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Foster care in Portugal. Evidence of the present, challenges for the future


To learn how foster care provides a suitable context for the development of fostered children is a question that has no easy answer, given the number of variables involved. The practice of foster care in Portugal has been subject to some criticism, such as the lack of its promotion, and the absence of specific selection criteria as well as training and support of foster families (Delgado 2010). The available data are scarce and do not allow to determine, in depth, how unfold and materialize the various stages of foster care process.

The research, whose main results we intend to present in this communication, 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». Its purpose was 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), seeking to determine whether foster care is an appropriate context for children development.

Aim. Our aims were to describe the profile of foster care protagonists, determine the different stages and processes of each placement, analyze the degree of satisfaction of carers and children with the experience, analyze the educational pathways of those children and find out how their long term foster care can ensure safety and permanency.

Method. Data were collected with the use of a questionnaire by Foster Care Teams based on the files of 289 children in May 2011. Personal interviews were also conducted in a sample of 52 Foster Parent Families in their homes, as well as two focus group sessions with the children.

Findings. Among the main results obtained, we highlight the high average age of these children, the lack of contacts or visits by the biological families, and many cases of children fostered for long periods of time, symptom of the difficulties that have been placed to return to their families of origin. This evidence may indicate satisfaction in the relationship between foster carers and the children but this fact contributes to reduce the number of these families available to receive other children. There is also schooling performance problems, as reflected in high rates of retention, and a third of the children presents health and development problems. It is reduced the number of fostered children under 3 years of age, when they need more a stable family context and healthy relationships.

Biological Families are characterized by multiple vulnerabilities, such as alcoholism, drug addiction, physical or mental illness, and domestic violence. Few parents remain as a couple, due to separation or death of one of its elements, which requires rethinking and redefining the design of family reunification. Regarding the profile of foster carers, the dominant family model is an advanced age couple with children, with a basic level of education, and with several prior experiences with fostered children.

The results of foster care point out to a very positive evolution of the foster children in education, health and behavioral level, comparing the moment of the integration in foster families with the moment of date collecting.

In the perspective of the foster carers, a set of less positive aspects were referred, such as lack of training to perform their role and gaps in the information received about the foster children. Despite these negative aspects, most carers consider the experience positive as well as and considered a success the results achieved. In the foster children point of view, we highlight the negative evaluation of the relationship with biological family and the desire to have an active voice in decisions about their pathway in the protection system. The integration in the foster family is evaluated positively, as a place of well-being, development and security, where the majority would like to remain.

Conclusions. The implications for practice and for the development of foster care that result from the data collected, pose numerous challenges in the immediate and medium/long term, which we will refer, in brief:

- disseminate and promote the culture of foster care, increasing the amount and quality of information on this social response, its principles, roles and functions;

- establish a greater connection and closeness among higher education institutions, research teams in this area and social security teams as a prerequisite for the development of theoretical models and reflection about practice;

- develop regular and specialized campaigns to select new families, being particularly welcomed families available to accommodate older children with difficulties and behavior or health problems, needing specialized monitoring;

- work with the family of origin, accompanying it in order to encourage and support change in clinical deficit that forced the withdrawal of the child. Only with the development of strategies that encourage cooperation of families for change, the process of foster care can be effectively a temporary response;

- invest the resources needed for a continuous and rigorous monitoring of foster families;

- look for a foster care that guarantees the permanence formally whenever it is justified in the interest of the child, prolonging the stay to its autonomy, similar to what happens in other countries. Extended foster care, which provides the stay until - majority or independent living, allows us to recognize parenting skills that, in those circumstances, the carers often play;

- enhance communication ports and passages inside child care system, particularly between residential and foster care, and from these two to adoption, once having weighted the criteria that justify and legitimize decision making.

We hope that the findings of this research contribute to the development of Portuguese child care, for the improvement of foster care and the growth of its use, in order to reduce the number of children in residential care and approximate the typologies of fostering to the standards that exist in Western countries.

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. (2010). O acolhimento familiar em Portugal. Conceitos, práticas e desafios. Psicologia & Sociedade, vol. 22 (2), 336-344.

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.

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

Schofield, G. and Beek, M. (2008). Achieving Permanence in Foster Care. London: BAAF.

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