Foster care and kinship care fall under the umbrella of family-based care, a form of alternative care in which a child is placed with a family other than their biological parents.

What is foster care?

Foster care is a when a child is placed in the care of a family other than the child’s own family. This placement is provided and monitored by agencies that get the authority to do so from the state.

What is kinship care?

Kinship care is family-based care within the child’s extended family or with close friends of the family known to the child. This care can be formal or informal in nature.

In the explanation of kinship care above the terms ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ are used.

What is formal care?

Formal care is all care ordered by the courts or an agency operating on behalf of the state which has been given the function to make such decisions. Formal care includes the care of children in foster care and the care of children in residential care facilities.

What is informal care?

Informal care is any private arrangement in which a child lives with relatives or friends (informal kinship care) on an ongoing basis. This informal care arrangement can be entered on the initiative of the child, their parents or another person. However, the arrangement has not been ordered by the courts or any agency operating on behalf of the state.


It is expected when a child goes into foster care that it is a temporary move and they will return home to their parent(s). This placement with foster carers can be for a very short time or for a very long time. The length of time a child stays in foster care is dependent on the reason(s) for the child entering care in the first place and the progress towards resolving the problems that led to this action. Sometimes children may never return to their parent(s) and they remain with foster carers throughout their childhood or for an extended period. Normally, a young person leaves foster care when they reach adulthood. As a child in foster care, the child retains their own identity and links with their family of origin are encouraged, if this is judged to be appropriate and in the best interests of the child. Throughout a child’s stay in foster care their placement is supervised by a competent representative of the fostering agency, usually a social worker.

Adoption is different from foster care because when a child is adopted, the child becomes the legal child of their adopter(s). The child becomes a member of the adoptive family and takes the family name. When a child is adopted there is usually no ongoing supervision or other supports for the child or adoptive family. Children can enter foster care and then be adopted, often by the family who were their foster carers, but not always. In the past the links between child and natural parents were cut when a child was adopted, but this practice, while still very common, is being challenged by the idea that it is in the best interests of the child to have knowledge of and even contact with their family of origin.