Journal Issue: Children, Families, and Foster Care Volume 14 Number 1 Winter 2004
The Foster Care Experience
Living within the foster care system can be trying for both children and foster parents. From a child's perspective, the foster care experience can be emotionally traumatic, and it is associated with detrimental developmental outcomes and lower educational achievement. Foster parents are often expected to care for children, many with special needs, with inadequate financial support, minimal training, and limited access to respite care. The foster care experience from the perspectives of both children in care and foster parents is discussed below.
The Child's Perspective
Children who are removed from their homes and placed in foster care often experience detrimental shortand long-term effects. Researchers estimate that 30% to 80% of children in foster care exhibit emotional and/or behavioral problems, either from their experiences before entering foster care or from the foster care experience itself.45 Children entering foster care may experience grief at the separation from or loss of relationship with their natural parents. Children in care also face emotional and psychological challenges as they try to adjust to new and often changeable environments. Within three months of placement, many children exhibit signs of depression, aggression, or withdrawal. Some children with severe attachment disorders may exhibit signs of sleep disturbance, hoarding food, excessive eating, self-stimulation, rocking, or failure to thrive.46 (See the article by Jones Harden in this journal issue.)
Children in foster care are also placed at greater risk educationally. In New York City, 3,026 foster care alumni were interviewed about their experiences in foster care. More than 40% stated that they did not start school immediately upon entering foster care, and more than 75% stated that they did not remain in their schools once placed in foster care. Nearly 65% reported that they transferred in the middle of the school year.47 More than half of the young people who responded reported that they did not feel prepared to support themselves after leaving foster care, and an equal number were not satisfied with the quality of education received while in foster care.
The perceptions of foster care alumni regarding the inadequacy of their educational experiences are corroborated by a study of private foster care agencies.48 Researchers in this study found that more than onethird of children in care had written language skills below grade level and that close to one-third had math and reading skills below grade level. Thirty to forty percent of youths in foster care are in special education.49 Due to placement changes, children in foster care are often forced to change schools. This situation places them at a great disadvantage. They often have difficulty forming peer networks and support systems, feel stigmatized due to their foster care status, and are forced to resolve different curricula and varying educational expectations without continuity of instruction or services.50
Retrospective studies examining the outcomes of young adults who were in foster care as children provide additional insights into the foster care experience. For example, one study found that children who remained in foster care appeared to have greater feelings of insecurity than those who were adopted from foster care.51 Moreover, many youths leaving foster care end up in jail or on public assistance, or otherwise represent an economic cost to the community.52 A study of employment outcomes for youths aging out of foster care found that many were underemployed and progressing more slowly in the labor market than other low-income youths, and only half had any earnings in the two years after aging out of care.53 At the same time, studies also find that providing support services for youths transitioning out of foster care significantly improved outcomes.54 (See the article by Massinga and Pecora in this journal issue.)
In addition, some research indicates that foster care can have a positive impact on children. One study of children ages 11 to 14 found that, although placement caused severe disruption because of the need to blend into new neighborhoods, schools, and families and to make new friends, the children described their lives and circumstances positively.55
The Foster Parents' Perspective
Once committed to the care of children, foster parents are confronted with a number of challenges as they try to attend to the complex needs of the children in their care with limited support. Historically, foster parents have been reimbursed at low rates and have been expected to subsidize children's care with their own funds. In 2000, the average monthly foster care reimbursement was $387 for a 2-year-old, $404 for a 9- year-old, and $462 for a 16-year-old.56 Low rates of compensation make it difficult for foster parents to meet the needs of young people in their care while simultaneously caring for the rest of the family.57 Inadequate financial support can prove to be a disincentive to the most willing and desirable foster parent.58 Moreover, foster children have seven times the developmental delays of similar children who are not in foster care placement.59 As a result, foster parents are often required to give extra care and attention to address foster children's needs, but without any extra resources, support, access to respite care, or training.60 Recent efforts to incorporate foster parents' perspectives into the planning and decision-making processes for the children in their care create additional expectations on top of the already enormous demands placed on foster parents. Historically, foster parents, preadoptive parents, and relative caregivers have not been viewed as active participants in these processes. Agencies tended to focus on the temporary nature of foster care, with little emphasis on the role that foster parents and relatives could play as members of a team committed to the safety, well-being, and permanence of children. However, in the current practice environment, caregivers are more often seen as playing multiple roles. In addition to nurturing children and promoting their healthy growth and development, they are expected to advocate for children, mentor birth parents, and provide members of the team (including social workers, lawyers, and judges) with key information about the well-being and permanency of children.61 Provisions in ASFA underscore the greater formal role foster parents are expected to play in caring for foster children by specifying that foster parents, preadoptive parents, and relatives who care for children in the custody of public child welfare agencies are to receive timely notice of permanency hearings and six-month periodic reviews, and must be afforded an opportunity to be heard.
To meet these challenges, foster parents not only need better financial support, they also need better case management support.62 Foster parents report feeling devalued by workers and stress the importance of respecting foster parents.63 Lack of trust between workers and foster parents can arise from poor service integration, lack of service coordination, and the inaccessibility of workers to support foster parents. Foster parents find workers are often unavailable, even though the expectations to meet children's needs are rigorous.64 To manage the tensions of competing demands, foster parents stress the need for workers to return their phone calls, keep them informed, better articulate what is expected of them, and be more readily available.65
In addition, further efforts are needed to ensure foster parents' input is actively sought and valued in the decision- making process. For example, despite provisions in the federal law, focus groups in California indicated that, in the previous two years, one-third of caregivers had not received any written notices of court hearings involving children in their care.66 When notified, caregivers typically attended all court proceedings for the children in their care. However, focus groups with social workers, attorneys, and judges showed that they were ambivalent or opposed to foster parents being involved in court hearings and decision making regarding the children in their care. Social workers who were interviewed did not want caregivers involved in case planning, nor were they enthusiastic about the idea of having caregivers attend court hearings. Children's attorneys were open to the idea of caregivers attending court proceedings. Attorneys representing other stakeholders were not, however.67
Finally, making better training available to foster parents is essential. Foster parents often complain about receiving inadequate training; less than one-third report being well prepared,68 and often there is no reinforcement of what is learned in the training once the child comes home.69 Effective foster parent training models exist, but they are not used consistently across local child welfare organizations.70 For many foster parents, the fragmentation and irregularity of support can be traumatic.
For these reasons, many certified foster families become dissatisfied with their experiences as foster parents and quit fostering within the first year of service.71 Although better training is not the sole solution, it is one way to enhance the experience of foster parents and to motivate them to continue to serve.72 When foster parents receive quality training, they are more likely to retain their licenses, have greater placement lengths, and provide more favorable ratings of their experiences as foster parents.73