About the Children in Foster Care

Why do children go into foster care?

Children are removed from their families due to neglect (such as not providing enough food for a child or leaving a child who is unable to care for herself alone) and/or physical, sexual or emotional abuse. In almost all cases, when children are removed from their parents, parents must be provided help so that they can safely parent their children. Slightly more than half of children who go into foster care return to their birth families. When parents are provided with help and they are still unable to parent safely and their children remain in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months, the state terminates the parents’ rights. The children then become available for adoption. For more information on how the child welfare system works see the Child Welfare Information Gateway.


How many children are available for adoption?

There are about 129,000 children waiting for adoptive families in the United States foster care system. For more information visit the Administration for Children and Families.


How old are the children?

The average age of a child waiting for an adoptive family is 8 years and 8 months old. However, the children range in age from less than a year to 21 years old.


How does a history of abuse or neglect impact a child?

This varies tremendously depending on the child’s situation and coping skills. Sometimes people say that children in foster care are “children of loss.” They have lost their birth families, their neighborhoods and schools, their toys and bikes and it makes the children worry that they can’t count on anyone again. These children need adults that they can learn to trust and that can expose them to things that they have not been able to do before such as afterschool sports, baking cookies or sleepovers with friends. All children have special talents and children in foster care may have not yet had opportunities to follow their interests.


How do I learn about physical, emotional or learning challenges that a child may have?

The caseworker who is working to find a family for the child will share detailed information about the child with you once you are being considered as a prospective family. The caseworker will be able to answer many of your questions but it is also a great idea to talk to others with specialized information such as doctors or teachers and/or adoptive parents. They may be helpful in giving you a picture of what it would be like to parent a child with a specific challenge.


What does “special needs” mean?

This term is used to refer to children who qualify for adoption assistance due to specific factors or conditions (such as age, ethnic background, membership in a minority or sibling group, or medical conditions or physical, mental, or emotional handicaps). Following broad federal guidelines, each state defines its own parameters for which factors or conditions would qualify a child as “special needs.” Prospective adoptive parents should ask the child’s caseworker if the child qualifies for adoption assistance.


Where are these children living now?

Most of the children are living with foster families but some also live in group facilities.


What is the race or ethnicity of the children who are waiting for adoptive families?

On a national basis most of the children are Black (40%), White (37%), or Hispanic (14%). However, the race or ethnicity of children who are waiting in each city and state may vary significantly.

 Are siblings placed for adoption together?

Absolutely! This is almost always the best thing for the children. Sometimes this might not happen because one child has exceptional physical or emotional needs or because of other special circumstances.


Do adopted children have contact with their birth families?

Sometimes. This is called “open adoption.” Many children, especially children who are older when they are adopted, benefit from seeing birth siblings if they aren’t placed together or possibly a grandparent or other relative. Sometimes children are interested in keeping in touch with other people they have known, such as a foster parent. These relationships can be very helpful to children but the decision about whether to continue them or not is up to the adoptive parents once the adoption is legally complete. For more information visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Helpful Resources

Youth Stories: Inspiring foster care and adoption stories are featured in the words of a youth.


Adoption Club: A website where children can learn and express their thoughts about adoption.


Foster Club: The national network for youth in foster care.


Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia: Brings together authoritative information from government agencies like the national Institutes of Health and the National Library of Medicine.


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