The Importance of Kinship Relationships for Children in Foster Care

Kathleen Doyle. Handbook of Adoption: Implications for Researchers, Practitioners, and Families. Editor: Rafael A Javier, Amanda L Baden, Frank A Biafora, Alina Camacho-Gingerich. Sage Publication. 2007.

Distinctions between the Needs of Children in Foster Care and Children Living in other Relationships

Is there a reason to consider children in foster care separately from children living in the myriad family structures of the 21st century? In this first decade of the century, there are children living in traditional two-parent families, but there are also many children who spend alternate weeks in homes of separated and divorced or remarried parents or who live in homes of grandparents or aunts and uncles (sometimes called “kinship care”), in homes where they have been adopted, in shelters for the homeless, or on the streets (Landauer-Menchik, 2002). Some of these children have been in foster homes, some are in foster care, and some will go into foster care. Are the needs, reactions, and behavior of children in foster care different from those of children living in all other circumstances? Shouldn’t the focus be on responding to reactions and behavior of children living in any situation rather than children living in a specific type of place? One answer to this dilemma is that most children living in foster care have at least one fundamental difference from those living in most other situations. Their ties of kinship have been severed, either by parents and relatives or by the state.

How is Foster Care Defined?

There are many usages of the terms foster care, foster child, and foster home. At one time, the term foster was applied to children who were adopted as well as to children who lived with families who were not biological relatives (Herman, 2005). As governments became more involved in the oversight of children, including their rights, or the rights of their biological parents, and the funding for their care, the terms describing the status of children in a home became more uniform and defined in law.

In keeping with the definition in the Encyclopedia of Adoption (Facts on File Library of Health and Living) (Adamec & Pierce, 2000), we will refer to foster care as a system that is set up to protect children who are abused, neglected, or abandoned or whose parents or primary caretakers are unable to fulfill their parenting obligations. The reason for this inability could be illness, emotional problems, or a host of other reasons. In most of these types of situations, the placement into foster care by parents may have been voluntary. However, we also see children who are involuntarily removed from their families by the court and placed by the state. These children tend to reside in foster families or in group homes or residential treatment centers. These two situations differ in that in the case of an adoptive family the adoptive parents have the same parental rights and obligations as birth parents, whereas in foster home care the foster parents cannot make many decisions about the child’s welfare and have to defer to the state or county social worker (Adamec & Pierce, 2000).

There are, however, a variety of placement relationships and terms to describe them that are found in the laws and regulations of the federal and state governments. For example, kinship care is a form of foster care that is used to describe both formal and informal placements of children with persons in the extended birth family (Office of Children and Family Services [OCFS], 2005).

Although they are necessary and basically preserve the rights of parents, children, and society, one of the covert impacts of these legal definitions is that they memorialize the child’s status and sense of not belonging to any family. Except in voluntary placement for foster care, the child has been removed from the birth family by the state and yet does not become a legal member of the foster family. The child and others can quickly grasp his or her isolation whether the foster family introduces the child using terms that may appear to be kind and embracing, such as “our little guest,” or harsh and distancing, such as “the state kid.”

A Fundamental Question

If there is one characteristic of children in foster care that is universally shared, it is their question about their personal identity. Their search for an answer is a persistent, usually covert process that is colored by personal, social, religious, and cultural ideals and beliefs. It is coupled with a sense of emptiness and loss. Such children are often immersed in dialectical thought, even when appearing carefree or nonchalant. Frequently, the mixture of thoughts and emotions are displaced to responses and behavior that anger, perplex, hurt, puzzle, and frustrate those who become their foster parents and caregivers. The essence of this is in a question that a 10-year-old boy quietly and softly asked his caseworker: “Why did my parents give me away?”

This 10-year-old, named Andy, was repeating second grade for the third time. He had repeated first grade once. Outwardly, he was shy, processed information slowly, could follow only one direction at a time, and clung to his elderly foster parents, who considered him a well-behaved and model child. His parents, who had married in their teens, had two sons, who were removed from the home because of severe neglect when they were 3 and 5 years old. The older son, now 12, was enuretic, was disruptive in school, and bullied his brother, Andy, when they visited each other. Their parents had slowly matured and had three small children who lived with them and appeared to be doing well. The parents, however, did not want their older children to return home because they feared that their young children, who were also bullied by their oldest son when he visited, would be disturbed.

