I’ve been nattering on about the foster care vs. parental care debate, and it’s time to say few words about the research comparing the two. I’m the furthest thing from an authority on the subject, but what follows is part of my understanding of the matter.
In a nutshell, foster care is a traumatic experience for most kids. Whatever their family background, being taken from what’s familiar and placed, usually incommunicado, in a strange environment with unfamiliar people, is a psychological blow.
Yes, some adults who were raised in foster care praise their foster parents to the skies. And certainly, most foster parents do their best to give their kids a good upbringing. But public policy can’t be made on what happens sometimes. Public policy doesn’t deal with a few cases; it deals with all cases. As such it needs to pay attention to what sociology, psychology, law enforcement, etc. say about children’s results in and after foster care.
That picture isn’t pretty. For example, this study interviewed children in foster care and found some shocking things. A hefty 70% of the kids said their foster caregiver had one or more of the personal problems inquired about. So 40% of the foster caregivers abused drugs or alcohol, 14% were mentally ill, 18% had committed domestic violence and 10% had spent time in jail or prison. Beyond that, 34% of the children interviewed believed their foster caregivers demonstrated inadequate parenting skills.
Unsurprisingly, all those problems by foster parents visited their effects on the kids. Thirty-two percent of the children interviewed reported having been neglected, 13% reported child abuse and 2% reported sexual abuse by foster parents. Seventeen percent said they’d been sexually abused by a relative, sibling or other youth while in foster care.
If stability of family life is generally good for kids, foster care doesn’t fill the bill. Of the children interviewed, their average stay in foster care was 5.5 years during which they stayed with, on average, 4.6 different families. That’s about 14 months per foster home. Some 37% reported having run away from their foster home and two-thirds of those said they’d done so more than once.
Another study published in the Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal inquired into children’s educational outcomes. It compared children in foster care with those living with at least one parent.
The results were unequivocal: the foster youth dropped out of high school at a much higher rate and were significantly less likely to have completed a GED. The foster care high school graduates received significantly less financial assistance for education from their parents or guardians. Foster youth reported more discipline problems in school and experienced more educational disruption due to changing schools. They were significantly less likely to be in a college preparatory high school track. The adults in the lives of the foster care youth were less likely to monitor homework.
Yet another study in the Oxford Review of Education summarized its findings this way:
Among the many disadvantages suffered by children looked after by local authorities, low educational achievement probably has the most serious consequences for their future life chances. This article reviews research over nearly twenty years which consistently shows that children in residential and foster care fall progressively behind those living with their own families and leave school with few qualifications, if any… [T]his and other consumer studies indicate that at present the care system is more likely to put additional obstacles in their way than to make any particular effort to compensate for their earlier disadvantages.
Now, it might be argued that these kids aren’t likely to have as good outcomes as children of families not found by a child welfare agency to have neglected or abused their children. That is, maybe the deficits the foster care kids have aren’t due to foster care but to their traumatic previous lives.
But it turns out it’s specifically foster care that’s the culprit, at least in the psychological deficits foster kids demonstrate. A 2006 study reported in Development and Psychopathology compared kids in three separate groups:
children who experienced foster care, those who were maltreated but remained in the home, and children who had not experienced foster care or maltreatment despite their similarly at-risk demographic characteristics.
Once again, psychological functioning was negatively affected specifically by foster care. The results suggest that foster care, more than other demographic factors associated with negative outcomes for kids, produced bad results.
In the current sample, children placed in out of home care exhibited significant behavior problems in comparison to children who received adequate care, and using the same pre- and postplacement measure of adaptation, foster care children showed elevated levels of behavior problems following release from care. Similarly, children placed into unfamiliar foster care showed higher levels of internalizing problems compared with children reared by maltreating caregivers, children in familiar care, and children who received adequate caregiving.
As I’ve reported before, unlike biological families, foster families aren’t forever. Indeed, most foster care ends abruptly when the child turns 18. Ready or not (and how many are?), at that age, a child in foster care is on his/her own. Of course, some foster parents continue to allow the child to live at home for a time. And even after the child moves out, the foster parents may continue to provide advice, guidance and even money.
But there’s no requirement that they do any of that. “Aging out” of care is a problem for almost all foster kids. Longitudinal studies of foster kids after age 18 show lower involvement with education, far lower likelihood of employment, higher incarceration rates and greater likelihood of having experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse.
All of that is to say that those who plump for more and more kids to be taken from their parents and placed in foster care need to explain why those outcomes for children are preferable to what they might get at home.
So far, they haven’t.