Careers & Degrees to Help Foster Kids

From removing children from abusive and neglectful situations to creating and implementing policies to keep kids safe, careers working with foster children are challenging and rewarding all at once. Learn how you can help youths in the foster system live happier and safer lives.

Meet the Expert
Carina-Ramirez
Carina Ramirez

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Carina Ramirez serves as a case manager for StarVista’s Foster Youth Education Enrichment Program. Prior to StarVista, she worked as a program coordinator for another Bay Area nonprofit. Originally from Brazil and raised in San Francisco, she attended California State East Bay University where she earned a degree in sociology with an emphasis in social services. She has a passion for helping others, and hopes this passion is carried on to her two children. 

Nearly 700,000 children passed through the U.S. foster care system in 2018. Approximately 437,000 children live in foster care at any given time. While more than half of foster youth eventually reunite with their families – and approximately 25% are adopted by their foster families – children on average spend two years in state care. During this time, they need qualified, compassionate professionals who can help provide a sense of stability and normalcy.

Using your talents to help foster children can be tough, but also deeply rewarding, whether you want to reconnect foster kids with their families or help them adjust to a new home entirely. In the following guide, learn about college degrees to help you support foster kids, review career paths in foster care, and hear from an expert in foster youth services.

The Rewards of Working with Foster Youth

Working with children in the foster system, whether they are infants or about to age out into adulthood, presents numerous opportunities to make a real difference in their lives. Jobs in this field can obviously present many challenges and they aren’t for everyone. But anyone who enjoys helping others and giving kids a better chance at a good life will find the rewards more than make up for the hurdles you’ll need to clear. This next section takes a look at five of the many benefits of working with youth in the foster system.

Being a strong line of defense against abuse and neglect

Whether you serve as a social worker, therapist, educator, or community health services professional, you work on the frontlines to help ensure foster youth are protected and cared for. It takes a village to support foster youth, and your presence as a member of the village is needed. Data from the American Society for the Positive Care of Children found that 61% of cases leading to foster care entry were due to child maltreatment, while one in three children entered the system due to parental drug abuse – up by almost 50% since 2015.

Making a difference to children and to the community

It may seem small, but being a child can count on means changing the course of their life. For foster youth, it’s normal to feel as if they don’t have anyone they can trust. Whether parents have abandoned them, or previous foster families didn’t work out, they are used to people coming and going in their lives. This creates a lack of stability. By being a consistent and compassionate professional, they can begin to develop trust in you and turn to you when they need help.

Seeing children thrive in their new environments

Children placed with foster families gain a number of benefits when in a stable environment. Factors such as not worrying where their next meal comes from, being free from fear of abuse, and getting to interact with other children in a safe space all contribute to mental stability and the opportunity to develop trust in their new family and in the professionals who manage their case. Youth in foster care can also begin to build stability around their education. The National Foster Youth Initiative found that more than 40% of foster children face educational difficulties, often due to disruption and neglect.

Making families strong

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, approximately three out of five foster children return to their parents or guardians after being removed from a home. Given these statistics, you can help ensure a healthy, structured reentry that protects the child from trauma and ensures their wellbeing. On the flip side, 25% of children living in foster care in 2018 were adopted by their foster families. If working on this side of things, you can work with adoptive families to create safe, stable environments where newly adopted children can acclimate to their new lives.

Seeing real change from within (the system)

As a professional working with foster care system, you know better than anyone where the system works for and fails children. After being in the field for a few years and getting your bearings, you can use your expertise and position to start affecting real change. If you notice that a policy isn’t working as well as it could, don’t be afraid to speak up and suggest alterations. You may even find that addressing policy inadequacies could lead to act two of your career as a policy analyst or legislator.

Top Degrees & Career Paths in Foster Services

Many different degrees and career paths are available if you want to work with foster youth, though you may be familiar with some more than others. Plenty of positions exist that can allow you to work directly with foster youth, including as a social worker and counselor. Others may focus on working with entire families or supporting change at a policy level.