When Andy’s foster father had a heart attack, the foster family was no longer able to care for Andy and asked that he be placed in another home. Andy’s question was actually about his foster parents, not his birth parents. The question, however, began a dialogue with his social worker and another therapist, which revealed a boy who had spent years mulling over the reasons why his birth parents had “abandoned him.” He recalled little of the neglect, but remembered the times when his mother would play with him or hold him and the times when his father would scream at him to stop hitting a drum because it made his head hurt. He had seen his birth parents occasionally during his 7 years of foster care, and they had three more children whom they appeared to love and to provide with good care. They went to church. Andy’s foster parents had told him that good parents always went to church and that children had a duty to behave so God would love them. Andy had finally decided that he had to be the reason that his birth parents had to give him away. He had been bad, so his father had yelled, and his mother wouldn’t want a bad son. Even his brother bullied him, so he must have been the cause of his abandonment. Just prior to his foster father having the heart attack, Andy had scratched the car with his ice skate and his foster father had yelled, and now they were also giving him away.

Andy’s mind rarely had been focused on school, chores, and relationships with anyone other than his foster parents. He dwelled on his loss of kinship, his failure as a son, his efforts to be good that did not make his father want him back, and his need to remain a dependent, compliant son to his foster parents so that they would not abandon him as well. He did not learn in school, which strengthened his belief that he was unable to grow up and take care of himself, and he had little energy to play and feared trying to make friends.

A coordinated effort by his social worker and therapist, the foster parents, with whom he continued to live, his teachers, and eventually his parents finally freed Andy from his hidden world of fear, blame, and rage that had prevented him from learning, facing his emotions, and establishing productive relationships (The Case of Andy, 1970, personal communication).

Children living in foster care, particularly when custody is taken from parents, appear to have an additional burden beyond that borne by many children in dysfunctional homes or other settings. Their fundamental identity is often shattered when kinship is severed.

Historical, Sociological, and Legal Backgrounds

The Evolution of Systems of Foster Care

It is obvious that over the centuries, there have always been children in need of care. The causes for this and society’s responses throughout the generations have been explored and reported in many journals and texts (National Advocate, 2005). The impact, however, of caregivers’ responses to the biological parents and family has not been studied. It is not only important to understand the factors that enable children in foster care to become independent, well-adjusted, productive adult citizens but also important to understand the history of foster care to avoid its pitfalls and enhance its insights for the future.

The foster care system of the 21st century is generally well regulated by federal, state, and local governments (Herman, 2005). This has evolved partly based on how society has valued children and the religious, cultural, and economic factors of the times. As a generalization, however, children experienced many fates throughout the centuries. While they were often provided shelter and food by individuals or families based on a sense of obligation related to religious belief, they were also abandoned and left to die or survive using their own wiles. In societies based on an extended family structure, they might have been absorbed into various units of the family over time and kept their identity as a family member (Javier, 2006, personal communication; Porter, 2004). The reason that children have needed care has also influenced the kind of care they have received. Children whose biological families sought care due to hardship often were better accepted and cared for and maintained a more integrated and positive sense of self than those who were abandoned or were the children of criminals or other socially distanced groups.

The role of children within cultures also influenced the care they received. In societies that have viewed children as possessions or not fully human beings, small children were usually not seen as a part of the family until they were able to be productive (Carp, 2002). Additionally, in previous centuries, there was a high death rate in infants and children from disease and disability at all levels of society, also lowering the expectation that abandoned or uncared-for children would live and become good citizens (Berebitsky, 2000). This also influenced the personal relationships of parents and children, whether biological or not.

In the 17th century, the “English Poor Law” (2003) permitted poor children to be placed into indentured service until they became legal adults rather than being forced to live in poorhouses where they were often abused and harmed. In the United States, Charles Loring Brace, founder of the New York Children’s Aid Society, began the free foster care movement, which is considered the foundation of the current foster care system (National Advocate, 2005).

In 1859, Brace published The Best Method of Disposing of Our Pauper and Vagrant Children, in which he described the “orphan trains” that would be used to transport children from the streets of New York to midwestern and western states where they would be offered free homes (Brace, 1872). Children were offered free homes as acts of charity, as part of a mission to instill a religious or value system, or for service in the home or on the farm, similar to the indentured placements in England. Orphan trains continued into the third decade of the 20th century, and the placement of older teenagers for “work in kind” lasted well into the last decades of the century.

