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How does foster care work?

7-minute read

Key facts

  • Children or young people may need foster care if they are unable to live with their families.
  • Foster care may be for any length of time from a few days to many years. A child may need foster care at short notice (emergency foster care).
  • You do not need to have a lot of money or own your own home to be a foster carer.
  • The legal requirements and processes regarding foster care are different in each state and territory.
  • There are many practical and emotional issues to consider if you are thinking of becoming a foster carer.

What is foster care?

Foster carers provide a more stable environment for vulnerable children and young people and take on the responsibility of being their parents for a period of time.

Children may be placed in foster care following a court order, or a voluntary arrangement between the child’s guardian/s and a service provider.

Why are children fostered?

Reasons that children may need to be fostered include:

What are the different types of foster care?

A foster parent may provide out-of-home care to a child for any length of time from a few nights to several years. There are different types of care that you can choose to provide, to best suit your lifestyle:

  • emergency care — at short notice for children who urgently need it
  • respite care — short breaks to relieve other foster and kinship carers
  • short-term care — lasting from a few months up to 2 years
  • long-term or permanent care — lasting longer than 2 years (usually when the child is not expected to be reunited with their birth parents)
  • kinship care — where a child is fostered by a relative or someone they already know

Why might I consider fostering a child?

Currently, there are not enough foster parents available in Australia for the children who need out-of-home care.

Children are more likely to do well when they live in a nurturing environment. If you are interested in making a difference to a vulnerable child by providing a loving and stable home, then fostering a child may be of interest to you.

Can a foster carer be a single person or part of a same-sex couple?

Yes. You also don’t have to have lots of money or own your own house.

Foster carers can be:

  • single people
  • couples, including same-sex couples
  • people who don’t have children
  • people who already have children

You need to:

  • be an adult (the minimum age will depend on the state or territory you live in)
  • be an Australian citizen or permanent resident
  • have no criminal record
  • be healthy
  • be willing to be trained and follow a plan
  • relate well to children or young people
  • have room in your house for an extra person
  • be prepared to provide a caring environment

What is kinship care?

Unlike fostering, kinship is a type of out-of-home care where the caregiver already has a relationship with the child or young person. The caregiver could be a relative or family friend, a member of their community or someone who speaks the same language.

A kinship arrangement is often preferable to fostering because it can be more stable for the child and allows them to keep a sense of their culture and family. It can also reduce the anxiety children can feel when separated from their parents.

There are different kinds of kinship arrangement:

  • formal, when the child has been placed by a child protection agency, often in an emergency situation — the kinship caregiver is recognised and receives payments and services in the jurisdiction in which they live
  • formal, through the court system — the kinship caregiver is legally recognised and may receive payments and services
  • informal — when the caregiver is providing home care as a private arrangement with the family, unrecognised by both the court and jurisdiction

What challenges might I face as a foster parent?

Although there are many rewards that come from being an out-of-home carer, there may also be difficulties.

Emotional challenges

Foster carers may:

  • find it stressful to deal with the child’s complex needs and feel like there is no one to talk to when a crisis happens
  • feel inadequately trained and supported for dealing with their foster child’s specific needs
  • feel frustrated if they can’t access enough information about their foster child’s problem behaviours or health
  • find it hard to cope with costs related to children with special needs
  • have mixed feelings towards the biological parents of the child
  • have difficulty with their own feelings of emotional attachment to the child
  • feel confused or frustrated when dealing with social and government agencies
  • worry about the impact of fostering on any other children in the family

Issues from the child’s background

The child may have experienced trauma in their past. This may result in challenging or destructive behaviours including violence and self-harm. Foster parents may not feel adequately prepared to manage these behaviours.

The child may also be unsettled and feel unwanted, particularly if they have had a number of previous foster homes.

Contact with biological parents

It may be beneficial for children to have contact with their biological parents to maintain their family and cultural identity and continuity of relationships. This can help to build stability and security for the child.

However, the carer may have mixed feelings about the parents. The child's experience could be distressing if contact visits are poorly planned, unsupervised and of poor quality.

Financial considerations

State governments or their representatives make regular payments to out-of-home carers to cover the foster child’s day-to-day expenses. However, many carers believe they do not cover all of the actual costs, especially if they are caring for a child with special needs.

Visit Services Australia for information about payments you may be entitled to as a foster carer.

Are there different out-of-home care arrangements in different states and territories?

Authorities across Australia have different legal requirements for fostering and kinship care. They may also have different ways in which they administer these services and pay caregivers.

The state government provides this service in some states and territories while in others, it is run by non-profit organisations. This, added to the different types of out-of-home care, can confuse carers about what funding or services they are entitled to, or who they should talk to.

Contact the relevant authority directly to check how fostering works in your own state or territory. There's a link to the relevant authority in the resources section at the bottom of this page.

Where can I find more information?

To find out more about how out-of-home care works in your state, contact your state government agency from the list below:

Visit How does adoption work? to find out more about adoption.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2022

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Need more information?

About foster care | Community support | Queensland Government

Information about foster care including what it is, types of foster care and children who need foster care.

Read more on Queensland Health website

Foster care - Better Health Channel

Foster care is temporary care of children up to 18 years by trained, assessed and accredited foster carers.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Foster care & adoption - The Trauma and Grief Network (TGN)

Children and young people who are in foster care, out of home care or adopted can have complex needs

Read more on Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network (ACATLGN) website

Foster care & raising foster children | Raising Children Network

Foster care is out-of-home care for children who can’t live with their own families. Being a foster carer can be challenging but also very rewarding.

Read more on website

Foster Child Health Care Card - Services Australia

A concession card to get cheaper medicines and some discounts.

Read more on Centrelink website

The mental health of children in out-of-home care

Foster mum Meryl Klimczak talks about the importance of looking after the mental health and wellbeing of children that come into her care.

Read more on Emerging Minds website

Expecting a Baby | PANDA

Support that's always there for you and your family

Read more on PANDA – Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia website

The myths and realities of new parenthood | PANDA

Support that's always there for you and your family

Read more on PANDA – Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia website

Support in languages other than English | PANDA

Get the support you need with resources translated into 40 languages.

Read more on PANDA – Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia website

Parenting when you’re a foster carer - Better Health Channel

As a foster carer, you are providing a safe and supportive home for a child or teenager who can’t live with their family of origin. You may face challenges that affect you physically, emotionally and financially – as well as particular stressors that other parents don’t have to confront.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

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