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Children in care: severe troubles or resilience potentials?


Background. While the psychopathology school for many years focused primarily on risk factors, the perspective changed during the 1980s and 1990s with an increased focus on protective factors and resilience. In this paper, resilience is defined as '...a relative good outcome despite the experience of situations that have been shown to carry a major risk for the development of psychopathology' (cf. Rutter 2000:653).

One reason for studying resilience is that most studies of groups of children subjected to adversities during childhood and adolescence find that quite a few either recover well or are not significantly disturbed despite their difficult childhood. From a strategic perspective, the challenge is to further examine what we might learn from research on such resilient children in order to better the outcomes of children in out-of-home care. Do they as a group have particular resources from which we can extrapolate to help other young people who lack those resources? Or are the resources or competencies from which resilience springs so embedded in largely endogenously and genetically determined personality traits that we might not be able to apply what we learn? And how is resilience distributed among girls and boys?

Research question. In this study we focus on the developmental outcomes of children in care, to examine what characterises resilience among children in care, and how is resilience related to gender? For indicators of resilience we use the following outcomes:

  • the child's ability to do well in school,
  • the child's ability to develop positive social relationships with peers,
  • the child's ability to take part in sports, hobbies and other leasure-time activities,
  • the child's emotional wellbeing, measured mainly by the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire,
  • a good physical health.

Methods. The study is based on data from the Children in Care Study (CIC). It is a Danish longitudinal population study, encompassing all children born in 1995, that are actually (or has previously been) placed in any kind of publicly supported out-of-home care. Such placements include foster care, kinship care, and different kinds of residential settings and group homes.

 Data and data collection. The net sample consisted of 576 children from the 1995 cohort who had sometimes been admitted to out-of-home care. The first data were collected in 2003 when the children were around 7½ years of age. The data collection entailed face-to-face interviews with the mothers, carried through by the well-trained interviewer corps of the Sfi Survey as Capi interviews. Secondly, municipal case workers and, thirdly, either social workers or foster parents filled out lengthy, detailed questionnaires for each child. Thus, for some of the children we have three different sources of information.

The second data collection has ended in the beginning of 2008. This data collection includes standardised face-to-face interviews with the 12-year-old children themselves. Besides, postal questionnaires are sent to the care environments again (to be filled out by foster carers or social workers in the residential institutions or group homes). Also, and postal questionnaires focusing on the health and school perspective in social work are filled out by the municipal case workers.

Key findings. At the present stage, findings are preliminary, as indices of resilience are under development. Given the five resiliency dimensions being explored, the preliminary results are as follows:

  • on The Positive School Performance Scale (range 0-8) 29 pct. score in the upper range (6-8). The mean score for girls is 4.7, for boys 3.7,
  • on The Positive Social Relations Scale (range 0-3) 34 pct. score maximum (3) (42 pct. of the girls, 27 pct. of the boys),
  • on The Leisure Activities Scale (range 0-2) 45 pct. score maximum (2) (55 pct. girls, 36 pct. boys),
  • on The Emotional Well-Being Scale (range 0-2) 23 pct. of the girls have the maximum score, while this applies for 13 pct. of the boys,
  • on The Physical Health Scale (range 0-4) 34 pct. of the girls score maximum, and 25 pct. of the boys.

Thus, these preliminary results show that a great many children display clear indications of resilience. Also, there is a considerable gender factor related to the distribution of resilience among children in out-of-home care, reflected in statistically significant differences on all dimensions. Both results are to be examined closer.

The preliminary results indicate that children in care constitute a relatively heterogeneous group with equally heterogenous needs for interventions. Thus, the municipalities have to carefully examine the needs of each child in care. Also, it seems that boys in care are still challenging the system, needing more holistic and extensive interventions that what is normally given.

Key references

Små børn anbragt uden for hjemmet (Young children in out-of-home care). SFI: Copenhagen.

Egelund, T. & Hestbæk, A-D. (2007). Children in care (CIC): A Danish longitudinal study. Young children in out-of-home care from the 1995 cohort. Results from 1. data collection. Working paper. SFI: Copenhagen.

Contacts: Anne-Dorthe Hestbaek, SFI - The Danish National Centre for Social Research, Herluf Trolles Gade 11, DK-1052 Copenhagen C., Denmark, E-mail: adh@sfi.dk., Phone +45 33 48 08 94.


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