8
SUBSTITUTE CARE: FOSTER-FAMILY CARE

INTRODUCTION

Foster-family care, institutional care, and adoption involve substituting another family for the child's own family, so that someone else takes over all aspects of the parental role.

Such a drastic change is necessary when the child's own home presents deficiencies so serious that it cannot provide the child with minimally adequate social, emotional, and physical care. It involves, for the child, not only temporary total separation (except for visits) from his own family and adjustment to a new family, but also a change of location, a change of school, and a change of peer and sibling group.

Because of the pervasiveness of the change in the child's life, substitute care is regarded as the third line of defense in caring for the child. The stipulation that follows from the need to avoid such drastic social surgery is that every effort be made to keep the home intact for the child and to keep the child in the home.

Substitute care in foster families or institutions involves a change in legal custody of the child. Adoption involves going beyond a change in legal custody to a change in legal guardianship. Legal custody is concerned with the rights and duties of the person (usually the parent) having custody to provide for the child's daily needs--to feed him, clothe him, provide shelter, put him to bed, send him to school, see that he washes his face and brushes his teeth. It permits the person or the agency having custody to determine where and with whom the child shall live. Consequently the agency having legal custody of the child can move him from one foster home to another. But although the agency usually obtains legal custody in foster-family care, the child still legally "belongs" to the parent and the parent retains guardianship. This means that, for some crucial aspects of the child's life, the agency has no authority to act. Only the parent can consent to surgery for the child, or consent to his marriage, or permit his enlistment in the armed forces, or represent him at law. Only with a change of guardianship is the natural parents' tie to the child completely severed.

Actually many long-term foster-family placements become de facto adoptions. But the fact that legal guardianship of the child--actual legal ownership of the child--has not been transferred from the natural parents to the foster parents has very considerable implications for the nature of the relationship established between foster child and foster family, and it does permit the return of the child to his natural home at any time.

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