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Foster care placements

J. Vanderfaeille, F. Van Holen and S. Coussens

"The number of Flemish foster care placements increased with over 21% during the past five years (Vervotte, 2006). For children in need of out-of-home care, foster care often constitutes the option of choice. Family-situations offer more personal attention, love, structure and continuity in parenting compared to residential care. Foster children compared to children in residential care are more likely to grow up to well-functioning adults: they complete more often high school, have lower crime rates and are more satisfied with life generally (Barber, Delfabbro and Cooper, 2001). Apart from the abovementioned choice, lack of services and long waiting lists in (Flemish) group or institutional care result in children ending up to an increasing degree in foster families. The question is whether in these cases foster care was the best option. Foster care placements come across many problems. Next to abuse, high levels of family stress, conflicts between foster parents and biological parents, breakdown is one of the biggest issues (Wilson, Sinclair, and Gibbs, 2000).

Breakdown often occurs. Australian research finds 17% of foster care placements already breaking down during the first four months (Barber and Delfabbro, 2003). In Sweden more than 40% of foster care placements prematurely terminate within five years (Sallnas, Vinnerljung and Westermark, 2004). Strijker et al. (2004) found that over six year's time 50% of the foster care placements in the Netherlands failed. Internationally the breakdown percentage is estimated at 25-50% (Minty, 1999).

Comparing prevalence numbers from different studies is difficult. They vary for two reasons. First, the follow-up period influences the placement breakdown prevalence. In a larger followup period the occurrence of breakdown increases (Newton, Litrownik and Landverk, 2000). Next, different definitions of breakdown are applied (James, 2004). Breakdown can be defined narrowly or broadly. Very narrowly defined, breakdown is a premature and unintentionally ending of foster care because of behavioural problems of the foster child. More broadly defined, breakdown can be asked for by foster parents or support staff (for example in case of an abusing foster parent). An even more broad definition includes the initiation of breakdown by the biological parents against the will of social workers and masked breakdowns (Sallnas et al., 2004).

Linked to breakdown are placement changes. Many children in youth care experience many placement changes. For example, Palmer (1996) finds that 77% of 184 children lived with more than one family before their most recent foster care placement. After 18 months, only 54% remained in this placement. The other 46% had already been placed in at least one other family. Almost 20% of the (American) foster children have an unstable placement pattern with an average of 7.2 placement changes (James, Landsverk and Slymen, 2004). Almost one third of foster children from kinship foster families experience more than three placement changes during the first year. For children in non-kinship foster care the numbers are even higher, to more than half of the children (Webster, Barth and Needell, 2000). Every breakdown results in a placement change. A placement change, though, is not always the result of a breakdown. Placement changes can be the result of decisions related to systems or policy (approximately 70%) (James, 2004). Some of the placement changes contribute to an improvement of the foster care situation (Webster et al., 2000).

The experience of one or more breakdowns is associated with several undesirable outcomes. It results in difficulties in trusting adults, an increase in and even the onset of behavioural problems, an increased risk of poor educational outcomes, a decrease of the likelihood of reunification, and a longer stay in residential care (Gilbertson and Barber, 2003; James, 2004; Newton et al., 2000; Palmer, 1996; Sallnas et al., 2004). Some youngsters end up living by themselves, which can result in poor life quality and loss of social support (Sallnas et al., 2004). Breakdown has negative effects on the child welfare system. It demoralises foster carers and can lead to the ending of foster parent commitment. Moreover, it results in supplementary casework for the support staff including identifying and placing the child in a new setting (James, 2004).

Child factors, foster family characteristics and factors related to the biological environment can accelerate breakdown. Age and behavioural problems of the foster child are very much related to breakdown. The older the child, and the more behavioural problems, the higher the risk of breakdown (see J.G. Barber et al., 2001; James, 2004; James et al., 2004; Scholte, 1995; Strijker and Zandberg, 2004). The number of previous placements in residential care and the number of placement changes during the first foster care year are also negatively correlated to the success of later placements (Sallnas et al., 2004; Webster et al., 2000). Newton et al. (2000) mentioned that behavioural problems not only lead to breakdown, but they can also be the result of breakdown.

