Foster homes are a critical resource within the child welfare system. In recent years, adoptions from foster care have increased dramatically, as has the use of relative caregivers for children in out-of-home care. Nevertheless, more than 260,000 children were in non-relative foster care at the end of FY 2001 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 2003).
In addition to maintaining sufficient licensed foster homes to house the children in care, child welfare agencies are challenged to provide foster care in placements that are stable, can accommodate sibling groups, and are located in proximity to family members (DHHS, 2000a). The increase in adoptions from foster care from 37,000 in 1998 to 53,000 in 2002 creates an additional potential strain on foster home resources. Because the majority of adoptions are by foster parents, these homes may become less available as foster homes, following one or more adoptions. During the years for which national data are available, the percent of children who are adopted by their foster parents has ranged from 65 percent in 1998 to 59 percent in 2001 (DHHS, 2000; DHHS, 2001; DHHS, 2002; DHHS, 2003).
Foster parents thus play a central role within the child welfare system, both as resources in providing care that meets increasingly demanding criteria and as the primary resource for adoptive children. However, research on foster parent retention is surprisingly slender. Research related to foster parent retention typically describes the characteristics and experiences of foster parents based on their status (current or former foster parents) or their stated intention (to continue or cease foster parenting). Little is known, however, about the length of time actually served by foster parents and the characteristics that distinguish those with varying lengths of service.
The remainder of this section describes the objectives of this project and provides background information from previous research on foster parenting. Section 2 describes the administrative data and the methods for descriptive and multivariate analyses. Section 3 describes foster home characteristics and utilization, and Section 4 presents analyses of length of service for foster parents. Finally, Section 5 summarizes these findings and presents conclusions.
This study was designed to extend current understanding of foster parent retention by producing unbiased estimates of length of service and examining factors associated with licensure, provision of care, and length of service. Principal research questions include
- How have the characteristics of foster parents changed over time?
- How can variations in activity levels be described, and what foster parent characteristics are associated with varying activity levels?
- What is the typical length of service for foster parents?
- What characteristics are associated with variations in length of foster parent careers?
An intermediate objective is to test the feasibility of using administrative data to describe foster parents, applying data management and analytic methods that have been used to describe the experience of children in foster care, including their length of stay (Wulczyn, 1996; Usher, Wildfire, and Gibbs, 1999).
Factors Associated with Foster Parent Retention
Three studies represent much of the recent research on foster parent retention. The National Survey of Current and Former Foster Parents, conducted in 1991, used a nationally representative sample to select more than 1,000 current and foster parents for interviews (DHHS, 1989). Data from this survey were the basis for more extensive descriptive analyses by Rhodes and colleagues (Rhodes, Orme and Buehler, 2001). In the second study, researchers at Ohio State University collected data from 539 current and 265 former foster parents in eight urban counties, using logistic regression to identify factors that distinguish ongoing from former foster parents (Rindfleisch, Bean and Denby, 1998) and predict intent to continue foster parenting (Denby, Rindfleisch and Bean, 1999). In addition, a recent assessment by the Office of the Inspector General conducted both interviews with child welfare managers and focus groups with foster parents on issues affecting foster parents (DHHS, Office of the Inspector General [OIG], 2002). These three studies, and other less comprehensive ones, yield fairly consistent findings on factors that influence foster parent retention.
Measures used in these studies include willingness to continue foster parenting, intention to continue or not, and satisfaction with foster parenting, which has been shown to be associated with intention to continue (Denby, Rindfleisch, and Bean, 1999). Determinants of continued foster parenting can be categorized in terms of foster parents'experiences (i.e., interactions with child welfare agencies and with foster children) and their demographic and socioeconomic characteristics.