There were reactions to Brace’s concept of removing children from the bad influences of their environment, including the belief system of their families, by the development of various kinds of service agencies and residential home-school institutions, including orphanages and training schools (Herman, 2005). These were commonly established by churches and religious organizations or by groups attempting to serve families rather than just provide for children. The concept of adoption agencies sprung from reformers who looked for permanent placement of the child in a home where the child would become a legal member of the family, establish a sound personal identity, and be a valued member of the family (Herman, 2005). The issue of permanence was seen as the route to greater self-esteem, high achievement, and the establishment of roots that would provide security for the child and a safety net for society (Harris, 2005).

In the last half of the 19th century, states began to establish laws and regulations regarding the placement of children in foster care (Herman, 2005; National Advocate, 2005). Pennsylvania passed the first law in 1885 that required those who cared for two or more unrelated children to have a license. The movement of government to take charge of the placement and oversight of children in foster care was propelled by the development of public social services and the Social Security Act of 1935, which included “Aid to Dependent Children,” later known as “Aid to Families With Dependent Children” (Herman, 2005). In the early 1960s, federal funding for foster care was included in these benefit programs (Herman, 2005).

At the start of the 21st century, most children who require care and services outside of their homes reside in foster care rather than in institutions. Some live with relatives in the extended family, which is usually called kinship care, and others live in homes that have been approved to provide foster care. There are federal and state laws that regulate these placements, but in many cases, the oversight and funding of such care remain with local jurisdictions. In addition to changes in organization and oversight of services to dependent, neglected, abused, abandoned, or orphaned children, there has been a gradual movement from placement solely for maintenance and care to one that seeks permanency in placement through either return to the family or extended family or adoption (Harris, 2005). Although this reduces the cost burden to the government, its primary reason has been described as providing children with stability and a sense of belonging and identity.

Reasons Children are Placed in Foster Care in the 21st Century

The most frequent reasons that children are placed in foster care today, particularly when this is through a court order where custody is given to the state, are neglect, physical abuse, no available caretaker, and sexual abuse (Adamec & Pierce, 2000). Other reasons for foster placement include mental and physical incapacity of caregivers and economic hardship (Adamec & Pierce, 2000).

Children may be placed in foster care for long periods, but the goal of the state and placement agencies is to seek permanency and, when possible, placement with the child’s family or extended family. Most children in foster placement experience a sense of loss, bewilderment, and confusion, although this is less when placement has been voluntary and the children know the true reasons (OCFS, 2005).

When children are abandoned, abused, neglected, or harmed in other ways, they will have to face the mental and emotional burden of these actions as well as the emotional and behavioral overlay from fear, anger, and distrust. For some children, their struggle with these emotions may drive them from one foster home to the other, lengthening their placements, and making it more difficult to return home or find any other permanent home. Other children may enter foster care from institutions where they have been placed due to severe needs and where the foster parents must have experience or special training to handle these physical, emotional, or behavioral needs, offer around-the-clock attention and care, and receive additional funding and resources to provide care. Many of these children remain permanently in foster care (OCFS, 2005).

Regulations regarding the Approval and Oversight of Foster Care Settings

In addition to various federal laws that authorize funding for foster care and specify certain requirements—such as the need to make reasonable efforts to prevent removal from the home—in 1997, the federal government enacted Public Law No. 105–89, The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. It establishes the policy that our national goals for children in the child welfare system are safety, permanency, and well-being (The Adoption and Safe Families Act [ASFA], Pub. L. No. 105–89, 1997).

The Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2003) describes five principal goals of this legislation as follows: (1) The safety of children is the paramount concern that must guide all child welfare services; (2) foster care is a temporary setting and not a place for children to grow up; (3) permanency planning efforts for children should begin as soon as a child enters foster care and should be expedited by the provision of services to families; (4) the child welfare system must focus on results and accountability; and (5) innovative approaches are needed to achieve the goals of safety, permanency, and well-being. While this law continues to support the need to make reasonable efforts to prevent removal of children from the home, it also identifies exceptions.

States normally establish the legal structure for foster care, and local governments commonly establish payments or other requirements. In addition to regulating foster care, many states, including the states of Alabama, Colorado, Illinois, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington, have adopted a Foster Parent Bill of Rights (The National Foster Parents Association, 2005). These statutes address rights extending from general principles related to being treated with dignity to specific rights in regard to receiving training and information from the oversight agency and to a part in making crucial decisions about the child or children in their care. It is interesting to observe the growing awareness of the rights of foster parents, which indirectly support the rights of the child in foster care, but further work is needed to recognize the specific rights of the child in foster care to maintain kinship relationships while also being considered an integral part of the foster home.

