When kids come into foster care their case is given an official "goal." The goal is almost always "reunification" (return home). The birth parent(s) is given a list of stuff they have to do in order to regain custody of their child(ren). That list can include things like: attend parenting classes; obtain reliable transportation and safe housing; and/or participate in a substance abuse treatment program. Every several months (usually about every three months) there is a court hearing to monitor the case. If the parents are spot-on and doing everything required of them, their children are returned to them (usually following a brief transition period where the parent might have the child(ren) for an overnight and then a weekend - something like that). I'm told that the list of requirements for the parents is lengthy and time-consuming. Our agency has told us that they've never seen kids go home in less than 18 months in care.
For this next part I ask you to please keep in mind that I am not a lawyer, case worker, agency worker, or any other type of expert. I'm simply a foster parent sharing my understanding of the system. My understanding is that many states have a law limiting how long children can remain in foster are. Where we live, that limitation is 18 months. "But wait" you say, "I thought you just told me that your agency has never seen children return home in less than 18 months. How is that so?" I have no freaking idea. But things seem to move painfully slowly. Especially when you're talking about 18 months relative to the life of a three-year-old. Quick - someone do the math. Wait, wait ... I got it ... 50%. HALF of the life of a three-year-old can be spent in foster care! And that's pretty much best case scenario. Most of the time it takes longer than that.
Here's what seems to happen: It's 18 months into the case and all of a sudden the birth parents figure out that their time is running out. So suddenly they attend that parenting class that they just haven't managed to make it to for the last year-and-a-half (because, you know, not parenting is really time-consuming). The next week at court when the agency wants to change the goal to adoption, the lawyer for the birth parents (bet you didn't know that birth parents are assigned their own lawyer, did you?) objects and says "but look, my client (the birth parent) just got his/her act together. He/she is ready to complete the plan." So the judge grants an extension. Now, before you jump all over the judge, let me point out that we don't want to live in a country or state that is accused of stealing children from deserving parents, so judge is obligated to give the birth parents a couple of extra chances.
Now we're two years into the case and birth parent - who at the 18-month mark was gung-ho about those parenting classes - has fallen off the wagon and failed to attend any more classes (unbelievable, I know). So the agency changes the goal to adoption, a process which then takes several more months to complete. Or maybe birth parent pulls the same stunt as last time and waits until the week before trial to attend the second class in the series, thus securing another extension in the case. Anyway, you catch my drift. This is how we end up with kids in care for years and years.
On the other hand, the stay in a particular foster home can be very short. Sometimes kids may be moving into a foster home from a previous foster home, so that clock may have already started ticking. Perhaps those kids actually will go home after their trial next month. In other cases, kids who everyone thought would be staying in the foster home long-term end up being moved unexpectedly when a family member steps forward to take responsibility (or even a birth father whose identity wasn't known previously). So the kids may stay a week or a month or a year and then be moved to another home.
So when you ask me how long the kids will be staying and I look a little stunned, it's not because I've never answered that question before. It's because I'm trying to figure out if you want the short answer ("I have no idea, so please don't ask again" or the very, very long one.