WHAT IS FOSTER CARE?
A child in “foster care” is a child who has been placed in the care and custody of ACS and/or a foster care agency for either short-term or long-term care. Placement maybe with a “foster family,” the child’s relatives, or a group home. A relative who is a foster parent is often called a “kinship” foster parent. Foster families receive foster care funds (child support from ACS) to help care for the child. ACS and/or the foster care agency have custody of the child, but the parent continues to have legal rights to make some decisions about the child’s welfare.
HOW DOES A CHILD ENTER FOSTER CARE?
There are several ways a child may be placed into foster care:
1) A parent or legal guardian may ask to have the child placed in foster care – called a voluntary placement.
2) The court may order the child to be placed in foster care as part of a PINS or child protective case.
3) A child-protective agency like ACS may also remove children from their homes in emergencies if the agency determines that the children are in danger. See Paragraph C in the Child Protective Proceeding section above.
WHAT IS A VOLUNTARY PLACEMENT?
A parent or guardian who agrees to place a child into foster care signs a “Voluntary Placement Agreement” transferring the child’s care and custody to ACS. (This is different from agreeing to the child’s placement during a child protective case.) This may occur if the parent is experiencing difficulties caring for the child for reasons that are not the parent’s fault (such as homelessness or illness).
If the child is expected to stay in foster care for more than 30 days, ACS must file a petition asking the court to approve the placement and stating the agency’s plan for the child’s future. The agreement may say how long the child will stay in foster care, or the period of time may be left open. The court hears testimony from the parent or person who signed the agreement and from the agency representative who witnessed the signing of the agreement to decide whether the agreement is valid (for example, did the parents sign it willingly?), whether foster care is the best option for the child, and how long the child is expected to stay in foster care. (See the section on ASFA below.)
WHERE DOES A CHILD IN FOSTER CARE LIVE?
The child may be placed with foster parents (who may be the child’s relatives), in a group home, or an institution, depending on the child’s needs and what foster care placement is available (i.e., the least restrictive alternative).
HOW LONG DOES THE CHILD STAY IN FOSTER CARE?
A child’s placement in foster care is supposed to be temporary. The child will return to the parents or guardian when the court decides that it is best for the child. In some circumstances, a child who has been discharged from foster care may reenter foster care.
If it is not in the child’s best interests to return to the parents or guardian, the child may become eligible for adoption by another family.
DO THE PARTIES NEED LAWYERS?
The parties may represent themselves or hire lawyers. A party who cannot afford to hire a lawyer may be assigned one at no cost.
WHAT HAPPENS WHILE THE CHILD IS IN FOSTER CARE?
Whenever a child is in foster care, the case will stay on the court’s calendar, and the parties must come back to court so that the judge can keep track of the case. The court must hold a “permanency planning hearing” at least once every six months when a child is in foster care. The court may want the parties and attorneys to come back to court more often to check on everyone’s progress toward returning the child to the parent.
ACS must send a permanency hearing report about the case to the parties and the Court 14 days before the permanency planning hearing. At the permanency hearing, ACS must provide information on how the child is doing, the parent’s progress in working toward family reunification, and what ACS recommends for the child. The court must determine what permanency plan is in the best interests of the child. The court must also determine whether the agency is making reasonable efforts to effectuate that plan.
If the child is not returned home after the hearing, the court must decide what goal would be in the child’s best interests. The goal may be to:
1) Return the child to the parent;
2) Order ACS to file a termination of parental rights petition and start working toward adoption;
3) Place the child permanently with a fit and willing relative; or
4) Place an older child in another permanent living arrangement with a significant connection to an adult, such as helping the child obtain his/her own apartment and source of income.
The court may also tell ACS to provide services to the child or services to the parent to help achieve family reunification. If the child is staying in foster care, the court must also outline a visitation plan between the parent and the child.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN PARENTS DO NOT WISH TO HAVE THEIR CHILDREN RETURN HOME OR CANNOT PROPERLY CARE FOR THEM? Parents may voluntarily agree to have their children adopted by signing a document in a court called a “voluntary surrender,” giving up their rights as parents.
If the parent does not agree to a proposed adoption, the agency may file a petition asking the court to “terminate” (end) the parent’s rights. See the Termination of Parental Rights section below.
If the court grants the termination petition, the child may be adopted by his/her current foster parent, who may be relatives, or the agency may look for another suitable family to adopt the child.
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