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Unexpected Pregnancy

Placing a Child in Foster Care: Informal and Formal Foster Care

Informal Foster Care (Kinship Care)

Throughout history, shared child-rearing in extended families and among networks of friends has helped ensure that all the children in a community have a chance to thrive. Based on the belief that we are all responsible for children’s well-being, informal foster care relies on those best able to care for children to step in and help those least able. This system is common throughout the world and in many communities in the U.S.

In this type of care, you choose to give your baby to someone you know and trust--one of your own family members, a friend, or a member of the birth father's family--to care for temporarily or perhaps raise permanently.

In my family we call this word-of-mouth adoption. My grandmother did this a lot; she took in children from family members. Although there was no legal status, cousins became siblings and some of my family who I consider to be aunts are actually only distantly related to me.

Although this kind of arrangement is not legally binding, it may give your child a chance of receiving the consistent care, love, and support that is so important to his or her development. If you decide to have a friend or family member care for your child, it is advisable to create a temporary guardianship that will allow that adult to make medical decisions in your absence. Each state may have different guardianship requirements; make sure you have a clear understanding of your state’s guardianship laws.

Formal Foster Care

If you choose formal foster care, you place your child in the care and custody of a child welfare agency.  It is very important for you to understand what you will have to do to regain custody of your child. From a legal perspective, you put yourself at risk of losing your parental rights when you place your child into the custody of an agency.  In some states you can place your child into foster care through a short-term voluntary agreement.  Other states may require you to relinquish custody of your child through a court process.  It's important to stay in touch with your caseworker during the time your child is in foster care and participate in planning for your child in order to regain custody later. In some state systems, it will be up to your child's social worker (a person assigned to the child when she or he enters foster care) to determine if you are a “good'' parent and deserve another chance to parent your child. 

If you are considering foster care, you need to ask whether you will have any control over who fosters your child once your child enters the system. While many people become foster parents out of a true concern for children's well-being, some may have less positive motives.  Ask how foster parents in your state are recruited and screened. Think about the family's motivation for fostering, and how changing public policies may influence this.

The goal of foster care should be to provide you time to resolve your problems and make decisions about your parenting ability. It is not in the best interest of your child for him or her to remain in the foster care system for an extended time. Children who spend many years in foster care often end up going from one placement to another. If you have honestly reflected on your circumstances and believe that you will not be able to parent, consider adoption so that the child has the stable home she or he needs. Foster care is a temporary situation. 

To find out more about placing a child in foster care, see “A Family's Guide to the Child Welfare System”  from the Child Welfare League of America.

Written by: Judith Winkler. Special thanks to Millicent Williams.
Last revised: March 2005

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