In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Foster Care

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Historical Background
  • Federal and State Roles
  • Characteristics of Children in Foster Care
  • Recruitment and Retention of Foster Homes
  • Placement Stability
  • Transitions from Foster Care
  • Former Foster Children as Adults

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Social Work Foster Care
Joan Shireman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0021


There have always been children who need temporary care outside their own homes, and, in the United States, family foster homes are the way in which most of this care is delivered. Foster parents are families who, for pay, take children into their homes and care for them on a temporary basis. Most children who enter foster care have been abused or neglected and family support services have not been sufficient to keep them safe in their own homes. This early chronic stress and trauma mean that many foster children exhibit serious behavior problems and are in need of mental health services, as well as nurturing care and well-planned educational services. Outcomes of foster care are not as positive as might be hoped, in part due to these early experiences. Limited funding means that pay for foster parents is low, and resources to support fostering are limited. Because of a chronic shortage of foster homes, sometimes children are placed in foster homes that are unable to meet their needs and so are moved too often. A major policy issue is the disproportionate number of African American and Native American children placed in foster care. Placement in a foster home creates a major disruption in a child’s life; the trauma of separation from home and parents can have serious mental health consequences. These can be minimized through continuity in substitute care, visits with family, and careful planning that allows the child to reunite with family or move to a permanent home as soon as possible. The reunification of the child with his or her original family is the goal of most foster care. When this is not possible, a permanent home for the child is sought through adoption or, with increasing frequency, guardianship.

General Overviews

The literature that provides an overview of foster care is surprisingly limited, with much work dating from the late 20th century. More recently, focus has been on programs to diminish the use of foster care and on examination of specific issues. Martin 2000 provides a scholarly overview encompassing policy and practice. Behrman 2004 is a policy-focused special issue of Future of Children containing an overview of foster care. Pecora, et al. 2010 reports research on youth who have been in long-term foster care; the findings document the importance of investment in top-quality foster care. Curtis, et al. 1999 is another overview with a research base. Triseliotis, et al. 1995 is a practice-oriented book on the social worker’s role in facilitating foster care, Pickover and Brown 2016 is also practice oriented and incorporates recent knowledge about trauma derived from brain imaging. The Annie E. Casey Foundation offers a range of current information and publications focused on foster care. The National Foster Care Coalition is a coalition of agencies advocating for foster children, through a variety of projects.

  • Annie E. Casey Foundation.

    The website of this major child welfare organization focuses on long-term foster care. Emphasis on research and examination of critical issues concerning practice and policy. Many papers can be downloaded from the site.

  • Behrman, Richard E., ed. 2004. Special issue: Children, families, and foster care. Future of Children 14.1.

    A collection of articles by major scholars outlining current policy initiatives and research concerning foster care. Comprehensive, with emphasis on critical tensions and issues in the system. Policy recommendations are drawn from the issue content.

  • Curtis, Patrick A., Grady Dale Jr., and Joshua C. Kendall, eds. 1999. The foster care crisis: Translating research into policy and practice. Child, Youth, and Family Services. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    An in-depth review of the research pertaining to the characteristics of children in foster care and the services delivered. Research is reported in considerable depth, and the book will be of most interest to those comfortable with research terminology.

  • Martin, Judith A. 2000. Foster family care: Theory and practice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

    A comprehensive review of foster care, examining policy and practice. A good starting point for understanding contemporary foster care, and a comprehensive review of relevant research for examining its scholarly underpinnings. Includes traditional family foster care and foster care delivered by relatives (kinship care); specialized foster care for children with severe emotional or behavioral problems is not covered.

  • National Foster Care Coalition.

    A partnership of national organizations that focuses on policy issues that affect children in foster care. Resources are focused on issues such as racial disproportionality in the foster care system, education, outcomes of foster care, and the achieving of permanent homes for foster children.

  • Pecora, Peter J., Ronald C. Kessler, Jason Williams, et al. 2010. What works in foster care? Key components of success from the Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A research report on outcomes for youth who have had long-term foster care placements in state foster care (Washington and Oregon) and in the Casey Family Services program. Extensive data on the foster care experience. Demonstrates that investment in services for children in foster care has a positive impact on adult success.

  • Pickover, Sheri, and Heather Brown. 2016. Therapeutic interventions for families and children in the child welfare system. New York: Springer.

    Written to orient mental health professionals to the child welfare system and the issues of its clients, the focus is on practice techniques for work with children in foster care and their families. Perspectives of children, parents, and foster parents are presented. Material on trauma incorporates recent knowledge. Excellent and extensive references.

  • Triseliotis, John, Clive Sellick, and Robin Short. 1995. Foster care: Theory and practice. Child Care Policy and Practice. London: B. T. Batsford.

    A comprehensive look at foster care. The book is practice oriented, with emphasis on the activities of the social worker with foster parents and children. Many practice techniques, particularly those on working with children, are illustrated. Research is cited as relevant.

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