In New York State, the Office of Children and Family Services has developed the New York State Foster Parent Manual (McBride, 2003), which provides definitions, procedures, and advice for foster parents and those considering offering foster care to a child. This manual reflects the prevailing philosophy and policies that are true not only in New York State but also throughout most of the country. The issues that states must address are captured in the chapter headings of this manual, including

  • Being a foster parent
  • When a child comes into foster care
  • Communication, ongoing, and emergency
  • Getting started: the basics
  • Daily life
  • Teamwork
  • Concerns for foster parents
  • Adopting a foster child
  • Certification and approval of foster homes
  • Positive approaches to discipline
  • Charts, such as medication logs, developmentally related activities

The manual talks about becoming a foster parent, the rights and obligations of foster parenting, why children are placed in foster care, how placement affects children, cultural factors, health and medications, confidentiality, personal property, and training, among a multitude of issues that arise daily. This state requires a period of training for every foster parent and has an extensive process called Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting/ Group Preparation and Selection Precertification Training Program. The manual describes this method as encouraging open communication and trust among foster families, adoptive families, birth families, and family services. The oversight and intense training that the states provide for foster families, and often adoptive families, however, emphasize the unique needs of children in foster care.

Psychological Implications of the Foster Home Experience

The Impact of Permanency on the Child’s Developing Sense of Security, Self-Esteem, and Identity

When questioned about their identity, people usually respond by providing information about their name, place of residence, occupation, and school and their identification with other persons, such as families, friends, clubs, or associations. Further probing may lead to connections with extended family members, personal interests, hobbies, or personal accomplishments. Yet a deeper inquiry will elicit information on belief systems and philosophies, and if the roots of identity are reached, the person’s fears, conflicts, and uncertainties are exposed.

For children in foster care, questions about their identity can create pain and uncertainty. They can also continue to stimulate the underlying struggles that they frequently experience. Children who understand that their families have sought foster care voluntarily due to hardship, loss, or illness may be less prone to the fundamental speculations about who they are or what they believe, but they also face these challenges during periods of separation. Public policy looks at permanency as one solution to the identity struggles of children who have been abused, mistreated, or abandoned by parents and caregivers or left homeless by parental incarceration, illness, or addictions. Permanency, to the extent that it provides stable relationships, consistency, and a safe, long-term home, is viewed as an opportunity for a child to establish a sense of belonging and security and to offer the child the opportunity to become a good citizen.

Private and public agencies that work within the foster care system have begun to recognize the importance of the biological family to the child’s successful maturation, no matter what permanency arrangement evolves. Consider the situation of Andy in the first example. He was placed in a foster home during late infancy, where he lived as the only child for 7 years with a couple who were kind, supportive, and generous. His parents rarely met his foster parents and Andy had infrequent visits with them. Even though he was very young, he understood the contradictions between the values and lifestyle of his parents and his foster parents, and although he was living in a home where he was wanted, he feared that if he expressed acceptance of his biological parents and an interest in being with them, he might no longer be the good boy his foster parents praised but might lose that home as well. At another level, he also feared, because he resembled his father and had been compared to him, that any expression of identification with his father would make him unacceptable to any family. Regardless of how well his foster parents provided for his physical care, how constant and stable his daily life was, how much his teachers supported and tried to help him, and how welcome he was in the community, Andy’s emotional and mental development were immobilized by his hidden ruminations about the reasons he “was given away.”

One of the most important challenges to foster parents and caregivers is to learn to accept the biological parents and family of the children who enter their homes and lives. This acceptance is essentially the recognition that no matter how despicable they think that the child’s living situation has been, or how infrequent the child has any contact with his or her parents, the biological bonds remain. “Who am I?” has been one of the fundamental questions of philosophers through the centuries. Finding one’s roots became the theme of television series and books in the final quarter of the 20th century (see Margulies, 1977) and can be seen in the upsurge of self-help genealogy resources in libraries and on the Internet. Accepting biological parents and family of the children for whom they provide care does not mean that foster families have to approve of their lifestyles and behavior but, rather, that they recognize that the children for whom they provide homes have a right to know their biological parents and family and to maintain emotional ties with them. This, in fact, provides the opportunity for children to begin their own internal evaluation of not only who they are but also who they want to become.

