Understanding Foster Parenting: Using Administrative Data to Explore Retention. Summary and Conclusions


Although the three states examined here are diverse in many ways, several consistent patterns in foster parent dynamics, utilization, and length of service are seen in these analyses. Licensing datain Oklahoma and Oregon show consistently high rates of foster parent turnover in both states;at least one in five foster homes exited the system each year. Ongoing attrition of foster parents creates enormous demands on systems that must recruit and train sufficient numbers of new foster parents to maintain and even expand the number of available homes.

Patterns of foster care provision varied across sites, but some clear trends were evident. Regardless of their characteristics, foster homes had, on average, between one and two children in the home at a time. In general, homes with nonwhite foster parents, those in rural or nonmetropolitan counties, and those with two parents cared for more children at a time and had higher rates of placement turnover. Foster parents caring for infants were typically younger, urban, and in two-parent homes, whereas those caring for adolescents were likely to be older, rural, and in single-parent homes. Across the three states, one-fifth of the foster parent population provided between 60 and 72 percent of all days of foster care.

Median length of service in foster parenting ranged from 8 to 14 months across the three states, suggesting that many children's placements in foster care are longer than the typical foster parent career. Multivariate models showed that foster parents with greater length of service are likely to be older, live in a metropolitan area, and be engaged in more intense foster parenting activity, as indicated by higher occupancy rates and care for infants, adolescents, and children with special needs. In contrast to earlier research, higher income was associated with longer length of service among Oregon foster parents; it is not possible to tell whether this is a distinct pattern for that state or a result of different methodologies. Whereas earlier research found longer tenure among black foster parents, this study found no significant associations between length of service and race after controlling for other variables.

Key findings from this study address multiple aspects of the dynamics of foster parent utilization and retention:

  • Length of service in foster parenting is shorter than many managers would expect. As with analyses of children's length of stay in foster care, estimates of foster parents' length of service based on longitudinal methods may be surprisingly short. Cross-sectional samples and anecdotal data are both likely to overrepresent the long-term foster parent, who is disproportionately likely to be present when a survey is mailed, a focus group convened, or statistics compiled from rosters. Estimated with a longitudinal model, the median length of service of 8 to 14 monthsfor these states is a distinct contrast to the mean time in foster parenting of 5 to 8 years reported in the studies described in Section 1 (Martin et al., 1992; Rindfleisch, Bean, and Denby, 1998). In the three states studied, between 47 and 62 percent of foster parents exit 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 high levels of placements in their homes and the demands of children in their care. This theory was not supported by the data. Higher foster home occupancy and higher levels of care for infants, adolescents, and children with special needs were consistently associated with greater lengths 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 are similar to those described by Martin et al. (1992), who found that 23 percent of foster parents interviewed cared for half the children in care at the time. These foster parents may represent a core group of active and experienced foster parents. Because they are willing to accept a variety of placements, and because their long tenure equips them with practical expertise in caring for the children in need of placements, child welfare workers are likely to feel confident placing children in these homes, therefore, these homes carry a major portion of the workload.

Readers should note some important limitations of these analyses. First, the experiences of three states cannot be generalized to other groups of foster parents. Our analyses identified some consistencies among states, such as the uneven distribution of the foster parenting workload and increased length of service among foster parents who are over age 30, located in a metropolitan area, and caring for more children at a time. However, findings varied sharply among states for many key measures, such as the median length of service. It is not possible, based on analyses with three states, to speculate about which patterns may be more typical of foster parents in general.

A second limitation is that these analyses, while describing length of service and associated foster parent characteristics, provide little insight regardingwhy foster parents stay or leave. Rather, they offer a useful counterpoint to the research described in Section 1.2 on how foster parents' perceptions and experiences influence their decision to continue foster parenting.

A final limitation is that these analyses focus on associations between foster parent characteristics and the number and types of children cared for. However, child placements ultimately rest on child welfare workers' decisions, as well as foster parent preferences. These dynamics are likely to be far more subtle than can be revealed by examination of administrative data.

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. Further analyses in other states might build on these analyses to incorporate data elements such as foster parent training and foster care board rates.

For individual foster parents, the decision to continue or leave foster parenting is no doubt influenced by experiences with child welfare agencies and foster children and personal circumstances, as described in Section 1. Though longevity is of course not the only goal for foster parents, preventing the unnecessary loss of qualifiedfoster parents would significantly enhance child welfare systems' ability to enhance the safety, permanency, and well-being for children in their care. Better understanding of foster parent length of service and service dynamics is an essential first step toward achievement of this goal.

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