Guardianship vs. Adoption vs. Foster Care: What are the Differences?

Guardianship vs. Adoption vs. Foster Care: What are the Differences?

When it comes to the care of non-biological children, there are three core terms you should know: Guardianship, Foster Care and Adoption.

When it comes to the care of non-biological children in California and elsewhere in the United States, there are many terms you should know. Let’s break down three of them: Guardianship, Foster Care and Adoption.  

What is Guardianship? 

Guardianship is a legal term, denoting when someone is appointed by a court order to be the legal guardian of a minor. Essentially, if a biological parent is deemed by the courts to be unable to take care of a child, all of the rights and privileges of a biological parent are transferred to the appointed guardian. The Judicial Branch of California notes that a guardian can be named to take care of a child or children, manage their estate, or both. 

It’s important to note that guardianship is separate from adoption. Not only are guardianships typically temporary, but biological parents still retain some rights, including limited contact with the child or children. In addition, unlike with adoptive parents, guardians are overseen by the courts. 

What is Foster Care? 

In foster care, individuals who are not the biological parent oversee for the care and housing of children whose previous caretakers the courts deemed unsuited for their care. Instances in which parents are no longer able to provide care, such as if a parent is incarcerated, would also lead a child or children to be placed in foster care. 

Foster care is designed to be a temporary solution, while biological family members take steps to prove to the courts they are capable of caring for their children again. Foster parents (now known technically as Resource Parents) are either other related adults (like a grandparent or an aunt/uncle) or sometimes an unrelated adult. 

Before someone can become a foster parent, they must receive a license certifying that their home is suitable for a foster child and that they are able to sufficiently meet a child’s needs while they are in charge of their care. A county child services agency or a third-party foster care services provider will, when a child must enter foster care, determine the best foster parent(s) for their particular needs and circumstances. 

What is Adoption? 

In adoption, biological parents totally relinquish their parental rights and instead the adoptive parents become the child’s legal guardian and caretaker. In order to become adoptive parents, the completion of a background check and a separate license is required, to again prove that a child is entering a safe, clean and accommodating environment. Depending on the circumstances around the adoption, adoptive parents may have to pay fees. 

A child is adopted through a few different circumstances. Often, a biological parent will give up a child for adoption on or soon after the child is born, and the baby will be adopted as an infant. Other times, foster parents elect to adopt a child or children they were previously fostering, or a biological relative decides to become an adoptive parent for a child instead of their biological parents. 


We hope this guide helps! There are a lot of overlapping terms out there, and it can sometimes be difficult to parse through them all. 

Have any other terms you’d like to know more about, or any other questions for us? Let us know on social media! We’re active on FacebookTwitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, and would love the opportunity to answer any queries you may have.

Alternative Family Services

Alternative Family Services (AFS) provides thoughtful, informed foster care, adoption and mental health services throughout California’s San Francisco Bay Area and Greater Sacramento region. Since 1978, the mission of AFS has been – and continues to be – to support vulnerable children and families in need of stability, safety and well-being in communities through foster care, adoption and mental health services.

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