What is the difference between residential care and foster care?


When a child is placed in foster care, they can be placed in residential care or with a foster family depending on the child’s needs. In this guide, we’ll explain the difference between foster care and residential care and the reasons why a child may have been placed in residential care.

What is residential care?

A residential care home or unit shares many similarities to foster care. They both aim to care for children who can’t live with their biological families and are a safe place for children to develop and grow in a loving environment. Most foster children will be able to go home after staying in a residential care home, but others can go on to live with fostering families. The main differences between foster care and residential care include:

  • Supervision: A residential care unit will have regular professional staff members who do not live in the home but work there in shifts. This is to provide round-the-clock care and support for the children.
  • Structure: Living in a group home, there will be more structure for the children, such as set bedtimes and mealtimes.
  • Size and space: Residential foster care is a shared group home, usually it’s a lot larger than an average family home. The residential care unit will have large communal areas such as a kitchen, living area, and laundry room. However, every child will have their own bedroom and toilet.
  • Key worker: In a residential care unit a key worker will be assigned to each child, the key worker takes on the main responsibility for the child in the place of a foster parent.

What are the reasons for placing a child in residential care?

There are a number of reasons that a child might be placed in residential care, although the preference is always to place a child with a foster family. Ultimately, the child’s well-being is the number one priority so, when a child is placed in residential care it can be for a number or one of the following reasons.

Residential care due to an emergency situation

Sometimes situations can arise where a child might need emergency protection or support. It could be due to a number of reasons such as;

  • Sudden death of a parent or guardian
  • Sudden illness of a parent or guardian
  • Severe issue with the child’s living arrangements such as fire or flood
  • The child has been exposed to violence or abuse at home and is in danger
  • Court order or Interim Care Order

Due to the shortage of emergency foster carers, sometimes a child is placed in residential foster care because there is no other safe option for the foster child.

If you become a foster parent with Foster Care UK, you can choose to be on stand-by for emergency foster care as one of your preferences.

A planned move into residential care

In a recent study by the Government, residential care was part of the intended care plan for just over half the amount of children in residential care. All the necessary preparations to move into a residential care home were made for almost four-fifths of the children.

The study found that the reasons for the planned move into residential care included the following reasons.

  • Family breakdown
  • Risk of sexual exploitation
  • Risk of going missing
  • Risk of criminal exploitation
  • Foster carers unable to manage the behavioural and emotional needs of the child

When fostering with a local authority, it can be more difficult to get support for children with more complex behavioural needs. Here at Foster Care UK, we’re able to provide more support for children who have experienced trauma, abuse or severe disruption in their lives through our Multi-disciplinary Assessment Treatment and Therapy Service (MATTs). Therapeutic foster care gives children who might otherwise be placed in residential care the opportunity to live in a family environment with increased mental health support. Through ongoing training as a therapeutic foster parent, you’ll be able to work within a wider team to provide an environment that can meet the emotional needs of the child.   

How to support a child move from residential care to foster care

The move from residential care to foster care can be difficult to navigate. With Foster Care UK, we provide support and guidance for both you and your foster child to help manage the transition. Some key pointers to remember include:

  • Keep the child or young person involved: Keep lines of communication open throughout the whole process. It’s important that the young people don’t feel like things are being “done to” them and that they still have an element of control within the situation.
  • Be consistent: Allow the child to maintain contact with the important people in their lives including the children they’re friends with at the care home, key workers and if suitable the biological family too.
  • Get to know the child: Get to know the child’s needs and behaviours. Learn their likes and dislikes and build trust between you.
  • Make use of the support available to you: There’s a wealth of support available to you including regular contact with a dedicated social worker, and support groups that can help and advise you.

If you’re interested in becoming a foster parent, there are many different types of fostering including both long-term and short-term. For more information including what happens when a child is taken into care or to discuss the fostering process further contact our friendly and helpful team today.

Thinking of fostering?

If you’ve got any questions or would like to find out more about fostering with Capstone, fill out the form below.
An experienced fostering advisor from your local area will then be in touch.

The information you provide will be used to respond to the enquiry you have submitted, for further information please refer to our privacy policy.

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