From the Child Welfare Trap to the Foster Care Trap

Article excerpt

This study analyzed the visibility of mother, father/ partner, and child(ren) in child welfare practice during the placement process, using ethnographic content analysis of case records. Little information concerning the quality of the parent-child relationship before the placement of the child was found. Social workers worked with mothers as the main clients, while fathers/ partners and children were less visible in case handling than the mothers. The construct of the foster care trap was introduced to highlight the fact that eventually mothers were also neglected by the workers; after the placement of the child, social workers focused on the foster family. Along with the parent-child relationship breakdown, marital relationships broke down as well. In Finland, as in many other countries, two main ideologies exist that guide child welfare work. The first ideology is that the best interests of the child are the paramount consideration, which presupposes including the child in practice as subject, not merely as an object in interventions. The second ideology highlights the concept of working with the whole family and including all family members in case handling. This family-centered approach has been highly encouraged and appreciated in Finnish child welfare practice [Utriainen 1989; Kemppainen 1991]. It has often been said, however, that social work in general and especially in child welfare practice has been mothercentric, with little attention paid to the fathers/partners [Jaffe 1983; Kristinsdottir 1991; Lazar et al. 1991; Wolins 1983] and, surprisingly, little attention paid to the children also [Andersson 1991; Kristinsdottir 1991; Petr 1992]. This study analyzed the visibility of mothers, fathers/partners, and children in Finnish child welfare practice during the placement process.

Kristinsdottir [1991] analyzed the case records of children (N = 154) under 18 years of age who were placed outside their homes by the child welfare agency. The empirical findings supported the criticism in the literature: family members got systematically biased attention in child welfare practice. The family was not considered as a whole. Mothers were focused on, but fathers were neglected and children were pushed aside in the case handling. Kristinsdottir visually depicted this triangular dilemma of family-centered child welfare practice (figure 1) and named the phenomenon the child welfare trap.

Some additional empirical information exists concerning the visibility of all family members in child welfare practice. Based on questionnaires completed by social workers (N = 98), Lazar et al. [1991] found that fathers were less involved in the intervention process than mothers. Social workers considered fathers to be secondary caregivers, and the workers' outlooks were slanted toward the mothers. Andersson's [1991] study of child welfare work with young children (N = 189 children ages birth to three) found that social workers seldom had contacts with the children. In interviews with the social workers, Andersson found them unable to describe nearly one-third of the children because they had either never seen them or had developed no impression at all about them. It should be noted that information about the family members and their role in child welfare practice was gathered from social workers by questionnaires [Lazar et al. 1991] or by interviewing them [Andersson 1991]. Thus, results may have been influenced by recall and socially desirable biases.

The neglected position of fathers as well as children has been reported in the research concerning child welfare practice. The phenomenon has also been recognized, however, in psychological research [Russell & Radojevic 1992; Silverstein 1993] and social work research [Greif & Bailey 1990]. To quote Silverstein [1993: 267]: "The recent ideological transformation of parenthood into motherhood has dramatically influenced research in the social sciences. Although there has been an increase in the number of publications on fathering, fathers still continue to be underrepresented in relation to mothers. …