As you review the degrees and jobs highlighted below, consider each and how it fits within your specific interests and career goals.

Degree: Social Work

Entry-level positions call for a bachelor’s in social work (BSW), but roles in the foster care system that work directly with children often require a master’s in social work (MSW). These programs take between one and two years to complete after baccalaureate studies. To work as a clinical social worker, graduates must participate in at least two years of post-degree supervised work experience. They must also apply to their state licensure board and pass an examination to practice.

WHAT CAN STUDENTS LEARN?

Aside from general coursework, many schools offer MSWs tailored to working with children and families. Common classes you may encounter include social work and the law, child welfare, and trauma-informed practice with children. In addition to theory, you also gain practical skills during the practicum portion of the program.

Careers in Social Work Working with Foster Kids

Child, Family, and School Social Workers 

Child, family, and school social workers find employment in a variety of settings. Those who want to serve foster youth specifically are often employed by nonprofit organizations and state, local, and federal governments. Common tasks include providing support around behavioral, emotional, and mental health issues, screening potential adoptive families, managing case files, and ensuring each child in their care receives the support services needed.

HOW THEY HELP

Working in this role allows you to be on the frontline of helping foster children feel seen and supported. Because you work with foster youth directly, you know what’s going on in their lives. This also gives you the knowledge needed to create successful matches between foster youth and potential adoptive families and connect them with services that can help them thrive during a lot of uncertainty.

SALARY & JOB OUTLOOK FOR CHILD, FAMILY, AND SCHOOL SOCIAL WORKERS

Median SalaryJob Outlook
$47,390Increase of 7-10% between 2018-2028

Educators must possess at minimum a bachelor’s degree in teaching, though some professionals decide to pursue a master’s degree to increase their earning potential. Aside from classwork, expect to participate in a student teaching component to gain real-world experience in the classroom prior to graduating. You will also focus your learning on the population you plan to teach, such as kindergarteners or those in high school. After graduating, you must pass exams and apply for state licensure to teach.

WHAT CAN STUDENTS LEARN?

In addition to learning about your core content area (e.g., mathematics, science, English, etc.), classes in these programs also emphasize how to adequately support and care for your students, regardless of their background. Course examples include social-emotional learning, schools as communities of care, and educational psychology and human development of children and adolescents.

Careers in Teaching Working with Foster Kids

Teacher

Whether working as a kindergarten, elementary, middle, or high school teacher, educators spend their days helping students gain knowledge and learn about navigating the world. They prepare lesson plans, teach classes, grade assignments, administer exams, and work with both students and their families/guardians to help them achieve their full potential.

HOW THEY HELP

Because teachers see their students on a daily basis, they get a good sense of their lives. This allows them to build strong relationships, serve as a mentor and advocate, and work with others on their care team to ensure each child receives adequate support. They can also help other professional staff in school understand the unique needs of students living in the foster care system.

SALARY & JOB OUTLOOK FOR HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER

Median SalaryJob Outlook
$61,6604% between 2018-2028

Degree: Counseling

Counseling degrees come in many different forms, as do counseling careers. Some positions, such as a mental health counselor, require only a bachelor’s degree. Positions offering a more clinical role usually require a master’s degree or higher, as is this case if you want to become a marriage and family therapist.

WHAT CAN STUDENTS LEARN?

As with other degrees in the mental health and healthcare field, many offer specializations to help students hone their knowledge in a specific subfield. Many offer specializations that revolve around children and family dynamics; these would work well if you want to help foster youth. Within a marriage and family therapy degree, common courses on offer include diversity and social justice in families, schools, and other systems; assessment and treatment in a developmental context; cross cultural counseling; and theory, practice, and treatment with children and adolescents. You should also plan to take part in several supervised practica to build real-world skills.

