The following study examines the instability of placement disruption and caregiver characteristics and the influences of such factors on a foster child’s attachment needs. Research has shown that foster children who do not have their attachment needs met in early childhood are more likely to have emotional development problems and demonstrate behavioral problems. Several existing publications and studies were analyzed for evidence of the predictability of such problems.
The Impact of Attachment Needs on the Development of Foster Children
There is evidence of a wide range of developmental and behavioral problems associated with children in foster homes. Arguments vary as to what factors of foster care contribute the most negatively to a foster child’s growth. One factor which stands out is the inability for a foster child to have an attachment to any one person for any extended period of time, which is vital; especially during early childhood.
In 2002, approximately 543 thousand children were in foster care; the majority of these children are African American and more than one-quarter of all foster children are under the age of five (Allen and Bissell, 2004).
This study focuses on two specific variables which cause a child to be denied his or her attachment needs; placement disruption and instability, and caregiver characteristics. Placement disruption and instability considers the amount of time a child is placed in different homes and the effect it has on a child’s attachment needs. The caregivers of foster children, for the purpose of this study, are either related or unrelated.
The aim of this study is to prove that meeting the attachment needs of a child are essential for successful development and it is necessary to address placement disruption and the needs of caregivers in order for foster children to develop emotionally and avoid problem behaviors.
This study was based on the theory that infancy and early childhood is a time when a child’s attachment needs are crucial and must be met by a stable home environment where the parent meets the physical and emotional needs of the child. Foster children who enter foster care as infants or young children often are not having their attachment needs met; as will be discussed further in the literature review.
The researcher chose to focus the hypothesis on children under the age of ten to better understand the necessity of early childhood attachment. The two variables considered were placement disruption and instability and the characteristics of related and unrelated caregivers. For the purpose of clarity, placement disruption and instability will be used interchangeably, unless otherwise noted.
Based on existing literature, the researcher investigated expert opinions and studies on the degree of influence placement disruption and caregiver characteristics had on the attachment needs of a foster child and the effect of inadequate attachment on a child’s development. Literature that was not primarily concerned with the above mentioned variables was disregarded for this study. The chosen literature was then analyzed for the most consistent and reliable data. The degree of attachment between the number of placements and the type of caregiver were analyzed for which were most detrimental and to what age group.
The following is a list of definitions that may be helpful to the reader while reviewing the following study; as it pertains to foster care.
Attachment. Attachment describes the feeling of having one’s needs met by their parental figure, whether it be a parent, relative or unrelated caregiver. This attachment creates a bond between child and parental figure which gives a child a sense of stability and safety which is crucial for positive self-growth.
Caregiver. A caregiver, as referred to in this study, is the person responsible for a foster child. The caregiver can be a relative or an unrelated person in which the child lives with. The child’s needs both physical and emotional; are expected to be met by the caregiver.
Caregiver Characteristics. A caregiver’s characteristics are certain factors which influence a foster child’s development; such characteristics include; socioeconomic status, education, age and marital status.
Child Welfare Agency. Every state in the United States has child welfare agencies which are responsible for the placement, welfare and continued wellbeing of foster children. These agencies follow state and federal rules and regulations concerning foster care.
Disruption. Disruption describes the act of removing a foster child from his or her foster home for any number of reasons and then placing them with another family or group home.
Placement. Placement occurs when a child welfare agency places a foster child in a foster home.
This chapter is a review of relevant existing literature and studies concerning the placement disruptions, instability and caregiver characteristics which influence the attachment needs of foster children.
Children in foster care are more likely than those who are not, to experience physical and emotional developmental problems; such as health problems and a delay in cognitive development which leads to lower academic achievement (Bass, et.al. 2004). Socially, foster children have been found “to have higher rates of depression, poorer social skills, lower adaptive functioning, and more externalizing behavioral problems, such as aggression and impulsivity” (Harden, p.4, 2004). Placement stability in foster care has been shown to be extremely influential in reducing the occurrence of developmental problems. Research has indicated that “one-third to two-thirds of foster care placements are disrupted within the first two years” (p.4).
