Perceptions: Family Preservation vs Foster Care

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Perceptions: Family Preservation vs Foster Care


There are a broad range of factors influencing perceptions surrounding family preservation versus foster care, as well as varying societal trends that impact these perceptions. Through analyzing academic and scientific reports and media sources, we discovered that some of the current key perceptions related to family preservation versus foster care include; the idea that home removal causes trauma for children, the theory that kinship care is preferable for children that are removed from parents, an awareness that while family preservation is important, there are instances not appropriate for preservation or reunification, the concept that the least restrictive, most family-like adoption placements are most beneficial, as well as the perception that consistency either in family preservation or foster care is beneficial for a child's development.

Key trends with an impact on the current perceptions on family preservation versus foster care include the rise in drug use related foster care, younger children in foster care, and more children waiting for adoption, all of which were linked to the opioid crisis in the US.

Current Perceptions, Family Preservation Versus Foster Care

Home Removal Trauma

  • One key perception that impacts family preservation and foster care is the idea that removing children from their home leads to significant trauma.
  • One study noted, “Removing children from their families is disruptive and traumatic and can have long-lasting, negative effects." Removal from the home and separation from parents is also linked to depressive symptoms as well as developmental regression.
  • Children who are removed from the home often display issues with sleeping, stop eating, or become aggressive.
  • Attachment issues can also result when children are removed from the home. Specifically, it's noted that when foundational safety is disrupted, one often sees a child who is "very anxious, or who is clingy, or you might see a child who goes off and recklessly explores the world".
  • In addition to being linked to PTSD symptoms such as depression and anxiety, removal from the home is also linked to potential future health problems as a result of an unnatural flood of stress related chemicals, including cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine.
  • This flood of stress induced hormones often resulting from parent separation and the subsequent dysregulation of stress response is linked to increased risks of developing heart disease, diabetes, and even certain forms of cancer.

Kinship Care

  • Another key perception is that kinship care, where the child is placed with a relative after being placed into state custody, is superior to non-relative foster care.
  • Typically, in kinship care, the state is still in charge of making legal decisions on behalf of the child, but physical custody remains with the relative.
  • Perceived benefits of kinship care over foster care include the child being in the care of someone they know and trust, creating a support network for the child, reinforcing the child's cultural identity, encouraging families to cultivate and rely on their own resources, and saving state costs for foster placement.
  • One study found that adolescents in kinship care have a more developed self-concept than those who were placed in non relative foster care.
  • The study noted a "feeling of stability and permanency perceived by adolescents who stay with kin that contribute to their inner self-assurance, in comparison with adolescents staying with non-relative families.”
  • There are also thought to be far fewer tensions between kinship foster families and biological parents than with a non relative foster arrangement.
  • Resource also supports the idea that children in kinship placements are better off, with these children displaying fewer behavioral problems and fewer mental health problems.
  • Children in non-kinship foster placements has a 50% chance of severe behavioral problems, compared to only 35% in kinship placement.

Reunification, Preservation, and Safety

  • While perceptions tend to favor the family preservation over foster care, there are perceptions around certain behaviors as being too dangerous for attempts at preservation.
  • Some behaviors are also considered to be grounds for favoring no attempts at reunification, in order to protect the well-being of the child.
  • The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 outlines instances in which it is not in the child's best interest to seek reunification with biological parents.
  • These include, "subjecting the child to aggravated circumstances such as abandonment, torture, chronic abuse, and sexual abuse..." or "if the parent has committed murder of another child of the parent, committed voluntary manslaughter of another child of the parent, aided or abetted, attempted, conspired, or solicited to commit such a murder or voluntary manslaughter, or committed a felony assault that results in serious bodily injury to the child or another child of the parent".

Family-Like Placement

  • It is also perceived that if a child must be removed from the home, and cannot be taken care of by a relative, that the best option is a foster care situation that mirrors a family-like environment.
  • This is described under US federal regulations as if the child must be removed from the home, they "should be placed in the least restrictive, most family-like environment available".
  • However, it is still emphasized that even family-like foster care is a last resort, intended only for when a relative is not available, and intended to be temporary.
  • 46% of foster children are placed in a foster family home with a non-relative.
  • Standards for family-like settings for foster children are established within the federal Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014, which describes and defines "reasonable and prudent parenting standard".
  • As of 2018, 24 US states have established their own prudent parenting standards focused on supporting foster parents to make decisions in a way that is most similar to that of the child’s birth parent.

Benefits of Consistency

  • Another perception, which often ties into the favoring of family preservation, is that consistency has a positive impact on children's well-being.
  • Studies have shown that instability in a child's home and emotional life can lead to negative developmental outcomes and hinder academic achievement.
  • It has been recommended that adoption and fostering policies are developed in such a way as to alleviate as much instability as possible.
  • Instability has been conceptualized as "the experience of change in individual or family circumstances where the change is abrupt, involuntary, and/or in a negative direction, and thus is more likely to have adverse implications for child development".

Trends in Family Preservation & Foster Care

Drug Use Related Foster Care

  • It's noted that alongside the increasing opioid epidemic in the US, the number of youth in foster care as a result of parental drug use has increased.
  • NPR and CNN both covered this increase in recent news stories, with April Dirks, an associate professor of social work calling it an epidemic.
  • The number of removals attributed to parental drug use, rose from around 15% in 2000 to 36% in 2017.
  • There was however no data on which drugs these removals were associated with, so the link to opioid addiction is only theoretical.

Younger Children In Foster Care

  • The average age of children in foster care has been trending younger in the past several years.
  • While in 2012 the median age of a child in foster care was 8.5 years, by 2017, it was 7.8 years.
  • The age decline has also been linked to the national opioid crisis, as there has been an increase in drug-addicted newborns, which tends to gain more media attention.
  • Joseph Doyle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Bureau of Economic Research is focused on the challenge of increasingly younger children in foster care, and notes it is linked to future higher rates of arrest, conviction, and imprisonment, delinquency, and teen birth.

Children Waiting For Adoption

  • While the total number of children in foster care declined between 2008 and 2012, it began to increase in subsequent years.
  • One source links this decrease to the increase in efforts to promote family preservation.
  • By 2016, the amount of foster children in care was 10.2% higher than 2012.
  • Pew Research found that fewer children are being reunited with their parents and primary caretakers when they leave foster care, and more are awaiting adoption instead. Similarly, this is also thought to be related to opioid addiction.
  • However, some news outlets covered this positively, as while more children were in foster care waiting for adoption, the total number of children who were adopted also increased slightly.

Research Strategy

In order to provide insights into the current perceptions in regard to family preservation versus foster care, as well as highlight the key trends that are affecting the current perceptions, we examined academic journals, scientific reports, as well as public research, and adoption related organizations' independent research to provide data. We also examined popular news outlets to gain an understanding of how industry experts and thought leaders were framing these perceptions.

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