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Why foster care placements breakdown? A study into the factors influencing foster care placement breakdown in Flanders


Background. For children in need of out-of-home care, foster care often constitutes the option of choice. However, many foster care placements prematurely and unintentionally break down. Breakdown has several undesirable outcomes for the foster child, the foster parents and the child welfare system. Breakdown can only be prevented when relevant influencing factors are known. Very little is known about breakdown in Flanders.

Purpose. We present the results of a Flemish study into the prevalence of breakdown and into the associated factors known at start of the placement.

Methods. Data on a sample of 100 foster care placement case files from all over Flanders are collected 6 to 7 years after the start of the placement. The 100 (76%) cases are drawn from a group of children (n=131) all placed in 1999 on the request of a Committee for Special Youth-Care or a juvenile court, and whose files could still be consulted. Sixteen files had been destroyed because legislation demands destruction of the file five years after majority. Short crisis-placements (n=9) and placements with adoption as a purpose (n=7) are not included.

Case files are analysed by way of a coding scheme designed for this study. For all placements the status is examined (positive, negative or continuing). Breakdown is defined as an unintentionally and prematurely terminated placement for reasons such as: behavioural problems, conflicts between biological and foster parents, foster parents ask for time-out, etc. Variables known to be associated with breakdown such as: reason for placement (loss of carer, abuse or problematic parenting), number of placement changes at start of the placement, behavioural problems at start (assessed by one of the authors on a four-point-scale: 0 = no behavioural problems, until 3 = very serious behavioural problems), foster family's family type (single-parent family, ...), kin and non-kinship care, ... are assessed. Since survival-analysis (Kaplan-Meier-method and Cox regression) is considered, only sufficient stable variables are used.

Key findings. The foster children are 49 boys and 51 girls with an average age of 8 years (sd=5.2). Over a period of six to seven years 57% of the foster placements break down. Fifty percent of the breakdowns happen within 34 months.

The risk of breakdown is the highest during the first placement year. Reasons for breakdown are: the foster child's behavioural problems (n=26), conflicts between biological parents and foster parents (n=15), return to the biological family against advice (n=11), foster child's suicide (n=1) and support staff believes the placement is not workable anymore (n=1). For three cases, the reason remained unclear. Survival analysis shows that the best predictors of breakdown are age and behavioural problems: older children with more behavioural problems at start of the placement are more at risk for breakdown. Other factors are reason for care and foster family type: abused or neglected children and children placed in non-kinship care are less at risk for breakdown.

Implications and recommendations. More than half of the examined case files broke down. Internationally the breakdown-number is estimated at 25-50%. This high breakdown-number can indicate serious problems concerning the offer and indication. There is a lack of youth care offer in Flanders. This lack results not only in increasingly longer waiting lists, but also in a growing number of parents and children who cannot receive the help they need. Furthermore, the non-programmed offer, such as foster care, is more used. This means that foster care can be opted for when no other solutions are at offer. These placements are not always in the best interest of the foster child and his family. This is not a typical Flemish phenomenon, so proves a Dutch study. Out of 120 children referred to a foster care service, only 70% has a foster care indication.

There is a lack of assessment and indication. However, assessed children have less risk of breakdown (Sallnäs et al., 2004). Moreover, the criteria to indicate foster family care are unclear and probably not the same for all social workers.

Behavioural problems being one of the two best predictors for breakdown, points out that an early recognition is very important. A better understanding on the nature and importance of the behavioural problems will make possible a better matching of youngster and foster family or the choice for other forms of youth care.

Foster parents need more support in managing behavioural problems. They need information and training on managing adolescents, an immediate crisis response service and a child mentor. Next to this, multiplex placements are suggested as a solution (Sallnäs et al., 2004). Psychotherapeutic counselling by external services can also be a way out.

Key references

Sallnäs, M., Vinnerljung, B., & Westermark, P. K. (2004). Breakdown of teenage placements in Swedish foster and residential care. Child and Family Social Work, 9, 141-152.

Contacts: Johan Vanderfaeillie, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, Department of Orthopsychology, Pleinlaan 2, 1050 Brussels, Belgium, E-mail: johan.vanderfaeillie@vub.ac.be, Phone 0032 2 629 32 56.


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