McMahon (2005) discussed the importance of stability when placing foster children; while recognizing the reality that disruption after placement is common and in some cases necessary. Disruption may be necessary if the home is unstable and failing to meet the child’s needs (2005). McMahon (2005) however believes that if the home is stable, “yet failing to meet the child’s needs, agencies should make every attempt to meet that child’s needs within the context of that placement,” rather than disrupting the placement (para.2). Foster care disruption is harmful to the child developmentally regardless of the reasons for the move (2005). The impact of placement disruption can be severe for a child’s development, McMahon writes;
There seems to be a link between foster care placement instability and poor developmental outcomes. However, we do not know enough yet to say whether children’s existing developmental delays contribute to multiple placements, whether these delays are a consequence of multiple placements, or some combination of the two (as cited in McMahon, par.4 2005).
Some researchers consider that with every placement change a child loses approximately one developmental (and academic) year (2005). This theoretical framework, contributed by Nancy Carter (cited in McMahon, 2005), would consider the following scenario an example of her theory.
A twelve year old foster child who has been moved to six different homes by a child welfare agency, according to Carter’s theory, would “emotionally and behaviorally” act like a six year old (McMahon, 2005).
McMahon (2005) discusses that while Carter does have some data to back her theory, there is not sufficient empirical data to consider this theory prevalent. One study discussed by McMahon (2005) demonstrates the lack of empirical data for the theory that developmental progress slows drastically for every time a foster child’s placement is disrupted. The results of the National Study of Child and Adolescent Well-being (2005) found that of the 726 foster children studied, foster children “were behind in their cognitive and social development when compared with other children, but not to the extent Carter’s framework would suggest” (par.7, 2005).
Research has shown that there are developmental and behavioral problems associated with placement disruption and caregiver characteristics; however the extent of the predicable problem behaviors and what factors are most influential is not well known by researchers. The vast differences of emotions felt by foster children before, during and after foster care vary greatly. The number of placements, according to one large study, “could be used to predict behavioral problems seventeen months” after a child enters foster care (McMahon, par.9, 2005). Behavior problems such as “aggression, coping difficulties, poor home adjustment, and low self-concept” can be attributed to placement instability (par.9. 2005).
Many foster children are lacking the emotional bond that develops between a parent and child. The “key to healthy child development” is the attachment or emotional bond between the foster child and his or her primary caregiver (McMahon, par.10, 2005). As with non-foster families, the emotional bonds, stability and parental influences can shape a child’s behavior. Consistent disruption of placement for a foster child can cause attachment problems (2005). A study conducted by Troutman (et.al,n.d.) is in agreement with McMahon (2005); Troutman (et.al) stated that;
…out-of-home placement is typically associated with numerous disruptions in attachment relationships. These losses and lack of permanence undermine a child’s attempt to form a secure attachment with a primary caregiver (p.1, n.d.).
Children experiencing attachment problems, especially young children, can develop Reactive Attachment Disorder of Infancy or Early Childhood (Troutman, et. al., n.d.) in which they exhibit severe disturbances within the relationship between themselves and their caregiver. Infants associate their primary caregivers as their “attachment figures” because the caregiver addresses their emotional and physical needs (Troutman, et.al). If an infant who has made this association is then reunified with his parents or adopted, this attachment disruption could have detrimental effects; even more so if the child experiences other placement disturbances during early childhood.
Federal law has become aware of the importance of attachment between parent and child; more specifically, mother and child, when concerning an infant. New programs have been established that will allow the mother to stay with the child even if there are difficulties, such as drug use, as long as the mother and child are in a treatment center or incarceration center (Troutman, et.al., n.d.). Other strategies involve allowing the mother to be involved with the temporary caregiver so that the child will maintain attachment to the mother before and after being in foster care (n.d.).
