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 with issues like addiction to alcohol or other drugs, mental health issues or intellectual disability, which mean they can’t care for their children properly.
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.
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.
Being a foster parent: rewards and challenges
Being a foster parent can be a rewarding and positive experience.
Some of the most important rewards come from knowing that you’re giving children a safe, nurturing environment to grow up in. You can also enjoy the experience of raising children and being close to them as they grow and develop.
But foster caring comes with challenges too. Some of the big challenges include:
- helping children adjust to foster care and dealing with their complex needs and any challenging behaviour
- handling children’s complex emotional reactions after they’ve seen their biological parents
- coping with the costs of raising foster children, especially children with additional needs.
– Lyn, foster parent
Helping foster children adjust to foster care
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, but they might also have had to move house, change schools, leave friends or separate from loved pets.
It’s normal for these children to feel angry, sad and worried. They might show their feelings in ways like withdrawal, behaviour problems, 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 display disturbing behaviour 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 about changes in foster parents, or have mixed feelings about their foster parents
- feel uncertain of their future or identity.
All children need to build a relationship with an adult they can trust. This can take time and a lot of patience for children going into foster care. But as children develop a relationship with you and settle into their foster homes, some of these issues might go away by themselves.
In the meantime, family routines, rules and boundaries can help foster children feel safe and secure, and feeling safe can help 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
- encourage good behaviour by setting fair rules and boundaries that are appropriate to children’s ages
- give children lots of hugs, praise and encouragement when they behave well.
Managing contact between foster children and birth families
Having continuity in their relationships helps foster children feel safe and loved. These include relationships with foster families, friends, role models 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 might also feel uncomfortable if children have mixed feelings about their biological parents, or feel closer to you than to their biological parents.
You can play an important role in helping family contact go well, just by supporting and encouraging family contact. And if you support family contact, it can help things go well between you and your foster child.
It’s OK to ask the foster care agency you work with for help, support and training in relation to managing family contact.
– 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 special 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 Financial Counselling Helpline on 1800 007 007 for help with financial problems, managing debt and making informed choices about money.
- Call the Australian Government Financial Information Service on 132 300 for information and advice on financial matters.
Fostering support organisations and agencies
Create Foundation represents children and young people in out-of-home care. The website has information on programs, activities and events run by Create throughout Australia.
These are the state and territory government agencies or departments responsible for foster care across Australia:
- Australian Capital Territory – ACT Community Services – Foster care
- New South Wales – NSW Department of Communities and Justice – Foster, relative and kinship care
- Northern Territory – Territory Families – Guide for kinship and foster carers
- Queensland – Queensland Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women – 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