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Placement disruption in treatment foster care

Dana Smith et al

Reports of disruption rates in traditional foster care range from 38% to 57% during the first 12 to 18 months of placement (Berrick et al., 1998; Palmer, 1996; Staff & Fein, 1995; Stone & Stone, 1983), with percentages increasing with time spent in foster care. In 1990, 57% of children in care had multiple placements, and almost 30% experienced more than three placements (U.S. House of Representatives, 1994). Placement disruption has been linked to problems with attachment and emotional and behavioral problems in children (Fanshel et al., 1990; Goldstein et al., 1973; Lieberman, 1987; Van der Kolk, 1987). These types of problems are not only harmful to the child but also increase the risk that a cycle of placement instability will be perpetuated (Fanshel et al.); each new disruption provides an increased risk for subsequent disruptions with new caregivers.

TFC has typically been used to treat children in out-of-home care who have more demanding emotional and behavioral needs and who require more intensive structure and mental health services than those in traditional foster care settings (Kutash & Rivera, 1996). On average, youth referred to TFC have spent 4 years in a variety of placements and residential settings prior to entering the TFC placement (Timbers, 1990). With more demanding emotional and behavioral needs and a history of instability, youth placed in TFC appear to be at high risk for placement disruption. Data on disruption rates for TFC populations are even more sparse than for traditional foster care but are estimated to range from 38% to 70% (Fanshel, et al., 1990; Hudson, Nutter & Galaway, 1994; Walsh & Walsh, 1987; Weaver & Farmer, 1991, as cited in Staff & Fein, 1995).

Risk factors associated with placement disruption
Research on individual child factors that increase risk for placement disruption shows that increased age and the presence and severity of behavioral and emotional problems are significantly related to higher rates of placement disruption (Pardeck, 1984; Pardeck, Murphy & Fitzwater, 1985). There is some indication that boys are at increased risk for disruption (Palmer, 1996), but overall the findings regarding the influence of gender on rates of disruption are inconclusive.

Social-interactional factors such as poor parent-child relationship, the child's inability to form positive attachments to caretaker adults, or the child's having lived in chronically abusive or neglectful homes have all been found to be related to placement disruption (Stone & Stone, 1983). It has been suggested that interactional factors such as the relationship between the foster parent and the foster child and the fit between foster parent and foster child characteristics are more predictive of placement outcome than either child or foster parent characteristics alone (Berrick et al., 1998; Doelling & Johnson, 1990).

Some data have suggested that system-level contextual factors (e.g., degree of contact, rapport building, and energy expended by the caseworker; the foster parent's positive relationship with the supporting agency; and caseworker continuity) are associated with increased placement stability (Pardeck, 1984; Stone & Stone, 1983). Other research has indicated that increasing the number of children placed per home exponentially increases the number of daily problem behaviors emitted per child, which thereby increases the risk of placement disruption (Moore, Osgood, Larzelere, & Chamberlain, 1994).


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Smith, D., Stormshak, E., Chamberlain, P., and Whaley, R.B (2001). Placement Disruption in Treatment Foster Care. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, Fall, 2001.

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