What is foster care?
Foster care is a type of out-of-home care for children who can’t live safely 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 problematic alcohol or other drug use, a mental health condition, 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 carer: rewards
Being a foster carer can be a rewarding and positive experience.
As a foster carer you’re giving a child a safe, nurturing environment to grow up in. Children develop and learn best in these kinds of environments.
You can also enjoy the experience of raising a child, getting to know them, and being close to them as they grow and develop.
Being a foster carer: challenges
Foster caring comes with challenges, including helping your foster child adjust to foster care, helping them with complex needs and feelings, and responding to any challenging behaviour.
Your foster child has experienced a major change in their lives, often as the result of a traumatic experience. They’ve 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.
Your foster child might feel angry, sad or worried. They might show their feelings in ways like withdrawal, difficulty separating from you, or clinginess. They might 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.
Your foster child might think and feel certain things about themselves, which can affect their behaviour. For example, they might:
- blame themselves for being removed from their birth parents
- want to return to their birth parents, even if they experienced abuse
- feel unwanted or rejected, particularly if they’re waiting to be adopted
- feel unsettled by changes in foster care or have mixed feelings about you
- feel uncertain about their future or identity.
Other challenges might include:
- coping with costs, especially if your foster child has additional needs
- managing contact with birth parents and helping your foster child understand their feelings about this.
Helping foster children adjust to foster care
Building a relationship and developing trust is key to helping your foster child adjust to foster care. They’re likely to thrive when they have warm, reliable relationships with you and your family.
Relationships and trust take time and patience to develop. But as your foster child learns to feel comfortable with you and settle into their foster home, their emotional issues might ease.
In the meantime, feeling safe and secure can help your foster child adjust to their changed situation. These ideas can help:
- Set up bedrooms and places for your foster child’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 your foster child’s age.
- Give your foster child high fives, thumbs up, hugs and praise and encouragement when they behave well.
- Be honest, especially when you explain to your foster child why they’re in foster care and how long they might stay with you.
- Encourage your foster child to ask questions, raise concerns and be involved in making decisions.
Our behaviour tips and strategies can help you encourage positive behaviour and respond to challenging behaviour in positive, constructive ways. You can also read our practical tips to encourage positive behaviour.
Managing contact between foster children and birth families
It can often be good for your foster child to have contact with their birth parents and other family members. For example, family contact might help your foster child to:
- maintain healthy relationships with their family
- build a sense of identity, security and stability
- develop resilience.
Family contact also prepares your foster child for being reunited with their birth families.
But family contact can be challenging and emotionally complex, both for your foster child and for you. For example, you might have mixed feelings towards your foster child’s birth 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 your foster care agency for help, support and training to manage family contact.
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.
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 managing debt and financial problems 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 has a disability, you might be able to get support from the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
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.
The following websites have information on foster care in your state or territory.
Australian Capital Territory
New South Wales
- Foster and Kinship Carers Association Tasmania
- Tasmanian Department for Education, Children and Young People – Family based care
- Foster Care Association of Victoria
- Victorian Department of Families, Fairness and Housing – Foster care
- Foster Care Association WA
- Foster Families South West
- WA Department of Communities – Support for foster carers
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.