While the acceptance of biological parents and families may not seem too difficult as an abstraction, its proof to a child in foster care often occurs at the times when the bonds of family life are commonly expressed, such as birthdays and holiday celebrations. Foster caregivers are often dismayed when biological parents or family suddenly ask to visit or take the children when the foster family has organized holiday plans or family celebrations. Children in foster care may want to visit or be with their biological parents, and the grace with which the foster caregivers accept this, even if it disrupts a celebration, can be the sign of acceptance that children need to become free to begin to make their own choices. The acceptance of the parent-child bond does not mean, however, that foster caregivers cannot express their own beliefs and values regarding the actions of biological parents and family. When this is done with respect, it provides the alternatives often needed for children to make personal choices.

The Impact of Social Class and Standing on the Development of a Sense of Self

While it is not unusual for a foster family to be far more economically and socially advantaged than the biological families of the children placed in their home (Herman, 2005), it is more common that foster caregivers are in a similar, or just somewhat higher, economic and social class. This has been particularly true in situations where families have taken children into their homes to help in the home or on the farm, or when such child care has been seen as a source of income. Although this situation is declining, it was an outgrowth of the movements of the 19th and 20th centuries and still exists (Herman, 2005).

When children move into homes where there are great distinctions in economic, social, and political status, it is a challenge for both children and foster families. There are gaps in expectations and behavior, as well as the degree of economic comfort that can lead to a wide range of feelings and behavior by both children and the foster caregivers. These can include, among many other things, confusion, resentment, anger, fear, uncertainty, and withdrawal by children and righteousness, indignation, impatience, and ridicule by foster caregivers. It is important for caseworkers to help both children and families to understand these gaps and to assist the transition by reducing its potential to increase alienation, blame, and uncertainty. As in all of the differences between children and their foster caregivers, caregivers have to learn to resist the tendency to say and do things that will cause the child to perceive that he or she comes from what the caregivers see as an inferior class or social group.

It is important to work with families whose principal motivation in providing a foster home is either to save the child from an “inferior” or unacceptable lifestyle, provide additional income for their family, or find extra hands for work in the home or on the farm, to ensure that they recognize clearly that the child in their care requires emotional as well as physical care and is being placed in the home to be a member of the family, and not simply their property or servant. If such foster parents cannot grasp the essential needs of the child being placed in their care, they should not be approved for foster care.

One of the differences in formal kinship care relationships is that the child is a member of the extended family. Children in such homes may have fewer of the conflicts regarding who they are but may also be faced with the displaced resentment or emotions of their caregivers to their biological parents. In many cases, this can put the child in the position of defending his or her parents and, in doing so, clinging to unproductive and self-defeating behavior. Although some research has supported the assumption that children have fewer struggles and mature satisfactorily if they do not have to deal with the harm of severed kinship in placement, more definitive research is currently under way; but it is clear that children in kinship care situations need support, and their caregiver’s oversight, to make certain that they have a safe and nurturing environment.

The Effect of Ethnic and Cultural Differences in the Milieu of the Foster Setting

Ethnicity and cultural beliefs are integral elements of a child’s personal identity (OCFS, 2005). They must be viewed by placement agencies, providers, foster caregivers, schools, and policymakers with the same importance as that of housing, nourishment, clothing, and education. The attitudes and beliefs of everyone in the child’s foster placement system regarding ethnicity will be perceived by the child and will influence his or her capacity to develop and be peaceful in foster care. The facts of ethnicity and cultural status combined with the lifestyle and behaviors of the biological family essentially answer the child’s question: “Who am I?” The overt and nonverbal response by persons in the foster care environment as well as the child’s own reaction to ethnic and cultural differences will combine to create a climate of success or failure. The impact of ethnic and cultural differences within the foster care placement system permeates all levels of personal, social, educational, and relational interactions and can never be simply dismissed. While it may diminish in one area of life, it can escalate or be intense in others.

The cultural differences that are created by differences in economic class are often less significant to a child’s adjustment. Frequently, the economic class distinctions between the foster family and the biological family are not great, so that the child can move relatively smoothly into the foster home. When there are wider distinctions in economic class, the manner in which the foster family embraces the child and provides hospitality will usually have greater importance than the behavioral changes that such differences require.

