Here is a list of common expressions, words, and acronyms used in the foster care system. If you have others, email them to me at and I will add them!

CPS:  child protective services

DFPS: department of family protective services

Termination of (parental) rights or TPR: birth parents are no longer considered the legal parents of a child

The System: this is all components of foster care, and CPS. The system is not the people who are involved, but the institutions and department who are represented by workers and experts. These departments and institutions include: officers of the law, the judicial branch (family court and juvenile court), child protective services and/or the department of family protective services; the legislative branch (elected officials who write and make policies on foster care); mental health experts who work on behalf of the court, CPS or families; and government-contracted businesses and non-profits that offer services to families and children (e.g. educational benefits, foster parent training and case assignments)

Foster Care: technically, foster care is the process of persons who are not the parents of a child raising the child. This may include kin and strangers and happens for a variety of reasons. In the contemporary U.S., it refers to the “the system” or “foster care system” as defined above.

Aged-Out:  a youth “aged-out” of foster care if they turned 18 while in custody or guardianship of the state/CPS/DFPS. They are no longer in foster care if they turn 18 after high school graduation, unless their state offers an opt-in to stay in foster care longer and they choose it. 

Emancipation:  another word for aging out, most commonly. But emancipation can also be when a person under age 18 sues their state to become a legal adult, just like someone under age 18 can sue their parents to become legal adults. This second kind of emancipation is very rare. 

Alumni: traditionally refers to students, but in this case means someone who was in foster care. It is a broad term that refers, generally, to all children who were once in foster care, but are not in foster care any longer. Foster care alumni may have aged-out, been adopted, or experienced family reunification. 

Neglect: failure of a parent or responsible adult to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision such that a child’s safety, health, or well-being are threatened. In some states, failure to educate a child is considered neglect. States have various specific definitions for what constitutes medical neglect.

Physical abuse:  non-accidental physical injury to a child, or any action that results in a physical impairment to the child. In most states, this includes the threat of harm to the child’s welfare.

Sexual abuse: specific definitions vary by state, with some naming explicit acts and others generally defining. Many states include sexual exploitation as abuse, including child prostitution or child pornography.

Emotional abuse: the emotional or mental injury to a child such that a substantial observable change in behavior, emotional response, or cognition occurs. Almost all states and territories include emotional abuse as a component of abuse or neglect.

Parental Substance abuse:  a few states and territories include specific guidelines for parental substance abuse as part of child abuse and neglect. This may include prenatal exposure to harmful substances; manufacture or storage of controlled substances in proximity to a child; selling, distribution or sharing substances with a child; and use of a controlled substance such that impairs the adult’s ability to care for the child.

Abandonment:  when a parent leaves a child in a situation that causes the child harm or when the parent refuses to provide reasonable care or support

Child Care Institution: “a private child care institution, or a public child care institution which accommodates no more than twenty- five children, and is licensed by the State in which it is situated or has been approved by the agency of such State or tribal licensing authority (with respect to child care institutions on or near Indian Reservations) responsible for licensing or approval of institutions of this type as meeting the standards established for such licensing. This definition must not include detention facilities, forestry camps, training schools, or any other facility operated primarily for the detention of children who are determined to be delinquent.”

Detention facility [in the context of the definition of child care institution in section 472(c)(2) of the Act] is “a physically restricting facility for the care of children who require secure custody pending court adjudication, court disposition, execution of a court order or after commitment.”

Legal guardianship: “a judicially-created relationship between child and caretaker which is intended to be permanent and self-sustaining as evidenced by the transfer to the caretaker of the following parental rights with respect to the child: protection, education, care and control of the person, custody of the person, and decision-making. The term legal guardian means the caretaker in such a relationship.”

Respite Care:  SEC. 431. [42 U.S.C. 629a] (a) IN GENERAL. —As used in this subpart: (1) FAMILY PRESERVATION SERVICES. —The term “family preservation services” means “services for children and families designed to help families (including adoptive and extended families) at risk or in crisis, including—D) respite care of children to provide temporary relief for parents and other caregivers (including foster parents); Respite is defined in federal regulation as an allowable Title IV-B child welfare service and is not an allowable expenditure under Title IV-E foster care maintenance. States may use Title XX to fund respite care services. Respite care is not a placement. Rather it is a temporary absence from the child’s family. Generally, families are offered respite care as a family preservation service to prevent the removal of the child(ren) from their home or to prevent the disruption of a foster care or pre adoptive placement. This service provides support to the caretakers so they are able to continue to care for the child in their home.” Foster families may use respite care if they are not allowed to travel with fostered children and need to travel out of state, if they need a babysitter, or if an unanticipated emergency arises. 


Foster care is the  “24-hour substitute care for children placed away from their parents or guardians and for whom the State agency has placement and care responsibility.”