What is fostering?

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Fostering is one of several care options that offers children a home when they are unable to live with their birth family.

Every 20 minutes another child comes into care needing a foster family in the UK. And every day there are about 65,000 children living with 55,000 foster families.

About three-quarters of children in care live with foster families. Children come into care for many different reasons. Sometimes it is because of a parent’s short-term illness or a temporary problem within the family that requires the children to have alternative care. Some have experienced domestic violence or witnessed drug and alcohol misuse, others have been abused or neglected.

Fostering offers these children a safe and caring family, usually geographically close to their home, while they are unable to live with their own, and provides an opportunity for other professionals to work with the birth family to help resolve their issues.

Difference between fostering and adoption

Adoption and fostering are two common types of long-term arrangement for children and young people. However, they are very different. Adoption provides a new family for children who cannot be brought up by their birth parents. If a child is adopted they will lose all legal ties with their birth parents and the adoptors will be given parental responsibility, whereas with fostering the child can maintain contact with family members (if appropriate) and the state holds parental responsibility. Adoption is always considered a permanent arrangement whereas foster care can also be short-term.

Adoption is a process which legally removes the rights and responsibilities of the child's birth parent(s), and transfers them to adoptive parent(s). The child will lose all rights of inheritance from their birth family, and will take the surname of their adoptive family.

Fostering does not provide the same legal security for either the foster carers or the child, and would usually only continue until the children and young people are 18. However it means the child can keep their ties with their birth family, who may remain involved in any important decisions being made about their child, and would usually be encouraged to have regular contact with their child. When a child is fostered, foster carers will be asked to work in partnership with social workers as well as the child's birth family.

If you are considering fostering, it’s important to understand the different options you can specialise in as a foster carer. Each comes with its own rewards and challenges.

  • Long-term: Sometimes children will not be able to go back to live with their own families for a number of years, if at all. Long-term fostering allows children and young people to stay in a family where they can feel secure, often while maintaining contact with their birth family.

    • In Scotland, long-term fostering specifically refers to a placement of longer than 24 months not secured by a permanence order. Permanent fostering is a term used for a placement secured by a permanence order.

  • Short-term: Short-term foster care provides a child with a temporary foster family until they can return home or move onto a longer-term placement. This could last anything from one night to several months. This is known as interim fostering in Scotland and lasts for less than 24 months.

  • Emergency: As an emergency foster carer you could be required to take a child in at any time of the day or night to stay for a few days. For example, a lone parent is in hospital and there is no one to care for their child. Longer-term plans must then be considered.

  • Short break: Also known as 'shared care', this covers a variety of different types of part-time care. Short break carers might have a child stay with them for anything from a few hours each week to a couple of weekends each month, giving the child’s birth family or full-time foster carers a break.

  • Support care: There are a growing number of schemes which help to prevent children or young people coming into the care system by offering their families support before difficulties escalate to a point where the family can no longer manage. Foster carers offer part-time care to provide both the children and their families with a break.

You should consider what skills and experience you have, as well as what would suit you and your family best. Your fostering service will also advise you on this and will be able to give you more information about the types of foster care they offer and the people they need.

Read more about fostering.