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Overview of programs aiming to increase the involvement of birth parents in foster care


Aim. For many years the principle of «inclusiveness» (i.e. keeping birth families involved with their children while in foster care) is accepted theoretically in the child welfare practice. This parental involvement is associated with greater motivation to change, a better understanding of the developmental needs of the foster child and the ability to take responsibilities as a parent. Moreover, it is associated with a sooner and easier reunification. However, parental involvement is not easy to establish. In this review we will give an overview of the programs that were developed to increase parental involvement in foster care. If effectiveness studies are available, data will be presented.

Method. A search of Wiley, Web of Science and Science Direct was performed. This search was complemented with articles derived from the literature list of the selected articles and with a search on Google Scholar. The databases and search machines were searched using the following search items: foster care, parental involvement, participation, engagement and birth parents. Articles were selected if one of the search items were in the title, abstract or keywords and the article described a program that aims to increase parental involvement. Only seven articles were selected, describing eight programs.

Findings. The eight programs could be divided in four categories. The first group consists of programs focusing on practical guidance of birth parents. In this group the groupwork program of Levin (1992) and the programs developed by Marcenko et al. (2010): the Parent Mentoring Program (Pmp) and the Parent Partners Program (Ppp), were categorized. The groupwork program is not yet evaluated on its effectiveness. The Pmp and Ppp were found to be supportive by birth parents and social workers. Birth parents found Pmp supportive in the domains of education, organization and practical help. They specifically appreciated the non-judging attitude of the mentors. A quasi-experimental evaluation with a comparison group similar on the participating group, showed that parents in Pmp were more likely to reunify with their children than were parents not in the program. Their children also spent fewer days in foster care. Regarding Ppp, birth parents reported Ppp gave them access to open and honest communication.

The second group contains a Dutch protocol aiming at supporting birth parents emotionally (de Greef et al. 2011). This program was evaluated on its effectiveness with a randomized controlled trial. Foster care workers saw positive effects in included birth parents, namely on endurance of the placement, parental involvement, knowing how to be a parent while their child is placed in foster care and handling of emotions. Foster parents found that birth parents in the experimental group showed less acceptance and endurance of the placement. They found that birth parents were less able to show that they found it important that their child had a good place in the foster family. The foster parents also reported that the foster children in the control group felt more at ease than the children from the experimental group. No significant differences were found by the birth parents between the experimental and control group.

The third group, including the Family Group Conferencing (e.g. Darlington et al. 2012), the Connections Project (Gerring et al. 2008) and the Family Empowerment Training Program (Schatz and Bane 1991), aims to increase parental participation. The program of Schatz and Bane (1991) is not yet evaluated on its effectiveness. The Connections Project aimed to involve birth parents, by helping them with visiting their children and connecting to the foster parents. All 34 birth parents who participated had at least one parent who participated in 60% or more of their visits. 50% of them even participated in 99 to 100%. Furthermore, birth parents were satisfied with the contacts with their children, with the supportive, respectful and inclusive relationship with the trainers and with the access to and connection with their child's foster parent. A subset of parents noted that the project could have more directly helped them to resolve the issues preventing them from caring for their children (e.g. saying what needs to be done to get their children back). At last, the Family group meetings measured client satisfaction. Results showed that clients were satisfied with the meetings, because they felt respected, supported and «being important».

Finally, the combined model of Linares et al. (2006) aimed at increasing the parenting skills of the birth parents (using the Incredible Years program) and at improving co-parenting between birth and foster parents. A randomized controlled trial was used to evaluate the program. Unfortunately, it showed few to no result. There was a low attendancy: almost half of the birth parents followed no co-parenting session. On average, birth and foster parents attended only 5.4 of the 12 parenting skills-sessions and 2 of the 12 co-parenting sessions. At the end of the program significant improvements were found in both birth and foster parents on positive parenting and co-parenting. At the follow-up (3 months later) only the improvements on positive parenting remained.

Conclusions. Few programs are developed to support the involvement of birth parents in foster care. From the eight programs found, only few were evaluated, showing few to no results. Programs focusing on practical guidance were positively evaluated by the birth parents. The effects of emotional guidance of the parents, aiming to help them accepting the foster care placement, were small. Focusing on the parental participation was found to be effective. The combined model showed a large drop-out and low attendancy. Many evaluations measured effectiveness using client satisfaction. However, literature shows that most clients are satisfied with the help offered, even though the results are disappointing. Client satisfaction is thereby not a good indicator of effectiveness of a program.

This review clearly indicates a need to develop an evidence-based program to support parental involvement.

Key references

Darlington, Y., Healy, K. and feeney, J.A. (2010). Challenges in implementing participatory practice in child protection: a contingency approach. Children and youth services review, 32, 1020-1027.

de Greef, M., Haans, G. and Janssens, J. (2011). Ouderbegeleiding bij roldifferentiatie: effectiviteit van de methodiek gericht op het helpen van ouders bij het invullen van de ouderrol na plaatsing van hun kind in een perspectiefbiedend pleeggezin. Orthopedagogiek: Onderzoek en Praktijk, 50, 354-364.

Gerring, C.E., Kemp, S.P. and Marcenko, M.O. (2008). The Connections Project: a relational approach to engaging birth parents in visitation. Child Welfare, 87, 5-30.

Levin, A.E. (1992). Groupwork with parents in the family foster care system: a powerful method of engagement. Child Welfare, 71, 457-473.

Linares, L.O., Montalto, D., Li, M. and Oza, V.S. (2006). A promising parenting intervention in foster care. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 74, 32-41.

Marcenko, M., Brown, R., DeVoy, P.R. and Conway, D. (2010). Engaging parents: innovative approaches in child welfare. American Humane, 25, 23-34.

Schatz, M.S. and Bane, W. (1991). Empowering the parents of children in substitute care: a training model. Child Welfare, 70, 665-678.

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