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Foster Care Terminology

This is a follow up to my post on Adoption Terminology. The language of foster care is perhaps even more inconsistent, complicated and confusing. The most important point, in my opinion, is to put the label on the adult—the foster parent, not the child. Labels can be embarrassing for a child. A kid who is already feeling out of sorts after being plopped into a whole new family, school, church, etc. really doesn’t need to feel more set apart with the big juicy label “foster child.” A child who is in foster care, living with foster parents, does not need to be called a foster child. Please! If you ignore everything else in this post, take this to heart. Again, I’m thankful we haven’t had a child old enough to really understand these terms when they’re misused. This is from my experience and opinion:

Foster Care Terms
foster care
– a federally-backed state-run program for children who have been removed from their biological parents’ custody, typically due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment. The government places these children as “wards of the state” into foster homes, group homes or residential treatment centers temporarily until a permanent long-term plan is made for the child. A child in foster care is in state custody. In most cases (75%?), the goal is for the child to be returned to his/her biological parents’ custody once they have met certain requirements, such as acquiring adequate housing and job, parenting classes, drug/alcohol treatment.

reunification – the process of transitioning the child back into custody of his/her biological parents; this is the goal of foster care most of the time

foster parents – the people who volunteered to parent a child who is in foster care

resource parents – our state (Tennessee) refers to foster parents as resource parents

foster home – the home of the foster parents

orphanage – a group home where children live 24/7 with around-the-clock caretakers while they wait to be adopted. it is my understanding that these no longer exist in the United States as research has shown that children thrive more in a family and home setting with the individual attention and love from foster parents.

foster care adoption / fost-adopt / pre-adoptive home – when a child in state custody becomes legally free to adopt (biological parental rights have been terminated), the foster parents typically are the go-to option to adopt the child because ideally a healthy, loving bond has already been established. the adoption is done through the state, as opposed to a private adoption, and is very inexpensive compared to other types of adoption. In Tennessee every foster home is an approved adoptive home. In some states, additional requirements may need to be met for a home to be considered a fost-adopt or pre-adoptive home.

termination of parental rights / TPR – the process in which all legal rights of the biological parents are severed

legally free / legal risk – a child whose biological parents have already have their parental rights terminated or surrendered; this child is legally free to adopt. In Tennessee the process of TPR can take a long time and it usually unknown at the time of placement whether or not a child will be heading towards a plan of reunification with biological parents or TPR and adoption.

department of childrens services / DCS – (Tennessee) the arm of the county government that serves children in state custody; has different names in different states such as “department of family and child services / DFCS” and “department of human services / DHS”

case worker/ CW / family service worker / FSW – (Tennessee) a social worker who is assigned to take care of a specific case (case = child or sibling set); in our state, we as foster parents have a case worker who handles our home study and training and a different case worker is assigned to each child or sibling group

child protective services / CPS – I honestly don’t know enough about CPS to answer this but I know in Tennessee CPS often does the investigation and removes the child from the bio parents’ home and assists DCS in placing the child in a foster home. CPS is not always involved.

sibling group – every attempt is made to keep biological siblings together when there are healthy relationships between the children

placement – when a child is matched with foster parents, the child is placed with them; the child may be referred to as the placement or it may refer to the time when the child was placed; the time of placement.

kinship placement – when a child is placed with an extended family member while in state custody; the family member must go through the same training and receives the same benefits as foster parents, however training can be done after the time of placement rather than before placement. In Tennessee the definition of kinship is ridiculously liberal – including neighbors, teachers, godparents…basically anyone who knows of the child; but doesn’t need to have actually met or have an established relationship with the child. (Don’t get me started…)

permanency plan – (Tennessee) the goal made by the Department of Childrens Services and the juvenile court system — either to reunite the child with his/her biological family or to move toward adoption. The goal is for the child NOT to remain in foster care more than 1-2 years.

foster child/ foster kid / foster son / foster daughter / foster baby – a child who is temporarily in state custody because of abuse, neglect or abandonment from their original family; see my note above about avoiding putting a label on the child whenever possible

From my personal experience, here are three examples of how to introduce a child to family and friends, especially those who don’t know you are a foster parent and are totally confused about who the kid is…without using the term foster child or foster kid.

Usually friends will say to us, “And who is this?”

1. “This is Megan.”

2. “This is Megan. She’s living with us for a while.”

3. “This is Megan. She’s been a part of our family since April. Did you know we’re foster parents?”

Fellow foster parents, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What did I forget? 

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5 Responses to Foster Care Terminology

  1. RLJ says:

    This has become a topic in our family lately. My best friend and her husband are foster parents. While I don’t have any children, I do have 3 nephews 5 and 2 that I’m really close with. The one time my best friend brought her two boys over to play with my nephews we didn’t bother to explain that they were being fostered by my best friend and husband.

    However a few weeks ago I was with my nephew when my best friend called to tell me another little boy had been placed with them. Knowing that the discussions would be going on around the house as I told other people and his curiosity level, I started to explain to my five year old nephew why Tiger and Lion got a new brother that day.

    It was really hard for Stinker to understand why children might be taken away from their parents. It was also hard for me to be truthful with my nephew without scaring him or giving him information that he may use in a way that would be hurtful to the other children, even inadvertently. We used phrases like the parents were unable to take care of the children because they were sick, etc.

    • mahlbrandt says:

      Thanks for your comment! I am contemplating writing a follow-up post about how to talk to young children about foster care. I don’t have a lot of experience with the topic yet but I just got a great book from a friend that’s designed for explaining foster care to young children. I liked how the book said something like, “…while the parents spent some time learning to take care of children better.” When we first became foster parents another friend specifically asked me for suggestions of how to explain it to their very smart and sensitive 5-year-old. I think the most important thing to emphasize to other children is that there is no danger of them being taken away from their parents. Maybe pointing out to the child that his/her parents already know how to take care of children (with examples like cooking dinner, taking to doctor appts, putting to bed, affection, etc.) but that some parents need some help learning how to parents is a good idea.

      I think often about how we’ll explain foster care to Precious as she gets older because we intend to continue fostering until we run out of room in our house (again). I plan to make a point of always telling her “so-and-so is going to be living with us for a while but you are staying with us forever—until you’re all grown up and you decide to move out and start your own family someday.” I’m sure more questions will ensue when she’s old enough to understand. I’m actually quite curious what some of our friends have told their kids about our kids/situation; particularly Ladybug, who was only with us 5 weeks last summer. Anyone? Anyone?

  2. Krista says:

    I agree not to put the label of foster before child. When we have children in our house, they are our kids…not our foster children. However, everyone else does – and it makes me feel less of a mom to them and the children like there is a separation. I wish folks could be more educated about how labels in general hurt loving ties.

  3. I was a big sister once to a young girl (12ish) living in a group home with workers who came in shifts – sounds like an orphanage to me.

    • mahlbrandt says:

      That’s true… they’re basically orphanages, except for older kids they haven’t been able to place in foster homes… and they don’t call them orphanages. They’re group homes or residential treatment centers.

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