I get this question a lot. It is especially common when we get new kiddos. It's probably one of the toughest questions to answer as a foster parent hoping to adopt. It's actually an impossible question to answer - kind of like predicting how long it will take to get new kids - but that isn't the hard part. The hardest part about dealing wfith that question is that it acts as a constant reminder that our kiddos aren't ours - and they can go home at any minute.
Nevertheless I'll try to give you an answer. The easiest way to answer it is to refer to the rules in Texas which require (in lamens terms) children who enter foster care to have the case resolved toward a permanent home within 12 months. In extreme circumstances the state can extend that timeline to 18 months, so generally my answer is "I don't know - they could be with us for up to 12-18 months". Of course, as an adoptive licensed home, we could potentially be the permanent home for some of the kids, so they could be with us forever I guess.
With the exception of kids who are placed specifically for the purpose of adoption, a foster parent really never knows how long the kid will be there, at least up until the point they leave or the adoption papers are signed. Until then, no matter what is said or promised there is a potential for the kids to go home at any time. All of our kiddos have been emergency placements, which means they were taken directly from their home and placed with ours as their first foster home. Usually the state has attempted at this point to find and approve a kinship placement because they want the children to stay within the family or at least close circle of friends as a first choice. In all of our cases so far the family members suggested by the parents have been inappropriate or have declined to be involved when the child(ren) was (were) originally removed. Even when the kinship placements originally suggested were disqualified in the beginning, the state continues to look for other family or friends that are qualified. They have first priority as long as the kids would be safe. So, in the case where the were placed on emergency and in the next few weeks they found a safe family home, they could be gone in just a few weeks.
Of course sometimes finding a family placement takes longer. Other times family or friends decline to participate at first because they don't want to get involved or are trying to help their family member face the consequences of their actions (as in drug abuse cases). After a while though, when the state begins the process of terminating parental rights and the family realizes the children will placed up for adoption and removed from the family permanently they might step up and agree to be the child's permanent home. So, as you can see at any point up until the rights are terminated a foster placement might be removed from the foster parents home.
Even after rights have been terminated the child could still be removed from the foster home. Certainly if the foster parent doesn't want to adopt the state will find an adoptive home and the child will be moved when that is found. But even when a foster parent has agreed to adopt after rights have been terminated there is still a period of time where the child can be removed. There are 3 months after termination before an adoption can be finalized so that an interested party (grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors, etc.) can step up to the court and ask for custody.
As you can see, there is no way to know how long a child is going to stay when they are placed. If you are a foster-only home, this may not be that big of a deal, other than for planning purposes. When you are an "adoption motivated" foster home this can be quite painful. Currently we have a child in our home that we hope to adopt. Termination hearing is set. Mediation is planned. Several people involved in the case including all attorneys, the state, the judge, and various family members unofficially support us adopting in this case. We now know it could be no less than 6 months before we could adopt her. For the next 6 months, no matter how much everyone says adoption will happen in this case, until the last day we have to be aware that they might go home. Any day we could get that call and any day we could be forced to say goodbye to a child we've tentatively thought we might be adopting.
In the meantime we are simultaneously getting excited about an adoption sometime at the end of summer for our family that will very likely include not only the one child but also the baby who is due sometime around July. A baby whom we need to plan for but can't get too excited about.
For reference - here's the length of time we had each of our cases.
Case 1 - 9 weeks total - we were told they were potentially going home after 4 weeks and for sure after 8.
Case 2 - 7 1/2 months - we knew there was a relative placement available after 4 weeks but it was out of state so they chose not to send him there. We knew for sure he was going home after 5 months, then for the last 7 weeks he had weekend visits with his family up until the day he went home.
Case 3 - Potential adoptive placement - After 2 months we received a call to say that this child was going home to a relative placement. 3 days later that placement was disqualified and the decision was overturned. Since then there have been several attempts to verify family members as potential placements. Officially turned toward adoption after 7 months. Rights might be terminated by 10 months. We would have until 13 months before adoption could happen.
Case 4 - We've only had them for 10 days at this point and the plan is, as usual, 12-18 months. That being said, we know they will most likely leave our home on or before the new baby was born in July because we couldn't have that baby and these kids due to licensing standards that I'll explain at some point.
So while most people think that having the kids go home is the hardest part, in my mind it isn't. The hardest part is not knowing whether they will stay permanently or go home. This however puts us in the place where we have to let go of our own will and trust that God's will is good and perfect and better than anything we could have ever planned.