One aspect of economic class distinctions, however, is the role that they can play in the child’s emotional acceptance of the foster home placement. Children in foster care sometimes use the change in economic class as a rationalization to blame or reject one family or the other, and sometimes both. An example of this occurred with Rosie. Rosie was 11 years old when she was removed from a neglectful home, where she had irregular meals, rarely had the opportunity to bathe, had few useful clothes for summer and none for winter, and slept on a soiled mattress with no bedding. The school had brought Rosie’s situation to the attention of the local social service agency, which found her to be neglected but not physically abused. She remained in foster care for several months while her single-parent, biological mother struggled to improve her living conditions and hoped that Rosie could return home. Soon after biweekly weekend home visits began, Rosie would eagerly go to her mother’s apartment on Saturday mornings and return to the foster home on Sunday nights. Her foster parents encouraged her visits and were generally welcoming and supportive of her biological mother. After three weekend visits, her foster parents discovered that all the hems were cut off Rosie’s slacks and dresses. This situation occurred intermittently for the next 3 months. The placement agency’s social worker worked with the biological mother, the foster parents, and Rosie, at first in individual meetings and later in joint meetings with everyone where Rosie’s behavior was understood as intertwined in the economic class distinctions between her biological and her foster families. Rosie basically was important both to her biological mother and to her foster parents, who had developed a relatively good relationship. The foster parents were concerned about her future and wanted to provide all they could for her to succeed. Her mother had hopes for her child’s success, but she had little concern or awareness of the need for a healthy environment that encouraged growth and learning. Rosie had become torn between them. The comforts and support of the foster care home and the availability of food, clothes, books, and toys were symbols that she began to partially destroy as a result of guilt, blame, and shame. On one hand, she wanted to return to her mother but feared what she would lose. By cutting her clothes, she thought that she would not be considered ready to go home. By cutting her clothes, she sent a message to her foster parents that she rejected their lifestyle that emphasized her mother’s incompetence and failure as a parent. By cutting her clothes, she punished herself for her anger and resentment toward both families. Cutting her clothes was her loudest cry for help that reflected her kinship dilemma (The Case of Rosie, 1988, personal communication).

It is important that those providing service to children in foster care do not ignore the significant, and often subtle, relationship to all aspects of behavior by all persons involved in the foster home placement experience.

The Educational Environment’s Contribution to the Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Maturation of Children in Foster Care

One of the greatest problems for children in foster care is inconsistency in education. In many instances, they have had poor attendance; have had little encouragement or opportunity to do homework; have not been inspired to read outside of the classroom; and, in fact, often may not have paper, pens, or books in their homes prior to their placement in foster care. When placed in foster care, they are often moved to a new school district where they may not be following the same curriculum. In addition to their adjustment to a new home, they may have left a familiar school where they have had good relationships with some adults and children and now are located in a completely new environment where their caseworker may be the person with whom they have had the longest relationship. Some children, who are moved from one foster home to another and experience this series of losses, withdraw, do not learn, become aggressive, or develop other behavior problems.

The school, however, could become a safe haven, where the child’s education and social development could both be served. In The Case of Andy (1970, personal communication), the school apparently focused on what he appeared to have learned or, rather, not learned and repeatedly retained him in the same situation. The basis of his failure to meet the demands of the classroom was not an inability to learn but the immobilization caused by his internal conflict and fears. While schools are not social agencies, they are becoming more aware of the increasing personal and social problems of their students. Federal and state laws provide mandates and assistance to schools to engage personnel to diagnose and provide educational treatment plans for students who appear to have physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Foster parents and caregivers, caseworkers, and other professionals who work with children in foster care should consider the child’s progress in school as a barometer of his or her adjustment to foster care as well as the other stresses in the child’s life and request that the school provide whatever evaluation and education treatment services that are available to all other students in the school. In addition to determining if there are serious learning disabilities, it is important that the school not also see the child in foster care as their “little guest.” As far as can be determined, there is a higher mobility rate in most schools now than in past decades (Fowler-Finn, 2001), so schools should be more prepared to introduce new students to a class, consider them a part of the class, and provide the full range of available services to them. While foster parents of children in foster care do not have the same custodial rights as parents of biological or adopted children, they should be given the opportunities to know the progress and needs of the children. The school should take pains to avoid any sign that the district, individual school, or personnel consider any child as not belonging. Foster parents should be encouraged to attend school functions, serve as class parents, and chaperone trips.

Duration of Foster Care Placements and the Impact on the Child

Although the goal of placement in foster care is spoken of as short term, some children spend a long span of their childhood in foster care placement. Additionally, some children live in kinship care for various periods. In both instances, these can be isolated placements or can be repeated on more than one occasion. It might be reasonable to separate a discussion of the needs of children in kinship care from those of children who live in foster homes with no biological parent. There is little research to support this. A goal of foster care is to provide a safe place where children can learn self-respect, trust, and good coping and decision-making abilities, and develop their knowledge and skills to become self-directed and productive members of the community. There are advantages to kinship care, including maintaining family bonds, but there can also be serious disadvantages, such as the resentment and anger that kin may hold against the biological parents.

