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? 

Adoption Terminology


Adoption has it’s own language. There are labels and terms for key players that are important for explaining who is who in the process. Adoptive families can be offended or insulted when the wrong terms are used, so its valuable to understand these labels if you have someone in your life who is affected by adoption. There are from my experience and opinion so take it for what’s worth:

Adoption Terms
– the child’s mom, from the point of adoption/placement onward

adoptive mom – the child’s mom, from the point of adoption onward (no need to use the distinction “adoptive” unless you’re talking about the biological mom also and there is a need to clarify who is who)

birth mom / bio mom / bmom / natural mom – the woman who carried the child in utero and gave birth to the child

real mom – both the adoptive mom and the birth mom are real moms

(apply the same rules for dad/father, adoptive dad, birth dad / bio dad / bdad / natural dad, etc.)

child – a person who is not an adult yet

child who is adopted – no such thing; it’s like saying a “child who is born”; the tenses don’t match

child who was adopted – child who was adopted (this label only needs mentioned when it’s truly relevant), it’s past tense

adopted child – there is no need to introduce a child as an “adopted child”; just a child. don’t single out the child who was adopted. it’s like saying “this is my C-section child” and “this is my vaginal birth child.”

forever family – the child’s family, from the point of adoption/placement onward

biological family – the people who share the child’s biology

sisters and brothers / siblings – children raised by the same forever parents

Jason and I really try not to be offended when someones calls one of us or one of Precious’ family members the wrong term. It’s rarely, if ever, done maliciously and usually a gentle eduction or reminder about the right terms is all that’s needed. When I hear someone say “Precious’ mom” I automatically assume the person is talking about me. I’m Precious’s mom today, yesterday, tomorrow, everyday since September 21, 2011 until eternity. I am Precious’ mom. When someone refers Precious’ birth mom as “Precious’ mom,” it catches me off guard more than it offends me. And, it makes me thankful that Precious doesn’t understand the implications of that yet, because it could be really confusing to her. She calls me mama. She knows me as her mom. We want her to know about her birth mom but I want her to be confident that I am and always will be her mom.

Jason and I have been careful to refer to Precious’ biological half-siblings as her biological half-siblings, because that’s what they are. I realize it is much easier to just say “sister” or “brother,” but we’re making that distinction from the beginning knowing that it’s likely we’ll have other children someday. Those other children will be Precious’ sisters and brothers, the kids she shares parents with, grows up with, spends her days and evenings with, fights for the bathroom with, celebrates birthdays and holidays with, goes on family vacations with, etc. When we’re with her biological half-siblings, I don’t mind calling them sisters and brothers but I want to help her understand, as she gets older, the difference between people who share your biology and people who share your parents.

We talk openly with Precious about her adoption. It’s nothing to be ashamed of and I hope she’ll be proud of her story. She’s not old enough to dialogue about it yet but we practice telling her all about her adoption so it’s a normal part of our lives and something she’ll come to understand more and more as she gets older.

If you’d like to read more on the topic of adoption terms and how it can negatively affect a child when the wrong terms are used, check out this post by Kristen at Rage Against the Minivan: parents, please educate your kids about adoption so mine don’t have to

I’ll be back tomorrow with Foster Care Terminology.