Colorado State University Study Finds Some Benefits to Placing Children with Family Instead of Foster Parents

Children placed with family members instead of with foster parents tend to do better in terms of behavioral development, mental health functioning, and the placements are safer and more stable. The findings are from an international systematic review by Colorado State University’s School of Social Work, which also shows that children in traditional foster care may access more beneficial services.

The study will help social services determine the best option for children based on their individual needs, according to Marc Winokur, leading author of the study and director of the university’s Social Work Research Center in the School of Social Work. The information helps tailor decisions affecting more than 500,000 children in the United States today who live in out-of-home placements. Thousands of additional children are in similar situations around the world.

"In recent years, many societies have introduced policies that favor placing children who cannot live at home with other members of their family or with friends of the family," Winokur said. "We do not know what type of out-of-home care is best for children. We do know that children in out-of-home placements typically struggle with more educational, behavioral and physiological problems than do their peers, so finding the most appropriate placement option for each child is critical."

In many countries, the number of children removed from the home and placed with relatives has rapidly increased during the last 15 years. However, very little research has been conducted to compare the benefits and shortfalls of the two options.

Winokur points out that although it’s unclear whether issues children in out-of-home care face are a result of being placed outside of the home or the maltreatment that precipitated their removal from the home, social workers can now make a more informed decision about how each child may fare in different placement options.      

Children in traditional foster homes access mental health services more often and are more likely to ultimately be adopted, which are important factors for child welfare professionals to weigh. Children in kinship care are also less likely to re-enter out-of-home care or have a disrupted placement.

The question of whether or not children fare best in foster or kinship care homes has been one of increasing controversy across the world as some countries have started to mandate one option over the other when possible with legislation. One school of thought is that it’s better to remove children from a family where they are maltreated by parents, citing the argument that the apple never falls far from the tree and that the children are also likely to receive the same poor treatment from grandparents, aunts, uncles or other relatives. The opposing argument is that maintaining family ties provides a more stable environment for children and offers them a network of support from relatives and their own familial culture that they otherwise wouldn’t receive.

The main reasons children are removed from their homes in the United States are neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological maltreatment, abandonment, threats of harm and drug addiction.     

Winokur cautions that this study has limitations and that it only compared the options of foster care and kinship care; other placements options include residential treatment centers and group homes. In addition, the study was not able to identify research that had a baseline of behavior for children before they were placed outside of the home, which makes it difficult to surmise how behavior was impacted by the placements. Winokur also cited an overall lack of research comparing kinship care and foster care.

Kinship care is faced with its share of controversial issues, particularly the unequal financial support and services received by kinship caregivers as compared with traditional foster parents. Every child’s need must still be assessed on a case-by-case basis. For example, social workers and child welfare agencies struggle with identifying the appropriate level of oversight to provide to kinship caregivers – and the access allowed to parents prior to and after the removal of their children into a kinship care relationship. In many countries, an agreement about how to and whether to license or certify kinship caregivers also has not been reached.

This study analyzed 62 research studies, primarily from the United States but also including research from Norway, Israel, Sweden, the Netherlands and Australia.

The review was published by the Cochrane and Campbell Collaborations and funded by the Danish National Centre for Social Research and the Applied Research in Child Welfare Project in Colorado. The study was recently awarded the Leonard E. Gibbs Award for the finest systematic review published in 2007-2008 by the Campbell Collaboration.

Additional authors include Amy Holtan from the University of Troms in Norway and Deborah Valentine, director of the School of Social Work at Colorado State.  The School of Social Work is part of Colorado State University’s College of Applied Human Sciences.