Careers in Counseling Working with Foster Kids

Marriage and Family Therapist

Marriage and family therapists work with individuals, couples, and families to help them develop healthy relationships and avoid needless conflict. Because these individuals are trained in working with people across the lifespan, they can support both foster youth and potential adoptive families. Common tasks and responsibilities include helping clients open up about difficult emotions, using talk therapy and other modalities to explore pain, working with them to develop coping strategies, and connecting them to helpful resources. They are also responsible for keeping confidential records and protecting their clients’ privacy.

HOW THEY HELP

Therapists help foster youth and families by providing a safe space to work through their feelings while also creating a relationship that clients know they can depend on. Meagan Freund holds a degree in marriage and family therapy but focuses her practice on foster youth. She discusses the benefits and difficulties of working in this space and highlights some of the experiences to expect if you follow this path.

SALARY & JOB OUTLOOK FOR MARRIAGE AND FAMILY THERAPISTS

Median SalaryJob Outlook
$49,61022% between 2018-2028

Bachelor’s degrees exist in public health and related topics, but some positions may require applicants to possess a master’s degree. Roles that are medical in nature (e.g., epidemiologist, nurse practitioner, and microbiologist) often require an advanced degree while those focused on program administration and helping connect clients to additional services (e.g., health educator, community health worker, and social and community service manager) often require only a bachelor’s degree.

WHAT CAN STUDENTS LEARN?

Whether pursuing a degree in public health, health promotion, or a related topic, these degrees emphasize study in the public health crises affecting the nation. Some may offer specialties in areas of population health or other topics that will allow you to focus your efforts on children and families. Common courses include health disparities, public health community services, and health advocacy for at-risk populations.

Careers in Public Health Working with Foster Kids

Health Educators and Community Health Workers

These professionals help individuals and communities better understand how they can improve their health and wellness outcomes. They teach clients strategies and tips for making changes in their lives, develop educational programming, conduct training seminars, and connect their clients with other necessary services via referrals.

HOW THEY HELP

Both health educators and community health workers can support foster youth by ensuring they have access to necessary health services even when their lives are in flux. These professionals also frequently serve as advocates for their clients, ensuring that vital services are improved as needed and that policies exist to address specific needs. Aside from providing services at a community health clinic, health educators and workers may go into individual homes to ensure foster youth are staying healthy and well with their foster families.

SALARY & JOB OUTLOOK FOR HEALTH EDUCATORS AND COMMUNITY HEALTH WORKERS

Median SalaryJob Outlook
$46,91011% between 2018-2028

Plenty of public administration bachelor’s degrees can be found via traditional and online learning. These programs can qualify you for entry-level positions as a legislative aide, social services manager, or social and human service assistant. If you want to work in positions offering more leadership and responsibility, a master’s degree is likely needed. Jobs you may pursue after graduating include policy analyst, healthcare services manager, or legislator.

WHAT CAN STUDENTS LEARN?

Every public administration degree will look slightly different depending on the school offering it. A few common classes you might see offered include policy analysis and the role of the public, program evaluation and accountability, and public fiscal management. In addition to learning about the theories and frameworks behind public administration, most programs also require learners to complete an internship at the bachelor’s level and a thesis at the master’s level.

Careers in Public Administration Working with Foster Kids

Political Scientist

Political scientists can fill many important roles in private, nonprofit, and governmental settings. Tasks can also vary substantially based on their job title. When working as a policy analyst, professionals spend their days building public awareness of issues, researching topics, and proposing legislation. They also advise legislators and other stakeholders on policy proposals and rewrite language to better support end goals.

HOW THEY HELP

Working in the world of policy can have a direct impact on how foster children are cared for and supported. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, a landmark law, was the work of countless policy analysts and advisors carefully writing bills, making edits, and educating legislators on the benefits of passing such a law. Whether working at the local, state, or federal level, professionals in these roles can have substantial impact in the life of a foster child.

