Understanding Foster Parenting: Using Administrative Data to Explore Retention. Foster Parents' Experiences


Interactions with the child welfare agency were the most commonly cited factors affecting foster parent retention. In the National Survey of Current and Former Foster Parents, agency-related issues, including unsatisfactory interactions with workers and agency insensitivity, were cited as a reason for quitting by 37 percent of former foster parents and 62 percent of those intending to stop foster parenting. While former foster parents also cited the lack of services as an issue, an analysis of data from this survey found that reported service needs did not vary significantly among current foster parents, former foster parents, and those intending to quit (Rhodes, Orme, and Buehler, 2001). It appears that the level of concern about service needs, rather than the actual service needs, is related to foster parent status.

Former foster parents were three times more likely to be dissatisfied with a child's caseworker than current foster parents (DHHS, 1989). Foster parents who intended to leave were more likely than continuing foster parents to report that workers did not communicate expectations clearly and treated foster parents as if they were in need of help themselves (Rindfleisch, Bean, and Denby, 1998; Denby, Rindfleisch, and Bean, 1999). Problematic interactions with child welfare agencies also include those surrounding allegations of abuse or neglect, and interactions with agency red tape (Rindfleisch, Bean, and Denby, 1998).

Dealing with difficult behaviors among foster children was the most frequently cited challenge of foster parenting among those interviewed in a Nashville-area study (Martin, Altemeier, Hickson, Davis, and Glascoe, 1992). Child-related problems were cited as a reason for quitting by 24 percent of former foster parents (DHHS, 1989), and were also associated with both satisfaction and intent to continue foster parenting (Denby, Rindfleisch, and Bean, 1999). Other stresses surrounding the relationship with the foster child included the difficulty of seeing children return to birth parents, interactions with birth parents, and having no say in the child's future (Martin et al., 1992; DHHS, 1989; Rhodes, Orme, and Buehler, 2001; Hornby, 1985).

Experiences with both pre- and post-licensure training appear to affect foster parent satisfaction and retention. Using data from a longitudinal study designed to examine the impact of preservice training, Fees et al. (1998) found that foster mothers who described the training as useful were more likely to find satisfaction in the role demands of foster parenting. Boyd and Remy (1979) found a significant association between training and license retention. Examining different groups of foster parents within their study population, they found that the effect of training was strongest for foster parents who are less assertive and involved in community activism. Compared to current foster parents, former foster parents and those planning to quit were less likely to report having received adequate training, particularly related to dealing with teens and children with special needs (Rhodes, Orme, and Buehler, 2001). The data used do not allow investigation of whether exiting foster parents actually received training of lower quality or whether negative feelings about foster care experiences influenced foster parents' assessment of the training.

Personal crises or changes in the foster parents' circumstances may precipitate exit from foster care. Issues such as age, foster parents' health, and marital crises were cited by 29 percent of former foster parents in the National Survey of Current and Former Foster Parents (DHHS, 1989). Data from the same survey showed that 28 percent of former foster parents, and 18 percent of those planning to quit, reported doing so because they planned to adopt (Rhodes, Orme, and Buehler, 2001). Foster parents who cited wanting to adopt but having been unable to do so as a motivation for becoming foster parents were more than twice as likely to leave foster parenting than other foster parents, possibly because they had adopted foster children (Rindfleisch, Bean, and Denby, 1998).

Low levels of financial support for foster parenting were cited as a reason for quitting by 8 percent of former foster parents and 27 percent of those planning to quit (Rhodes, Orme, and Buehler, 2001). In the same study, former foster parents were more likely than current foster parents to report that they could not afford the cost of caring for the child most recently in their care (DHHS, 1989). In an Oregon demonstration project in which foster parents were randomly assigned to receive enhanced subsidies and services, enhanced subsidy only, or standard treatment only, participants receiving additional stipends and supports had a dropout rate that was two-thirds less than that of the control group over a 2-year period (Chamberlain, Moreland, and Reid, 1992).

Foster care board rates may affect the supply of foster homes if foster parents find that the cost of providing for children's needs exceeds the available support (Simon, 1975). An analysis of data from the 1980 Survey of Foster Parents in Eight States found that adjusted foster care board rates predicted whether licensed foster parents had any children in their homes (Campbell and Downs, 1987). However, the adjusted board rate did not predict the number of children cared for in those homes that provided care.

The fact that licensed foster parents may not be actually providing foster care, as suggested by the study above, suggests another dimension in assessing the supply of foster home care, that of home utilization. The National Survey of Current and Former Foster Parents found that 35 percent of licensed foster homes surveyed had no children in the home at the time of the survey  these homes were more likely to be nonurban and white (DHHS, 1989). An assessment of foster parent recruitment suggested that general campaigns bring in homes that are unwilling or unable to care for the children who are most likely to be in care (DHHS-OIG, 2002). While these homes may still be licensed, the foster parents have in effect discontinued foster parenting. At the other end of the spectrum, Martin et al. (1992) found that 23 percent of the foster parents interviewed cared for half of the children in care in the participating homes.

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