Insecure Infant-Caregiver Attachment. Emotional and interpersonal difficulties may be expected if the foster child’s physical needs are being met by the caregiver but not his emotional needs (Troutman, et.al., n.d.). As previously discussed, an infant needs emotional attachment and if not achieved, detrimental long term effects can occur. Toddlers that experience trauma such as “neglect, abuse, and/or unresponsive care” will need much more responsive care once removed from the foster home and placed elsewhere (Troutman, et.al.).
Group foster homes offer little in the way of individual relationships that provide feelings of attachment between child and caregiver. Group homes can have limited staff and a high turn around, which means the child will not have a chance to feel close to any one person for a significant amount of time (Troutman, et.al.).
The long-term consequences for placement disruption were studied by Pecora (et. al., 2005) who used a sample of 659 young adults who were former foster children. Among the total number of participants, more than half had at least one form of mental health problems. Overall, the data collected demonstrated that foster children, once out of the system had difficulty succeeding socially compared to the general population. Post-foster children were much less likely to pursue a college degree after high school; only two percent of the overall participants had a bachelor’s degree, compared to twenty-four percent of the general population (2005). Unemployment rates were found to be much higher, fifteen percent higher, in the adults formerly in foster care than in the general population. Thirty three percent of adult foster children were living at or below the United States poverty level and had no health insurance, and twenty-two percent of the total participants had been homeless at least one night since entering adulthood (McMahon, 2005). Pecora (2005) and his fellow researchers concluded that many of these negative outcomes could be eliminated or reduced by increasing the stability of foster care placements.
The length of time in foster care can indicate the number of placements a child will have. As McMahon (2005) indicated in his report;
…between thirty-three percent and sixty-six percent of placements disrupt within the first two years (Harden, 2004). In fiscal year 2002, seventy-three percent of the children in the U.S. who were in care longer than four years had three or more placements (as cited in McMahon, sect. 2, 2005).
As of 2002, approximately eighty-seven percent of foster children experienced placement disruption two times or less (2005).
National Resource Center for Foster Care and Permanency Planning (2004) reported on the most common reasons for placement disruption. The most common obstacles to placement stability are:
· Insufficient support for foster parents by the representing child welfare agency.
· A lack of foster homes.
· Child welfare agencies making use of emergency shelters and temporary placements as initial placements and after the occurrence of disruption, adding to the number of disruptions that a foster child must experience.
· Inappropriate “placement options for children with developmental disabilities or behavioral problems”; resulting in a lack of specialized placements.
Family Factors. The foster family can sometimes be the cause of disruption. According to Schofield (2003), cases of disruption can arise when a foster parent(s) rejects the foster child or dislikes him, or if the foster parent(s) feel that the child may have a negative impact of the rest of the family (Schofield, 2003). Sometimes the disruption can occur due to a stressful event taking place in the foster family before or during placement (2003). At times, the child welfare agency may feel that the family is not adequately providing for the foster child, financially, emotionally, physically etc. and may decide to remove the child from the home (2003).
The foster child’s age or traits may have an effect on the likelihood of disruption (Schofield, 2003). The most likely age group for unstable placement is between the ages of thirteen and fifteen years old; as well as “children with severe emotional or behavioral problems” (McMahon, 2005).
Positive Placement Factors
To increase the likelihood of a positive placement for a foster child there are several strategies that according to McMahon (2005). As mentioned previously, the federal agencies are aware of the importance of attachment in young children, and therefore encourage strategies that involve the parent or family of the child. McMahon (2005), agrees with the placement of foster children with their family members or including the parent in the planning of child placement or working with the child welfare agency and foster family to better serve the child’s attachment needs (2005). Perhaps the most influential factor on a child’s positive placement is the characteristics of the foster parents. Positive placement has been found to provide foster children with the “attention, acceptance, affection, and overall better care” (sect.4, 2005). Those foster parents that are able to handle the emotional or behavioral problems of older foster children are most valuable in creating a positive placement.
