About Foster Care

What is foster care?

Foster care is a program run by the state of Virginia that provides temporary care for children who cannot live with their parents or other caretakers. Through this system, the local department of social services takes legal responsibility (called legal custody) for a child when that child’s parent or parents need help taking care of him or her. Most children placed in foster care live with families (called foster families) but some live in group homes or other “residential settings.” Residential settings can be school-like and provide more intensive medical, behavioral or mental health treatment for children who need that.

Why am I in foster care?

You are not in foster care because of anything you did. You are in foster care because a group of people decided that it was not safe for you to live with your parents right now. This group included social workers and a judge, who heard from your parents and others before deciding that you needed to be placed in foster care.

You may be in foster care because your parents have certain problems that are keeping them from being able to care for you right now. While you are in foster care, your parents, or the caregivers you were living with, will get help from the community where they live to try to solve their problems. If they can solve their problems, your parents (or other caregivers) can take you home. But your social worker and judge will not send you home unless they are convinced that you will be safe there.

How long will I be in foster care?

The amount of time spent in foster care is different for each child. It depends upon when your parents or other caregivers can provide a safe home for you. If your parents or other caregivers can’t provide a safe home for you within a few years (usually two years), then the judge and your social worker will explore other ways for you to live permanently in a family. For example, some children are placed with relatives who may take legal custody of the child. Other children may be adopted by a relative, their foster family or another family who wants to adopt a child. You may also live permanently with your foster family, but not be adopted by them. This is called “permanent foster care.” Although you remain in foster care, you can remain with the same foster parents until you are 21 years old.

If you are adopted, your adoptive parents become your parents for all purposes. Normally, when you are adopted your birth parents’ legal right to contact and visit with you ends. However, if your adoptive parents, guardian ad litem and judge (and you, especially if you are 14 or older) all agree that it would be good for you to continue to have some contact with your birth parents after you’re adopted, the judge can make a “Post-Adoption Contact and Communication Agreement” (PACCA) part of your adoption. A PACCA will list the kind of contact your birth parent can have with you and how often he or she can have that contact.

If you are not adopted, you will remain in foster care at least until you turn 18. If you choose to continue to receive foster care services after turning 18, and your local department of social services provides services after age 18, you may receive financial assistance, such as full college tuition, help with living expenses, and help with job skills through your local department of social services.

Who decided that I should be in foster care?

Usually a judge decides whether a child should be placed in foster care after hearing from the child’s parent(s), other caregivers, and other people who know or have seen the child, such as doctors or teachers. A social worker talks to many of these people first, then decides whether to ask the judge to place the child in foster care. A social worker only asks the judge to place a child in care if he or she cannot come up with any other way for the child to be safe. Often, a child is placed in foster care after the parent(s) or other caregivers have received help for their problems but haven’t been able to solve them, even with help. Sometimes, parents decide that they need to put their child in foster care while they get help to learn how to take better care of their child and keep their child safe.

Before the judge decided to put you in foster care, he assigned a lawyer to represent you. That lawyer is called a guardian ad litem (GAL). Your GAL is responsible for telling the judge what he or she thinks is best for you. This may not be the same as what you want, however, you should always let your GAL know your wants and concerns.

What can I do to get out of foster care?

It is not up to you to do something to get out of foster care. Many people – the judge, your social worker, your parents and/or foster parents, your GAL and others – are working to get you out of care and back into a permanent home as soon as possible. The best thing you can do to help is to tell people, such as your social worker, your GAL, and the judge, what you want and what is important to you while you are in foster care. For example, let people know how you feel about visiting your parents and whether you want to see more or less of them. If there is another adult in your community who is important to you and who you would like to have involved in making decisions about your life, let your social worker and GAL know. If you are still in foster care when you reach 18, you can choose to leave even if your local department of social services will let you stay and receive services until you turn 21. However, you should make sure you understand what you are giving up if you leave foster care before age 21. Talk to your social worker about the benefits you can receive if you remain in care.

What are the different types of foster care placements?

There are a number of different types of foster care placements. There are family foster homes. When you are in a family foster home placement, you live with a family in their home. While you are living there, you can expect to be treated like any other member of the family. If your foster home is a “resource family home,” then your foster parents have agreed to adopt you if you cannot return to your parents or previous caretaker.

A group home placement is another type of foster care placement. Group homes are houses in which a small group of foster youth (normally adolescents) lives. There are counselors and other staff workers who live in the home or spend time in the home with the youth who live there.

Some older youth in foster care live in Independent Living arrangements, which may be an apartment, a group of apartments or a small home where older youth can live without constant adult supervision. An Independent Living arrangement is for a youth who is at least 16 years old and does not need daily adult supervision. Most youth in Independent Living arrangements are enrolled in college or vocational training or are employed, and they are eligible to receive an Independent Living stipend.

Finally, some youth who have special health needs and cannot be adequately cared for in a family home live in a residential facility where they can get proper treatment.

