What is foster care?
Foster care is a type of out-of-home care for children who can’t live with their own families. Foster carers are specially trained carers who take children into their own homes.
Children go into foster care for many reasons. For example:
- There might be concerns that children’s lives at home with their parents are unsafe or inadequate.
- There might be family violence in the home or a history of neglect or physical abuse.
- One or both parents might be in jail.
- One or both parents might be struggling to care for their children because of alcohol or other drug addiction, poor mental health, intellectual disability or other issues.
Foster care might be short term, longer term or permanent. Some children need short-term foster care before they go to a permanent home, go home to their families, or go to live with grandparent or kinship carers. And some children might go into permanent foster care if the Family Court rules that they can’t live with their parents because it isn’t safe.
Sometimes when children can’t live with their parents, family members or friends might become their primary carers. This is called grandparent or kinship care.
Being a foster parent: rewards
Being a foster parent can be a rewarding and positive experience.
As a foster parent you’re giving children a safe, nurturing environment to grow up in. Children develop and learn best in safe, nurturing environments.
You can also enjoy the experience of raising children, getting to know them, and being close to them as they grow and develop.
Being a foster parent has turned out to be the most rewarding thing I could have done. I do it for the children and for the families. It’s wonderful seeing a family coming together for the sake of the child and makes giving them back much easier. And my family has benefited enormously too – my children and their children are always aware that there’s always someone out there in a worse position than themselves.
– Lyn, foster parent
Being a foster parent: challenges
Foster caring comes with challenges, including helping children adjust to foster care and dealing with their complex needs and feelings and challenging behaviour.
Children who come to live with foster parents have experienced a major change in their lives, often as the result of a traumatic experience. These children have not only been separated from their parents. They’ve also had to move house and might have had to change schools, leave friends or separate from loved pets.
These children often feel angry, sad and worried. They might show their feelings in ways like withdrawal, difficulty separating from you, or clinginess. They can find it hard to:
- feel safe
- sleep soundly
- trust others, make friends and develop social skills
- calm themselves down, manage emotions and regulate behaviour
- learn at school.
Foster children might also behave in difficult or challenging ways. This is because they:
- blame themselves for being removed from their birth parents
- want to return to their birth parents, even in abuse cases
- feel unwanted or rejected, particularly if they’re waiting to be adopted
- feel unsettled by changes in foster care, or have mixed feelings about their foster parents
- feel uncertain about their future or identity.
Some of the other challenges of raising foster children include:
- coping with the costs of raising foster children, especially children with additional needs
- managing contact with biological parents and handling children’s reactions afterwards.
Helping foster children adjust to foster care
Building a relationship and developing trust is key to helping foster children adjust to foster care. Children thrive when they have warm, reliable relationships with caregivers.
Relationships and trust take time and patience to develop. But as children learn to feel comfortable with you and settle into their foster homes, some of their behaviour and emotional issues might go away.
In the meantime, feeling safe and secure can help foster children adjust to their situations. To help children feel safe and secure, you can:
- set up bedrooms and places for children’s belongings
- work out regular daily routines for getting up, getting to school, doing homework or after-school activities, having dinner and going to bed
- set fair rules and boundaries that are appropriate to children’s ages
- give children hugs, praise and encouragement when they behave well.
Our behaviour management tips and tools can help you encourage appropriate behaviour and deal with challenging behaviour in positive, constructive ways. You can also read 15 tips to encourage good behaviour.
Managing contact between foster children and birth families
It can often be good for foster children to have contact with their parents and other family members. For example, family contact might help children to:
- maintain healthy relationships with their families
- build a sense of identity, security and stability
- develop resilience.
Family contact also prepares children for being reunited with their birth families.
But family contact can be challenging and emotionally complex, both for foster children and for you. For example, you might have mixed feelings towards your foster child’s biological parents, or worry that they resent you.
You can play an important role in helping family contact go well, just by supporting and encouraging family contact.
It’s OK to ask the foster care agency you work with for help, support and training in relation to managing family contact.
We always try to have contact with the parents. Most are pretty good once they come to terms with the fact that their child is living with another family. Sometimes we go to a park or a community house for contact. With the kids who’ve been here for a few years, their parents come here.
– Clyde, foster parent
Managing the costs of foster care
It can sometimes be hard to cover the costs of caring for foster children, particularly for children with additional needs. You might feel that you don’t get enough financial help.
If you’re having financial problems, these services might be able to help:
- Call the National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007 for help with financial problems, managing debt and making informed choices about money.
- Call Services Australia’s Financial Information Service on 132 300 for information and advice on financial matters
- If your foster child a disability, you might be able to get support from the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
Fostering support organisations and agencies
The following websites have information on foster care in your state or territory:
- Australian Capital Territory – ACT Community Services – Foster care
- New South Wales – NSW Communities and Justice – Foster, relative and kinship care
- Northern Territory – Territory Families – Guide for kinship and foster carers
- Queensland – Queensland Government – Foster and kinship care
- South Australia – Government of South Australia – Foster care
- Tasmania – Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services – Foster care
- Victoria – Victorian Department of Health and Human Services – Foster care
- Western Australia – WA Department of Communities, Child Protection and Family Support – Foster care
It’s important that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in foster care remain strongly connected with their family, community and culture. Training, resources and support are available from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kinship or foster care services.