This being said, the duration that a child is placed in some form of foster care will influence the intended outcome of the placement. If the placement is principally intended to provide a safe and stable home for the child as he or she awaits a permanent home, then the degree to which the child will be expected or be able to learn the knowledge and skills to become self-directed and productive will vary. If the placement is intended to begin to offer an opportunity for the child to gain greater self-respect, learn to trust, and develop good coping and decision-making abilities, while still anticipating a more permanent home, then no matter how long the child is intended to stay, the atmosphere and attitudes of the home should be the focus of the care and placement.

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway (2005), there were more than half a million children living in foster care as of September 30, 2003. Approximately half were in nonrelative foster homes, a quarter in relative foster homes, 19% in group homes or institutions, 5% in preadoptive homes, and 7% in other placements. The only significant change between 1998 and 2003 was a drop in the number of children in relative foster homes. In reporting data, the Child Welfare Information Gateway (2005) noted that the duration the child spent in foster care extended from 1 day to several years. Of the estimated 281,000 children who exited foster care during 2003, 18% had been in care for less than 1 month, 32% had been in care from 1 month to 11 months, 20% had been in care from 1 year to 23 months, 11% had been in care from 2 years to 35 months, 10% had been in care from 3 years to 47 months, and 9% had been in care for 5 or more years. At the end of 2003, 50% of all foster children who exited care had been in foster homes from 1 to 5, or more, years. During 2002, a median of 9.9% of children who entered foster care had previously been in care. Also in that year, approximately the same number of children entered foster care as exited. Therefore, the collection and reporting of these data influence the interpretation regarding the use and benefit of foster care placement. There exists little reported data to enable a good analysis of the effects of the foster care because various kinds of settings were identified as foster placements, the duration of placement extended from a day or two in the life of a child to at least 5 or more years of childhood or adolescence, and the discharge from foster care was not solely to a permanent family but could have been to independent living or even incarceration.

To a large extent, the impact of foster care on children will depend on the length of their placement in foster care, their exposure to varying lifestyles, beliefs, and attitudes, including those regarding their biological family, and their acceptance in the foster home, school, and community.

Clinical Research Implications

While there are many sources of statistics about the numbers of children in foster care, the history of how foster care has evolved in this country and in other areas of the world, and the amount of money spent on caring for children in need, there does not appear to be much clinical research that has focused particularly on the significance of children’s self-perception, self-esteem, and successful development based on the isolation they find when kinship ties are severed, supposedly “for their own good.” It is important to research the many facets of this situation not only to address directly the public policy and budgetary considerations but principally to find the forms of care that enable foster children to have satisfying and productive lives. It is also important that such research be done with safeguards for any children who are involved, so that the possibility for success in their future lives will not be jeopardized.

There are thousands of adults who are currently living in this country, who have experienced all forms of foster placements, and who may be willing to provide factual and recalled information that touches on their kinship ties with their biological families and the most significant factors that influenced the preservation or destruction of such ties. Anecdotal stories do, of course, suffer from distortions of memory, bias, time, and subjectivity, but repetitions of core recollections from multiple persons regarding the severance of kinship ties could provide valid information from which to assess the current movement toward permanency.

The 21st century has opened with a flourish of technological tools that should encourage and enrich the ability of social scientists to unravel the challenging question of the effect and value of severing kinship bonds for the benefits of permanency in family relationships. As health, education, and societal records expand and proliferate, the various factors that influence the lives of children will become more accessible. The ability to gather information at rapid speed from multiple sources will facilitate research that will begin to identify the complex events that interact to enable children, including those in foster care, to achieve satisfying and productive lives as good citizens. A constructive use of advanced research technology, for example, using the data that are already available, would study the concept of permanency as the primary means of ensuring a successful future for a child to determine if it is a clinically sound concept, a subtle way of reducing budgets, or a little of both.

No matter what tools are used, or what kind of data become available, however, the rights of children, their families, and foster families should be protected, because these tools can also be used to violate privacy, reach rapid but not necessarily true generalizations, and establish public policy that is mainly focused on budgetary concerns.

