Academic journal article Family Relations

Adolescent Identity Development in Foster Care

Academic journal article Family Relations

Adolescent Identity Development in Foster Care

Article excerpt

Adolescent Identity Development in Foster Care* Susan M. Kools**

This study examined the impact of long-term foster care on adolescents. Dimensional analysis was used to investigate adolescent perceptions of impact. Foster care was found to have a negative impact on identity development. The institutional structure of group foster care, diminished status, and stereotypical view of the foster child, contribute to devaluation of the adolescent's self by others. Suggestions for clinical practice and program development are made to reduce devaluating experiences and promote normative adolescent development.

Children and adolescents are growing up in a variety of family constellations today. For a growing number, longterm foster care provides a substitution for the context of their biological families. While originally conceived as a temporary respite for troubled families until reunification could be achieved, it has become increasingly used as a permanent living arrangement for many children.

Foster care is defined as residence in a supervised setting outside the biological family as mandated by the social services or juvenile justice system. Foster care placements for children and adolescents include foster family care, group homes, and various forms of residential treatment. Foster care placement is most often precipitated by stressful family circumstances that endanger a child and/or deem the biological parent(s) unable or unavailable to adequately care for the child. These include child abuse and neglect, parental substance abuse, and family homelessness (Barker & Aptekar, 1990; Children's Defense Fund, 1995; U.S. Congress, 1990a; U.S. Congress, 1990b; White & Benedict, 1985).

Nearly 500,000 children are currently in foster care in the United States. If the increases continue, this number could approach 840,000 by the end of the decade (American Public Welfare Association, 1995; U.S. Congress, 1990a). Further, although length of stay in placement can vary widely from days to years, it is becoming typical for a child to spend from several years to the duration of childhood in foster care. Current estimates are that 40% of children remain in foster care for more than 2 years, with an average stay of 5 years (Pothier & Kools, 1992; U.S. Congress, 1990a). Finally, a trajectory characterized by multiple placement transitions is now commonplace for the foster care population. Up to 55% of children in foster care experience 3 or more placements (Byles, 1980; Fanshel & Shinn, 1978; Runyan & Gould, 1985a.1985b).

Most theoretical and empirical literature on normative child and adolescent development places the developing child within the context of the family system. In their study of African American adolescents in foster care, Gavazzi, Alfred, and McKenry (1996) noted that there has been little emphasis on the developmental impact of living in an alternate environment like foster care. As the foster care system has rapidly grown, it has come under scrutiny and it has been suggested that growing up in foster care has multiple negative consequences for the child (Halfon, Berkowitz, & Klee, 1992; U.S. Congress, 1990a). While the impact of foster care on overall functioning, development, and wellbeing has yet to be adequately determined, investigators have begun to gather evidence that severe functional impairment is suffered by children in foster care as a group, including poor academic achievement, behavioral and emotional problems, and health-related problems (Frank, 1980; Gil & Bogart, 1982; Halfon, Mendoca, & Berkowitz, 1995; Hochstadt, Jaudes, Zimo, & Schachter, 1987; Klee & Halfon, 1987; Pardeck, 1983; Runyan & Gould, 1985a, 1985b; Simms, 1991; Simms & Halfon, 1994; U.S. Government Accounting Office, 1995). Most of these studies were based on retrospective case record review.

Very few researchers have interviewed children in foster care to explore their thoughts and feelings about their status as foster children or their placement experiences. …

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