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Out-of-home care: Practice and research between head and tail

Erik Knorth, James Anglin and Hans Grietens

Placing children in out-of-home care occurs relatively often, especially when taking its ‘drastic’ nature into consideration (cf. Schwartz, 1991). Ten years ago, its percentage in the 12 EU countries amounted to 0.56% of the total number of minors (Knorth, 1998). More recent data yield percentages that fluctuate between 0.5% (UK) and 0.7% (Germany) of the current pop­ulation of minors. A comparable percentage (0.7%) can be found in the USA (Knorth, 2003). Placing children in out-of-home care means that, for a shorter or longer period of time, they will be placed in a social environment other than that in which the upbringing normally would take place: their own birth family. It involves an alternative residence where 24/7 around­the-clock care is being offered. This can crystallize into two modes: placement in a family context: the child lands in a family foster care setting; placement in a group context: the child lands in a residential care setting. Placing children in out-of-home care has a tremendous impact, both on the young persons themselves (Eagle, 1994) and on the remaining members of the family (Jenkins & Norman, 1972). Such an intervention only takes place when the situation at home is threatening to the child’s development and growth or when his or her functioning poses such a problem to the parents or society, that a continued stay at home is no longer desirable nor possible. In other words: there is no longer a good `fit’ between the child and his or her family.
This is one side of the coin. Opposed to the negative perspective of ‘the situation at home is an intolerable one’, also a positive perspective can be considered, in particular that out-of­home care involves an intervention with the intended purpose of letting the development of the child and the family take a favourable turn, in order to create new developmental opportunities (cf. e.g., Colton, Roberts, & Williams, 2002).

This last view was elaborated by, for instance, June Thoburn (1994, 2002). In this context, she took as a starting point the needs that are to be met in order for a child to achieve a posi­tive development, namely:

In addition there are two special concerns for children who are separated from their parents and who are looked after by Child and Youth Care agencies. These are that

Permanence means experiencing security, belonging, family life, being loved and having opportunities to love. Identity means knowing about birth family and past relationships, fitting the present with the past, having appropriate contact with important people from the past, and being valued as the person you are. Experiencing a sense of permanence and a sense of identity constitute the basis of a child’s self-esteem, the main condition for growth and development.

The question that follows, according to Thoburn, is how the new living situation of a child can be organised in such a way that the aforementioned developmental conditions can be achieved at optimum. This, in fact, brings us to the issue of ‘good practices’ (or ‘good enough practices’, cf. Anglin, 2002) in relation to out-of-home care. The question is which components of a foster care setting or a residential setting have a wholesome effect on the development of children, and whom it affects (cf. Van der Ploeg, 1984).


Anglin, J.P.(2002). Pain, normality and the struggle for congruence: Reinterpreting residential care for children and youth. New York/London/Oxford: The Haworth Press.

Colton, M.J., Roberts, S., & Williams, M. (Eds.) (2002). Residential care: Last resort or positive choice? Lessons from around Europe (special issue International Journal of Child and Family Welfare, 5(3), 65-140. Leuven: Acco.

Eagle, R.S. (1994). The separation experience of children in long-term care: Theory, research and implications. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 64, 421-434.

Knorth, E.J. (1998). You can’t always get what you want... A selective review of studies on child placement and decision-making. International Journal of Child and Family Welfare, 3(2), 115­134.

Knorth, E.J. (2003). De pedagogisch medewerker in de leefgroep: een hlik ever de grens [The residential Child and Youth Care worker: A view abroad]. Tijdschrift voor Sociaal Pedagogische Hulpnerlening, 10 (50), 26-32.

Jenkins, S., & Norman, E. (1972). Filial deprivation and foster care. New York/London: Co­lumbia University Press.

Schwartz, .M. (1991). Out-of-home placement of children: Selected issues and prospects for the future. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 9, 189-199.

Thoburn, J. (1994). Child placement: Principles and practice. Second edition. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Van der Ploeg, J.D. (1984). Het tehuis als beschadigende of helpende omgeving [The residential care setting as a harming or helping environment]. In P.M. Van der Bergh, J.D. Van der Ploeg, & M. Smit (Eds.), Grenzen van de residentiele hulpverlening (pp. 10-39). The Hague: Vuga Publishers.

Knorth, E.J., Anglin, J. and Grietens, H. (2003). Out-of-home care: Practice and research between head and tail. International Journal of Child & Family Welfare 6(4), pp.126-132

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