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Paper

Evolution of foster care in Portugal: Perspectives of foster children and carers

abstract

The Portuguese child care system is concentrated in residential care, which is the measure applied to 95% of children and young people, a trend that has increased in recent years and shows a panorama that has no parallel in other EU countries (Eurochild 2010). According to the art. 20 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, foster care provides the most appropriate alternative to achieve the best interests of the child, provided that promotes their full and harmonious development (Delgado 2006, 2008; United Nations 2009).

Aim. The research undertaken wants to characterize and analyze foster care in Porto district, in 2011, that represented 52% of foster placements for children in Portugal (Social Security Institute 2012; Delgado et al. 2013), seeking to determine whether foster care is an appropriate context for children development.

The investigation is within the scope of action of the Ined, the Centre for Research and Innovation in Education, School of Education of the Polytechnic Institute of Porto, and has adapted to Portuguese reality the research carried out in 2008 by Del Valle, López, Montserrat Bravo, titled «El Acogimiento Familiar en España. Una evaluación de resultados».

Method. Between November 2011 and April 2012, personal interviews were conducted with 52 foster families in their homes, who were selected by a systematic sampling. The script of the interview covered the following areas: carers identification; foster care process; technical support to foster care; contacts with the biological family; the permanence issue; children's development; and carers satisfaction.

There were also two focus group sessions with 14 young people, who have been chosen randomly between 13 and 21 years old. We used content analysis to structure and organize the data collected from the discussion groups. The information was organized in grids corresponding to categories and subcategories.

Finally, we have used the children's adaptation questionnaire, which sought to assess, on the one hand, the situation in the beginning of the foster care and, on the other hand, the current situation in order to determine whether during that period of time it happened changes and in what manner those changes were felt. The questionnaire consists of fourteen aspects inherent to the foster care period, which was scored on a five point Likert-type scale, ranging between very bad (1) and very good (5).

Findings. In general, we find that there is a positive trend, because the current situation is perceived much better, compared to what happened at the beginning. The results of the Wilcoxon tests shows that exists a significant difference in variables referring to the relationship with carers (p < 0.05), physical health (p < 0.001), psychological well-being (p < 0.001), social relationships (p < 0.01), behavior at home (p < 0.01) and at school (p < 0.01), motivation to study (p < 0.01), and school success (p < 0.01).

Foster carers' perspective is that less positive aspects exist such as lack of training to perform that activity, especially in situations where children have developmental difficulties, gaps in information received about the child, particularly on his/her family life and health stories, and uncertainty regarding the expected duration of foster care. Despite these negative aspects, most of the foster carers makes a positive balance of the experience and considers the results a success. Expressions of affection, the joy of children and their development are referred to as the main rewards of a demanding and difficult work.

In the foster children point of view, we highlight the negative evaluation of the relationship with biological family, described as distant, inconstant and associated with maltreatment memories. Indeed, the situations that have worsened and are scored negatively on the scale («poor» or «very bad») relate mostly with the biological family. Was expressed the desire to be able to decide about contact and with whom they want to have contact, emphasizing the importance of maintaining the relationship with their siblings. It has also expressed a desire to have an active voice in decisions about their pathway in the protection system, to have more information about the foster family and the place where they will live, the school they will attend, in short, to participate in definition and changes in foster care.

In the focus groups, children and adolescents expressed that general well-being with foster care, the feeling of belonging to foster care families and the perception about their support are positive aspects which had also been expressed in the questionnaires. Furthermore, the relationship with the carers is the aspect where young people feel that there has been further evolution from the beginning to the present. The evolution related to physical and psychological health was stressed in questionnaires, and it was illustrated in focus groups with several examples. There is a feeling of gratitude expressed by young people in relation to foster families, criticizing the mistreatment they suffered with biological families.

Most of the children feel that integration into the foster family gave them a place of welfare, development and security, which they would like to maintain. Despite these results, some of them express feelings of insecurity and instability for the future, which are related to the transition to independence. In conclusion, we find that there is a positive evolution, in which the current situation is perceived as better than what happened at the beginning of the fostering.

Conclusions. Given the current Portuguese child care system stands out the importance of an investment in deinstitutionalization, on behalf of children's welfare, education and affection. They have the right to live in a family; therefore it is very important to have more children with access to a foster care family. It is also crucial to have a policy of recruitment and selection of new carers, based on their commitment, dedication and competence. Another challenge for the system is working together with the biological families. It is essential supporting these families in order to change their way of living that forced the withdrawal of the child, and to promote the recovery of their parental responsibilities. All these policies will enhance the odds of providing a better future to these children.

Key references

Del Valle, J., López, M., Montserrat, C. and Bravo, A. (2008). El acogimiento familiar en España. Una evaluación de resultados. Madrid: Ministerio de Trabajo y Asuntos Sociales.

Delgado, P., Bertão, A., Timóteo, I., Carvalho, J., Sampaio, R., Sousa, A., Alheiro, A. and Vieira, I. (2013). Acolhimento Familiar de Crianças. Evidências do presente, desafios para o futuro. [Foster Care. Present evidences, challenges for the future]. Profedições: Porto.

Eurochild (2010). Children in alternative care - National surveys. Bruxelas: Eurochild.

Instituto da Segurança Social (2012). Relatório de caracterização anual da situação de acolhimento das crianças e jovens. Lisboa: Instituto da Segurança Social.

United Nations - Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 12 (2009). The Right of the child to be heard, CRC/C/GC/12, Geneva.

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