Understanding Foster Parenting: Using Administrative Data to Explore Retention. Foster Parents' Length of Service


Across the three states studied, the typical length of service in foster parenting was less than many children's stay in foster care. Median length of service was approximately 8 months in both New Mexico and Oregon, and approximately 14 months in Oklahoma. By comparison, the median length of stay for a child entering foster care was 5 months in Oregon; the 75th percentile was 18 months (D. Webster, personal communication, September 30, 2004). Although children's episodes of care may include planned placement changes, children whose stay in foster care is greater than the median length of foster parenting service are at risk of disruptions due to foster parent exits.

Table 4-1 shows that more than one-quarter of Oklahoma foster parents care for children for less than 6 months, with only one-third remaining in service more than 2 years. New Mexico and Oregon show even shorter lengths of service, with only one-fifth of homes remaining in service more than 2 years. As noted in Section 2, the dependent variable for these analyses is the length of the first episode of active foster parenting, rather than length of licensure.

Table 4-1.
Summary of Foster Parent Length of Service by State
  New Mexico
(n = 662)
(n = 2,833)
(n = 11,947)
Median length of service (days) 251 410 237
Percent remaining after
30 days 86 95 89
180 days 59 72 58
360 days 40 53 38
720 days 20 32 19
1,440 days a 14 8
NOTE:  a Unable to estimate due to inadequate follow-up time.

Bivariate analyses were used to describe length of service in terms of foster parent characteristics and the characteristics of children in foster care. Table 4-2 shows contrasting patterns across the three states in the relationship between length of service and foster parent license type, age, and race. For all three states, foster parents in urban or metropolitan areas had longer lengths of service than those in rural or nonmetropolitanareas, and two-parent homes had longer lengths of service than single-parent homes. Length of service in Oregon was shorter in homes in which all foster parents worked full time and in homes in which all foster parents were home full time. This may reflect lack of time and the demands of rearing the foster parents' own children in the former case, and greater age in the latter case. Length of service was slightly higher for foster parents with greater than the median income than those at or below the median income.

Table 4-2.
Length of Service by Foster Home Characteristics
Characteristic Median Length of Service (Days)
New Mexico
(n = 662)
(n = 2,833)
(n = 11,947)
All foster homes 251 410 237
License type
Foster-adoptive 384 267
Regular foster care 143 488 312
Restricted foster care 291 179
Therapeutic foster care 386
At least one foster parent aged > 18 and < 30 years 251 346 219
All foster parents between 30 and 55 years 245 414 244
At least one foster parent over age 55 253 501 220
At least one foster parent Native American 431 184
At least one foster parent black 349 275
All foster parents white 422 240
Urban/Metropolitan 287 422 250
Rural/Nonmetropolitan 230 407 213
Foster home composition
Single parent 183 386 206
Two parents 294 419 247
Employment status
All foster parents work full time 235
One foster parent at home 273
All foster parents home full time 239
Foster home income
Less than or equal to median income for year 257
Greater than median income for year 264

Table 4-3 shows more consistent relationships across states between length of service and the characteristics of foster care provided. For New Mexico and Oregon, higher occupancy rates were associated with longer length of service.(4)  Length of service patterns related to occupancy levels in Oklahoma were inconsistent. Foster parents who provided care for some infants, adolescents, or children with special needs had longer lengths of service than those who cared for no such children or those who cared exclusively for these children. Because the new placement rate is highly sensitive to variations in length of service, as discussed in Section 2.2, this measure was not used for these analyses.

Table 4-3.
Length of Service by Placement Characteristics
  Median Length of Service (Days)
New Mexico
(n = 662)
(n = 2,833)
(n = 11,947)
Occupancy rate quartiles
Occupancy rate 1st quartile 234 247
Occupancy rate 2nd quartile 160 539
Occupancy rate 3rd quartile 327 474
Occupancy rate 4th quartile 379 841
Occupancy rate
Occupancy rate < 1 164
Occupancy rate > 1 and < 2 339
Occupancy rate > 2 740
Percent of placements that were infants
0 182 299 203
Between 0 and 100 561 819 661
100 64 362 217
Percent of placements that were adolescents
0 179 350 221
Between 0 and 100 492 736 711
100 102 265 152
Percent of placements that had special needs
0 178 327
Between 0 and 100 563 734
100 166 215

While it might be expected that caring for infants, adolescents, and children with special needs would be particularly demanding, these child characteristics do not appear to influence foster parents' length of service, except to the extent that homes caring exclusively for these children also have shorter lengths of stay. These findings suggest that the relationship between foster parents' length of service and the types of children cared for is not a simple one.

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