Children in Foster Care

By James G. Barber; Paul H. Delfabbro | Go to book overview

Chapter 10

The psychosocial consequences of placement instability

Introduction

Chapter 7 reported distressingly high levels of placement instability in foster care, particularly in the first four months of placement. The level of instability uncovered was surprising given that all jurisdictions these days strive hard to minimize it. In fact, concern over this issue can be traced back to the landmark study by Maas and Engler (1959), which alerted the child welfare field to the phenomenon of ‘foster care drift’. In Maas and Engler’s study and many others since (e.g. Barth and Berry 1987; Bryce and Ehlert 1971; Claburn, Magura and Resnick 1976; Katz 1990; Maluccio, Fein and Olmstead 1986), it was found that children who were placed in what was intended to be temporary foster care were often left there by child protection workers for years on end while the bonds between the children and their families of origin gradually atrophied. Of particular concern to Maas and Engler (1959) were children who literally drifted from placement to placement as one foster family after another tired of the behavioural and emotional demands placed on them by these children. In an effort to prevent foster care drift, the policy referred to in Chapter 1 of permanency planning insists that every effort should be made to return foster children to the care of their families of origin as soon as possible; alternatively, the children should be expeditiously adopted rather than left indefinitely in the unconscionable position of provisional family members.

This preference for expeditious adoption is therefore the result of disillusionment with foster care on two counts. The first is that family reunification is proving to be an unrealistic option for many children in temporary foster care, so these children would be better off finding a permanent home with adoptive parents; or so the argument runs. The second problem, which follows from the first, is that many children now ‘drift’ in foster care in the sense that they remain as temporary family members sometimes for years on end because reunification is unviable and adoption is very difficult under Australian law. The intuitively plausible assumption behind permanency planning is that impermanence is inherently harmful and therefore that foster

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