Can my foster care placement change if I am unhappy with it?

Although the local department of social services is in charge of your placement, the court reviews your placement. You should contact your GAL and let him or her know about any problems you are having in your placement. It is also a good idea to let your social worker know about any problems you are having. You have the right to contact your social worker and GAL anytime about anything. If everyone involved in your case (your social worker, your GAL, and your parents) all agree that your placement should be changed, the placement may be changed without having to go to court. However, changing your placement usually requires a hearing in front of the judge. If a hearing is going to be held, make sure you talk to your social worker and your GAL about attending the hearing. It will be important for the judge to hear directly from you about why the placement needs to be changed. You have the right to attend all your court hearings unless your behavior prevents you from safely attending the hearing.

What are the roles of the people involved in helping me?

Your social worker is responsible for:

  • Making contact with you at least every month
  • Working with you, your foster parent/group home, community partners and the Independent Living Coordinator to develop and support your service plan
  • Helping you enroll in programs designed to help youth transition to adulthood
  • Arranging your service planning conferences

You are responsible for:

  • Participating in planning and meetings about your service plan
  • Taking an active role in developing your service plan
  • Participating in Independent Living skills services and trainings
  • Discussing with your social worker, Independent Living coordinator and/or other care provider any questions or concerns you have

Your foster parents and other care providers are responsible for:

  • Working with you, your social worker, community partners and the Independent Living coordinator to develop your service plan and help you carry it out
  • Helping you to develop life skills taught in skills training classes
  • Transporting you to appointments, meetings and life skills trainings

Your Independent Living coordinator is responsible for:

  • Working with you, your social worker, your foster parents or other care providers, along with community partners, to develop your service plan
  • Assessing your readiness to enter the community or an Independent Living Arrangement
  • Conducting life skills training and providing you with information about other life skills services

How often can I visit with my biological parents and siblings while I am in foster care?

You have the right to visit regularly with your parents and any siblings who aren’t living with you while you are in foster care. How often you visit depends on what your social worker and GAL recommend and what the judge orders. Your visitation schedule is also outlined in your service plan, which gets approved by the judge. If you are 12 years old or older, you can participate in writing the foster care plan, and by law, you must receive a copy of the plan. Even if you are not yet twelve and you are interested in helping to write your service plan, you should ask your social worker or GAL about going to the meeting where the foster care plan is written. If you are not happy with the visits you are having with your parents or siblings, tell your social worker and GAL. They will tell the judge, who can change the visits.

How often does the judge talk to my parents, social worker and GAL about my case?

Hearings to review your case must be held at least once every six months. Your parents, social worker and GAL attend every hearing. You also have the right to go to the hearing if you are 12 years old or older. Even if you are not yet 12 years old, you should let your GAL and social worker know if you want to attend the hearing. Once you turn 18, your case will be reviewed by people at the local department of social services instead of the judge. For some youth in foster care who are working towards a goal of independent living rather than being placed with a family, or whose goal is permanent foster care, there is only one court hearing each year. Between the court hearings, there is an administrative panel review (APR), which is like a court hearing, but the judge is not present. You also have the legal right to be at the APR and to have your concerns heard.

Can I talk to the judge?

Yes. At a hearing, the judge can talk to you in his or her private office (called “chambers”), away from everyone else involved in the case. You should let your GAL know if you want to speak to the judge in chambers.

When can I leave the foster care system and go out on my own?

When you turn 18, you are an adult and can leave the foster care system if you choose. However, you can choose to continue to receive foster care services until you turn 21 if your local department of social services provides these services to youth after age 18, and you agree to cooperate with the department’s rules. Even if you leave foster care before you turn 21, you have 60 days after you leave care to ask your local department of social services to allow you to resume Independent Living services. You will have to complete an application and an agreement in order to resume these services (which can include help getting housing, education, employment and mental health services). You can find samples of the application and agreement here.

There are many benefits to receiving services until you turn 21. If you choose to continue to receive foster care services until you turn 21, you will also continue to be eligible for Medicaid at least until you are 19 and an Independent Living stipend, along with other benefits. You will also be eligible for college grants and scholarships specifically created for youth who receive foster care services. (See the Higher Education section of the website for more information on tuition assistance.) In addition, your local department of social services may provide additional benefits for youth who remain in the foster care system until they turn 21. For example, the local department may pay for your college or a job training program. BEFORE you turn 18, you should talk to your social worker and find out all the benefits your local agency provides to youth who remain in foster care until 21.

Your social worker must work with you to develop a ‘Transition Plan’ at least 90 days before you leave foster care if you are going to be 18 or older when you leave. You should decide what goes in this plan, with the advice of your social worker and other adults you trust. The plan should help guide you on the decisions you make as you leave foster care and enter adulthood. It should include specific information, ideas and options about housing, health insurance, education, employment and where you can go to find a mentor.