Thesis: Developmental Effects of Foster Care on Children

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Developmental Effects of Foster Care on Children

The importance of a nurturing environment for young children and adolescents alike has been well documented, and one of the most important elements in this environmental mix is the presence of caring and capable parents. One of the unfortunate consequences of the human condition, though, is the fact that many children experience the loss of one or both parents for various reasons, including death, divorce, incarceration, or other legally imposed separation. The impact on such parental loss has also received a great deal of attention in the literature, but less attention perhaps has been directed to the developmental effects of foster care placement on children of different ages in the United States today. To this end, this paper examines the differences and similarities of children of all ages who have been placed in foster care compared to those who have never experienced foster care placement and the resulting developmental impact of foster care on this subpopulation of all children in the United States today. A summary of the research and salient findings are presented in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Childhood and adolescence can represent a turbulent and challenging period in any young person's life, but when their lives are complicated by the adverse impacts of a violent or abusive home environment, or when they experience the loss of one or both parents for whatever reason, these young people can experience some developmental problems that will require an informed and caring approach to resolve. It is widely acknowledged in the scholarly literature that childhood experiences are precursors and even causative factors, for psychological dysfunctions that tend to emerge later in life. In addition, a wide range of personality theories and views on the development of psychopathologies have been formulated that are based on the specific concept that early traumatic life experiences can have profound effects on the developmental process (Brown & Rhodes, 1991).

In many cases, the decision to remove a child or children from the care of their parents involves some difficult decisions on the part of law enforcement and social work authorities because the impact of such forcible separations can have an enormously traumatic effect on the parents, of course, but the effects on the young people involved can have even more pronounced effects. When the safety and welfare of a child is in question due to sexual abuse or other violence, the decision is made somewhat more straightforward, but in other cases where parents have failed to live up to their responsibilities and are considered neglectful, the reasons for such failures may be much more complex. According to Booth and Crouter (2001), governmental authorities typically limit their interventions in such cases based on the principle that because children are under the jurisdiction of their parents, the state should not interfere, but instead play a protective or supportive role. These authors note that, "Until recently, the state would intervene in family life only in instances of demonstrable and egregious failure to meet the basic needs of youth, resulting in foster care, child protection, and juvenile justice activities, or in the case of certifiable need, through the welfare system" (p. 193).

More recently, though, there has a growing consensus that public policy and institutions can provide an important role in supporting parents as they seek to raise their children appropriately (Booth & Crouter). As Booth and Crouter add, "This is evidenced in the creation of community-based, family support centers, a growing investment in developmental child care programs like Early Start and Head Start, and an increase in child rearing programs and interventions for parents in high risk categories (such as teen parents)" (p. 193). Notwithstanding these trends in the provision of support services to parents rather than forcible separation through foster care placement, many children in the United States continue to be placed in foster care simply because other viable alternatives do not exist or based on the child's unique needs and circumstances. Unfortunately, many of the children entering the foster care system have significant developmental needs that may or may not be adequately address. For example, Massinga and Pecora (2004) report that, "The different modes of entry into foster care in terms of child age and patterns of stay have implications for the developmental needs and outcomes of older youths" (p. 150).

There are some distinct patterns involved in foster care placement in the United States as well that can help identify the wide range of developmental issues involved. For instance, appropriately 38% of children are aged 5 years old or younger when they are first placed in foster care; in addition, approximately 29% of children who are placed (or placed repeatedly) in foster care settings are between 11 and 15 years; yet another 11% are aged between 16 and 18 years (Massinga & Pecora). These respective foster care placement rates are shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Percent of foster care placements in the Untied States by age group.

Source: Based on textual data in Massinga and Pecora at p. 151.

One of the foremost issues that quickly emerge from a review of the relevant literature is the need for any such foster care placements to be a stable environment, and where appropriate, long-term. Although some of these older children in foster care placements are subsequently reunified with their natural families or are adopted, many continue to remain in the foster care system until they attain their majority (Massinga & Pecora). In this regard, a study by Hislop, Wulczyn and Goerge (2000) identified some mixed trends, with foster care placements of a year or more being increasingly commonplace in the United States. According to the findings presented by Hislop and his colleagues, approximately 36% of children in foster care in 2001 had been in such placements less than a year; however, almost three-quarters (74%) had been the foster care setting for a year or more. Children leaving the foster care system were about equally mixed, with approximately half having been in foster care for less than one year and half having been in care for one year or more (Hislop et al.). Finally, almost a third (30%) of the children in the Hislop et al. study had been in foster care for 2 years at least. As Massinga and Pecora emphasize, though, "No matter what the length of stay, after a safe home environment has been established, the developmental needs of children should become the priority for families, caseworkers, and the supporting cast of helpers" (p. 151).

Indeed, when studies have shown that when children are removed from unhealthy, violent and abusive home environments and placed in caring and nurturing foster care homes, the outcomes can be highly positive. In this regard, Smith and Fong (2004) report that, "When efforts to keep the family together are unsuccessful, children may be placed in out-of-home living situations. In regard to foster care, approximately 171,000 child victims were placed in foster care; and 49,000 who were not victims (maltreatment was unsubstantiated) were also placed out of home" (p. 179). Just over 20% (21.2%) of the children who were placed in foster care had previously been in receipt of family preservation services, and approximately one in 20 had been placed and subsequently reunified with their biological families (Smith & Fong). According to these authors, "The largest percentages of children being placed in foster care were 11-15 years old. Most states reunified children with their families in a timely manner, reunification occurring within 12 months of placement. However, there was a high correlation between early reunification and reentries into foster care within 12 months after reunification, which raises concerns about the rush to reunify" (Smith & Fong, p. 179).

The majority of the states in the U.S. have been able to restrict the use of foster care settings within the first 12 months of placement; the percentage of placement moves experienced by children tends to increase with the time spent in foster care, though (Smith & Fong). In sum, these authors note that, "On average 25% of children are placed in adoptive homes within 2 years of foster care placement. The 2000 figures are as follows: 20.5% of victims and 3.5% of nonvictims were placed out of their homes. In all, approximately 250,000 children were removed from their families" (Smith & Fong, p. 179).

While there remains a paucity of timely studies concerning the developmental impact of single long-term foster care placement on children, the studies to date have provided some positive results. For example, Barth and Berry (1987) determined that foster care increased child well-being for those children placed in foster care compared to children who were reunified with their families; these researchers also found that out-of-home placement has developmental advantages for children and is appropriate if such placements were permanent. In some cases, foster care arrangements can become complicated as young people attain their majority and are aged out of the foster care system; however, disassociation with the formal foster care system… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Developmental Effects of Foster Care on Children.  (2008, December 1).  Retrieved May 25, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/developmental-effects-foster-care-children/692778

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"Developmental Effects of Foster Care on Children."  Essaytown.com.  December 1, 2008.  Accessed May 25, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/developmental-effects-foster-care-children/692778.