SALARY & JOB OUTLOOK FOR POLITICAL SCIENTIST

Median SalaryJob Outlook
$122,2205% between 2018-2028

While this field may seem indirect at first, several roles within the criminal justice system exist that can help support foster youth and their families. Criminal justice degrees can be found at every academic level, with associate degrees leading to entry-level roles, bachelor’s programs supporting some managerial and leadership positions, master’s degrees leading to research and analysis jobs, and doctorates providing the qualifications needed to work in academia. Along the way, students also engage in internships, write theses, and participate in supervised training.

WHAT CAN STUDENTS LEARN?

Because criminal justice covers such a wide spectrum of topics, many schools offer concentrations to help you focus your skills in a particular area. Relevant specializations include corrections and case management, juvenile justice, and law and advocacy. Some of the classes commonly included in these programs include foundations of juvenile justice, community building and organizing, and alternatives to incarceration.

Careers in Criminal Working with Foster Kids

Probational Officers

Probational officers often work with the parents/guardians of children currently in foster care to help them make amends for previous transgressions and meet all requirements around getting their children back. They conduct interviews, develop rehabilitation plans, connect clients with resources, and offer certain types of counseling, if needed. They may also testify on behalf of their clients and keep detailed cases on each client in their care.

HOW THEY HELP

Professionals in criminal justice can help foster youth in many ways. Juvenile diversion program managers, for instance, help divert youth away from the formal juvenile justice system but still ensure they learn lessons that help keep them out of trouble. Lawyers and advocates, meanwhile, can help foster youth navigate the complicated legal system and ensure they are protected throughout. If a child is in foster care due to their parent being found unable or unqualified to have them, parole and probation officers can help their parents/guardians get their lives back on track and make it possible for them to regain custody.

SALARY & JOB OUTLOOK FOR PROBATIONAL OFFICERS

Median SalaryJob Outlook
$54,2903% between 2018-2028

Ask the Expert: Working with Foster Youth

Carina-Ramirez

Carina Ramirez serves as a case manager for StarVista’s Foster Youth Education Enrichment Program. Prior to StarVista, she worked as a program coordinator for another Bay Area nonprofit. Originally from Brazil and raised in San Francisco, she attended California State East Bay University where she earned a degree in sociology with an emphasis in social services. She has a passion for helping others, and hopes this passion is carried on to her two children.

What are some things students interested in a career working with foster youth should know before going down this path?

Having a passion for helping others is important but being a foster youth worker requires so much more. People who are experiencing the most vulnerable time in their lives will rely on your help to connect them with resources and find solutions for their needs. As a foster youth worker, it’s important for you to be an active listener, emphatic, flexible, and most importantly a critical thinker.

What surprised you most about working with this population?

Every case is unique. Every client is unique. Every family is unique. When you receive a new referral and find yourself thinking, “This is easy. This youth is similar to my other youths,” remember, every youth is unique, and has a right to be heard for who they are. Every youth has unique skills, strengths, and circumstances. Keep looking and listening until you see each person.

Given the potential for this career to feel quite heavy, how can foster care professionals best take care of themselves to avoid burnout?

Learning to separate yourself from your work is crucial. While having a sense of empathy can make you a great foster care professional, it can drive you to become personally invested in remedying all of your clients’ hardships. Keeping an eye on your energy level and monitoring your own physical and mental health carefully is important, and when and where you need to, step away for time to recharge.

What are some misconceptions individuals might have about this line of work? 

Many workers in this field aspire to change the world. And while we should remain passionate and dedicated in this career, it’s also important to stay aware of the fact that you won’t be able to single-handedly solve every problem you encounter in your cases. Changing the world is hard and learning that real change takes time is key. 

On your worst days, does working with foster youth still feel like a worthwhile career?

Absolutely, in this field we have to cherish every victory being small or large. I appreciate every smile and “thank you” I witness when progress is made. These validate for me that I help people and it is worth it.