Key caregiver characteristics as defined by Schofield (2003) are;
· “Sensitivity towards the child”
· “Accepting the child for who he or she is”
· “Responding to the emotional age of the child”
· “Sensitive and proactive parenting around birth family issues and contact”
· “Active parenting regarding education, activities, life skills”
· “Boundaries: firm supervision yet promoting autonomy”
· “Enjoying a challenge!” (McMahon, sect.4, 2005).
The National Foster Parent Association’s (2004) position on moving children in foster care states that “the younger the child and the longer the placement, the greater the impact of moving that child from the foster parents to whom the child has become attached” (www.nfpainc.org).
Although child welfare agencies prefer to place foster children with their relatives, most are not. The majority of children enter foster care because of neglect by their parents. According to Allen and Bissell (2004);
…thirty to eighty percent of children in foster care exhibit emotional and/or behavioral problems, either from their experiences before entering foster care or from the foster care experience itself. Within three months of placement, many children exhibit signs of depression, aggression, or withdrawal (p.8).
During placement into a foster home, children are not only experiencing stress from whatever situations separated them and their biological family, but the stress of a new home, often in a new area, new schools, new friends, new rules; it is an emotionally overwhelming experience.
Researchers have not come to an agreement on the impact of related or unrelated caregivers of foster children on the child’s successful development. There is cause for such research due to the rise in foster children and the decline in unrelated foster families (Allen ; Bissell 2004); which research has shown to be more mentally, physically and financially prepared for a foster child (Geen, 2004). Factors such as socioeconomic status, age, education and marital status of a caregiver can effect a child’s development (Geen, 2004) (see figure 1).
Figure 1. The characteristics of related (kin) and unrelated (non-kin) foster parents (as cited in Geen, p. 13, 2004).
Related caregivers are expected to give the same physical and emotional support as unrelated caregivers however related caregivers are often times at a disadvantage (2004). Many of the related caregivers don’t expect to become a foster parent and do so out of obligation for family; as such, they may not be financially and mentally ready to take in the foster child (2004). Unless the related foster parents receive additional support from the child welfare agency, the situation could get extremely stressful for the caregiver and child and could have an effect on the child’s emotional development. While being placed with a relative may be more comfortable for the child and ease some of the stress associated with placement, the question remains; is a child’s development going to be effected more by not being with a related caregiver or by the negative characteristics of the related caregiver?
In order to improve a foster child’s development would be to place them in a “safe and secure” permanent home which would foster a positive self-sufficient growth (2005).
The children who are at the highest risk for “poor developmental outcomes” are foster children ages two months through two years; approximately nine out of ten children (Vandivere, et. al. 2003).
The research concerning foster children is immense. Research concerning the attachment of child and caregiver has primarily pointed to developmental loss in foster children who do not have their attachment needs met at a young age.
The results of the literature analysis supported the hypothesis of this study. As the literature review discussed, the majority of foster children, infants to toddlers are at the highest risk for emotional problems and behavioral problems as they get older. The probability of emotional and behavioral problems increases with every placement disruption.
Little evidence was found as to the overall influence of caregiver characteristics. While research shows caregiver characteristics are possibility influential on behavioral and emotional problems, the research lacks empirical evidence. Research has demonstrated that over the past decade, related caregivers are becoming increasingly common in foster care (Barbell ; Freundlich, 2001).
This study demonstrates the need for more thorough research in the area of caregiver characteristics as an influential factor on the emotional development and behaviors of foster children. Child welfare agencies are seeking to keep foster children in homes with relatives; as such more research needs to be done to evaluate the characteristics of relative caregivers. While it seems beneficial to keep the child within his or her biological family; characteristics such as socioeconomic status and parent’s education, marital status and age can affect all children not just foster children. Therefore one would assume that such influential characteristics would be even more influential on a child who has been removed from their home and likely has attachment problems.
There was overwhelming evidence for the negative effects of placement disruption. It is alarming that with all the research available, child welfare agencies are not doing more to prevent placement disruption; other than increasing the use of relative caregivers.
Researchers will likely find that with the increase of relative caregivers, there will be as much, if not more, evidence of emotional development and behavioral problems due to the likelihood of negative relative caregiver characteristics.
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