Best Practice Recommendations

When providing the most effective services to children in foster care, or deciding who potentially will move into a foster home, it is essential to understand the uniqueness of their family relationships. This is different for each child, so the general interviewing, assessment, and treatment skills that a good provider has honed should focus on identifying the elements of uniqueness, as well as similarity, that the child has with other children in placement situations and in general. In particular, however, those serving children in foster care should be aware that the children’s responses and behavior may reflect a struggle with personal identity, including and going beyond overt problems in school, home life, and the community. With children who are experiencing daily challenges in relationships, education, and/or behavior, it is often difficult to recognize that the resolution to the problem may occur once the child believes that he or she will not be abandoned by living in foster care.

Roger’s struggle and behavior were an excellent example of this. Roger was the child of a farmer who could not read or write. His mother was deceased and he was placed in foster care at age 5 because his father seriously neglected his care and safety. His foster parents were kind and affectionate, and they expected Roger to do well in school. Although they enrolled him in a learning center, provided a tutor, and asked for an evaluation for learning disabilities, and although Roger was cooperative, he could not learn to read. While his foster parents were good to him, they regularly compared his lack of achievement with his father’s limitations and worried aloud about his future ability to care for himself. His biological father, whom he saw infrequently, would say he wanted Roger to be a good son but would add that Roger was not like him and he could never provide for him as well as his son’s foster family.

The skilled psychologist who began to evaluate Roger listened to Roger tell his personal story about his reading problems. But he also heard within Roger’s descriptions of home life and academic disappointments that Roger was torn between loyalty to a father who wanted him as a son, but couldn’t cope with raising him, and foster parents who were able to provide for him but were repeatedly disappointed by his failure to learn. The message that Roger got from his father’s verbal and nonverbal cues was that if Roger became like his foster parents, there could no longer be a relationship with his father, who felt humiliated. The message that Roger got from his foster family was that he must be limited like his father and would never amount to anything. He was depressed, as might be expected, but that was not the cause of him not learning to read. The psychologist’s broad focus and knowledge of the struggles of children in foster care enabled him to determine that Roger could not read because he was afraid that skill in reading would permanently sever the kinship bond with his father, and regardless of the basically good permanent home he had with his foster parents, his greatest need was to maintain the kinship bond (The Case of Roger, 1994, personal communication).

Good practices when working with children in foster care include the following:

  • Working with the foster parents and family to raise their awareness of the many verbal and nonverbal impressions they give regarding their recognition, respect, and acceptance of the biological family, and helping them recognize that rejecting and disparaging impressions will undo the security that a permanent or long-term foster home may provide
  • Helping foster parents learn that respecting the biological family and giving a child in their care the gift of freedom to know and share thoughts and feelings about their biological family to the extent possible will be more important for the child’s successful future than most of the other things that they provide

Is the move for permanency, whether in a foster or similar setting or with the biological or extended family, the most important goal for each child? The question that must be considered for each child is whether permanency will lead to a good transition to adulthood and success in community relationships.

Reflection Questions

  1. Are verbal or nonverbal cues from other persons more important to a child in determining his or her value to these persons?
  2. If foster parents are kind, accepting, supportive, and generous to a child in their care, would that override their angry, rejecting, blaming, or demeaning language or behavior toward the child’s biological parents in influencing the child’s future accomplishments or behavior?
  3. What lessons can be learned from the historical treatment of children regarding foster care that would ensure that children under care in the future will feel that they are part of the community and will want to succeed?
  4. Most federal and state policies regarding foster placement and the rights and obligations of biological and foster parents seem focused on establishing permanency in a home for a child. What critical factors should law and policymakers consider when establishing laws or policies regarding the termination of parental rights, the time period in which a child may remain in foster care, the effect of dispersing the children of one family to more than one home, the kinds of services needed to facilitate positive permanent placements, and their long-range economic impact?
  5. Historically, one of the main efforts to care for children who need to live apart from their homes has been to physically remove them, either to other places in the country or to relatively inaccessible residences where they either never or rarely see their biological parents and kin. What message would the child receive by this single reaction to his or her needs or circumstances?
  6. What should social service providers, lawmakers, and policymakers learn from the national passion and fascination of the past quarter century in finding one’s “roots”?
  7. Why would a child whose parents abused, neglected, abandoned, or mistreated him or her not want to find another permanent home?
  8. Would a child who is secure in a permanent placement also be likely to have higher self-esteem, achieve well in life tasks, and become a safe and productive citizen?