptive home.

What are the types of foster care? 

  • Extended Family Care
    Aunts, uncles, grandparents and other relatives can care for children who are in the foster care system. Under DC law, a judge can order a child to live with a relative in “third party custody.” This means that the relative has the responsibility to care for the child and has the authority to make important decisions about the child. “Third party caregivers” do not receive any financial assistance.
  • Foster Homes
    In traditional foster homes, adults recruited by the government to be foster parents open their homes to foster children. These adults are licensed after attending training, participating in a home study and undergoing a criminal background check. Foster parents are responsible for providing most of the day-to-day parental care, although the government and court retain the power to make major decisions. Foster parents are provided a monthly stipend to offset the cost of raising a foster child. Extended family members can also become foster parents.
  • Group Homes
    Group homes house a small group of foster children in one facility. No adults live there, but staff are present at all times. Group homes are among the most expensive placements available – often costing the government several hundred dollars a day – and generally lead to worse outcomes for children than living with a family.
  • Supervised Independent Living Programs
    Older foster children who do not have family members they can live with and are likely to “age out” of foster care, can live in supervised independent living programs. These programs provide youth with their own apartment and a monthly stipend to pay for groceries, clothing, and other basic expenses. Youth are expected to take care of their own basic needs, and program staff is expected to assist them with completing school, attending college, finding and maintaining employment, and other life skills.

How can children leave foster care?
Foster care is designed to provide temporary care to children, not to be a long-term substitute for family. The foster care system therefore works to help children leave foster care – what the foster care system calls “permanency.” Permanency options include reunification, adoption, guardianship or another planned permanent living arrangement (APPLA).

  • Reunification 
    In most cases, the foster care system works to reunify children with their families. The government works to address the problems that led to removal so the child can safely return to his or her family. Just as the government has a legal obligation to make reasonable efforts to prevent removal, the government must make reasonable efforts to reunify a family.

    While separated from their family, children should have frequent visits with their parents. Research shows that frequent visitation is a key indicator of successful reunification. Young children, in particular, should visit their parents often, at least multiple times a week.
  • Adoption and Guardianship
    In many cases, children cannot return home to their parents. The problems that led to foster care are so severe and so deep that parents cannot address them effectively. In these cases, children should generally not remain in foster care. Growing up in foster care means growing up without a permanent family, without the legal connections or lifelong supports that most people take for granted. When children cannot safely return to their parents, the abuse and neglect system tries to find other adults to adopt them or become their permanent guardians.
  • Long-Term Foster Care or Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA)
    In some cases, children cannot return to their parents and cannot leave foster care through adoption or guardianship and thus grow up in foster care. Generally, this is the worst option for children. However, there are some situations in which long-term foster care is the best option for a child. For example,

• When a financial or legal barrier exists that would deprive a child who is living with a caregiver of the very stability which adoption and guardianship attempt to provide. Currently, financial support for foster children extends to 21, but is cut off at 18 if a child is adopted or in a guardianship home. This and other barriers can be removed [link to adoption subsidy one pager] by changes to local law and to government policy

• When a child with severe health problems needs to remain in foster care to ensure that she can receive all the services she will need while growing up.

• When an older teenager knows he cannot live with his parents, but does not want any other family to replace his birth family permanently. The best thing for him may be to stay in foster care while the system helps him develop lasting ties to responsible adults and prepares him to live on his own.

Frequent Issues That Arise in Foster Care

Extended Family Placements
Children in the abuse and neglect system live with extended family members in one of two ways. Most frequently, extended family members become licensed foster parents and the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) places the child in their home. When this happens, the extended family member can receive a foster care stipend from CFSA to help take care of the child, but the child is in CFSA’s legal custody and CFSA has more authority over the child and family.

Alternatively, DC law allows Family Court judges to place children directly in the custody of extended family members. When that happens, extended family members do not receive a subsidy from CFSA, the child is not in CFSA’s custody and the extended family members do not have to comply with CFSA’s licensing requirements.

Nationally, foster children do not perform well in school. One significant reason is that children are forced to change schools when they are placed in foster care and every time they change foster homes.

To address this problem, federal foster care law requires the government to work with schools to help keep children in their home school by, among other things, paying to help the government transport foster children to their home school. Other education laws [link to McKinney-Vento one pager] also protect foster children’s educational rights.

Foster children are also disproportionately likely to need special education services and to be subject to school discipline.

Mental Health Services
Abused and neglected children and children who have suffered the trauma of being removed from their homes often need mental health treatment to recover. The District government struggles to provide adequate mental health services



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