Key findings from this study address multiple aspects of foster parent utilization and retention:
- Length of service in foster parenting is shorter than many managers recognize. The median length of service of 8 to 14 months estimated with a longitudinal model for these states is a distinct contrast to the mean time in foster parenting of 5 to 8 years reported in earlier studies based on cross sectional samples. In the three states studied, between 47 and 62 percent of foster parents exited foster parenting within a year of the first placement in their home.
- Foster parent “burn-out” cannot be identified as a factor in length of service. A working hypothesis at the outset of this study was that foster parents exit the system after being exhausted by caring for high numbers of children, as well as the demands of the children in their care. This theory was not supported by the data. Instead, higher foster home occupancy and higher levels of care for infants, adolescents, and children with special needs were consistently associated with greater length of service.
- One-fifth of the foster parent population provides 60 to 80 percent of all foster care. Across the three states, a relatively small group carries much of the work of the foster care system. These foster parents may represent a core group of active and experienced foster parents, with whom child welfare workers feel most confident placing children.
Readers should note two important limitations of these analyses. First, the experiences of three states cannot be generalized to other states. Second, these analyses, while describing length of service and associated foster parent characteristics, provide little insight as to why foster parents stay or leave. However, these analyses extend previous research by providing unbiased estimates of length of service for foster parents, as well as a more detailed picture of the characteristics associated with varying length of service.