Children do not always remain with their biological families. Neglected or abused children may be removed from the family home, placed in foster care, and sometimes made available for adoption. Some parents decide for a variety of reasons to give their children up for adoption, usually at birth.
In some extreme cases of child abuse, neglect, or deaths in the family, courts may decide that parents are unable to care for their children. The state becomes the child's temporary legal guardian making most decisions about that child's life while the child's parents retain limited legal rights. Judges and social workers then decide where and with whom the child live with. Family foster care is a system of licensed families in each state who act as temporary parents for children who cannot live with their families. Foster parents have temporary physical custody of children and care for them day to day. They do not have legal custody of the child. Children may also live in group homes where several children in foster care live together.
Kinship care refers to children being placed with relatives who are not their parents. If they are placed there by the state, the law requires that these relatives be licensed like any other foster family.
Foster care is meant to be only a temporary solution. Judges regularly review the case and are required to do everything they can to provide children with permanent homes. Courts first try to help the families from which the children came to make changes necessary to provide safe home. This solution family reunification is the most common outcome for children in foster care. If the court finds that there is no way for the child to return home, then the judge may terminate parental rights. Once this happens children may be adopted by their foster families, relatives, or others.
A permanent home cannot be found for every child. Each year thousands of youths leave the foster care system because they have reached the age at which they become emancipated. This can be age 16, 18, or 21, depending on the state, These young people become legal adults, which means no one has custody of them. The Foster Care Independent Act of 1999 requires that these youths be given independent living services until the age of 21, which may include temporary housing, job training, and help attaining further education.
Adoption is the legal process by which an adult or adults become the legal parent(s) of another person. Though adults usually adopt children, most states permit adults to adopt another adult. The law places a few restrictions on who can adopt another. Therefore, most people regardless of marital status, race, religion, or age are eligible to adopt anyone else. In practice however, adoption agencies and courts try to make a child's new family as much like a traditional family as possible. Adoption agencies thus are sometimes reluctant to place children with a single parent. Some states also prohibit gay and lesbian people from becoming foster or adoptive parents.
Most adoptions are arranged through public or private adoption agencies. People wishing to adopt apply to an agency and are investigated and evaluated to determine whether they would be suitable parents. While public agencies usually charge little or no fee for this service, private agencies often charge substantial fees for their services. Some people work through agencies to adopt children living in foreign countries. Other people turn to go - betweens who arrange for pregnant women to turn their babies over to adoptive parents without going through an adoption agency. Some states allow this practice and license the go-betweens. Other states refer to the practice as illegal.
People who wish to adopt must also apply to a court to have the adoption legally approved. An attorney often takes the legal steps to make the adoption final. An adoption agency will submit it's report on the adopting parents and will seek written consent from the birth parents. In most states, consent is required, but in some cases, even if the birth parents refuse or cannot be found, courts may still grant adoptions that they decide are in the best interest of the child. Children over a certain age often 12 or 14 must also consent to the adoption.
In most states, when the court approves an adoption, it issues a temporary order. This means the agency or birth parents remain the legal guardians for a specified waiting period, such as six months or a year. After this waiting period, a new birth certificate is issued showing the adopting parents as the parents of the child. The child and the adoptive parents then assume the same rights and responsibilities as children and their birth parents.
Some couples who have had difficulty conceiving their biological children turn to surrogate parenting. A surrogate mother is a woman, other than the wife, who agrees to be artificially inseminated with the husband's sperm. The surrogate and the couple typically sign a contract before the child is born in which the surrogate consents to the child's adoption by the couple and releases all parental rights. State laws vary widely on the legality of surrogacy contracts. These restrictions range from requiring advance judicial approval of the agreement, to barring the enforcement of an agreement if the surrogate is compensated beyond pregnancy expenses, to barring all such surrogate contracts completely.
Traditionally, adoption records were sealed, and adopted children were not allowed to find out the names or whereabouts of their birth parents. However, adoptive children are often interested in learning about and meeting their birth parents. Some adoptees spend a great deal of time seeking information on their family history, Today a few states allow access to adoption records. Other states have laws that give adopted children who have reached the age of majority the right to obtain the names of their birth parents and have a right to privacy and a right not to see children they put up for adoption unless they desire to do so.