The relationship between breakdown and the history of the child is not clear. Children with a history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse are more at risk of breakdown than neglected children (Barber et al., 2001; Webster et al., 2000). On the other hand, Salnas et al. (2004) found that physical abuse and sexual abuse were negatively correlated to breakdown.

The relationship between gender and breakdown is not clear either. While some (S.E. Palmer, 1996; Webster et al., 2000) found that boys were more at risk of breakdown, others (S. James, 2004) did not find any differences related to sex. The latter do find an interaction effect between age and gender: younger boys and older girls are more at risk of breakdown (Sallnas et al., 2004). Similarly, ethnicity sometimes proves to be (Webster et al., 2000) and sometimes not to be (James, 2004) related to breakdown.
Foster parent characteristics tend to be less subject to research. Foster parents with children of their own, who want to possess the foster child, who have an authoritarian parenting style or believe the development of a foster child to a high degree is determined by hereditary factors are more at risk of breakdown (Kalland and Sinkkonen, 2001; Scholte, 1995). Research points out that kinship care placements are more stable than non-kinship placements (Sallnnas et al., 2004; Webster et al., 2000).


Barber, J.G.& Delfrabbro, P.H. (2003). The first four months in a new foster placement: psychosocial adjustment, parental contact and placement disruption. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 30. pp. 69-85.

Barber, J.G., Delfrabbro, P.H. and Cooper, L.L. (2001). The predictors of unsuccessful transition to foster care. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 42. pp. 785-790.

Gilbertson, R. & Barber, J.G. (2003). Breakdown of foster care placement: carer perspectives and system factors. Australian Social Work, 56. pp. 329-339.

James, S. (2004). Why do foster care placements disrupt? An investigation of reasons for placement change in foster care. Social Service Review, 78. pp. 601-627.

James, S., Landsverk, J. & Slymen, D. (2004). Placement movement in out-of-home care: patterns and predictors. Children and Youth Services Review, 26. pp.185-206.

Kalland, M. & SIinkkonen, J. (2001). Finnish children in foster care: evaluating the breakdown of long-term placements. Child Welfare, 80. pp. 513-527.

Minty, B. (1999). Annotation: Outcomes in long-term foster family care. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40. pp. 991-999.

Newton, R.R., Litrownik, A.J. & Landsverk, J.A. (2000). Children and youth in foster care: disentangling the relationship between problem behaviors and number of placements. Child Abuse and Neglect, 24. pp. 1363-1374.

Palmer, S.E. (1996). Placement stability and inclusive practice in foster care: an empirical study. Children and Youth Services Review, 18. pp. 589-601.

Sallnas, M., Vinnerijung, B. & Westermark, P.K. (2004). Breakdown of teenage placements in Swedish foster and residential care. Child and Family Social Work, 9. pp. 141-152.

Scholte, E.M. (1995). Het plaatsen van jeugdigen in pleeggezinnen en residentiele centra. Tijdschrift voor Orthopedagogiek, 34. pp. 99-111.

Strijker, J. & Zandberg, T.J. (2004). Over-Leven in de pleegzorg. Pedagogiek, 24. pp. 230-245.

Vervotte, I. (2006). Globaal Plan Jeugdzorg. De kwetsbaarheid voorbij... Opnieuw verbinding maken. Brussel: auteur.

Webster, D., Barth, R. & Needell, B. (2000). Placement stability for children in out-of-home care: a longitudinal analysis. Child Welfare, 79. pp. 614-632.

Vanderfaeillie, J.; Van Holen, F. and Coussens, S. (2008). Why do foster care placements break down? A study on factors influencing foster care placement breakdown in Flanders. International Journal of Child and Family Welfare, 11, 2-3. pp. 77-79.

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