Mental Health of Foster Children: Do Biological Fathers Matter?

By Vanschoonlandt, Femke; Vanderfaeillie, Johan et al. | Child Welfare, November/December 2012 | Go to article overview

Mental Health of Foster Children: Do Biological Fathers Matter?


Vanschoonlandt, Femke, Vanderfaeillie, Johan, Van Holen, Frank, De Maeyer, Skrällan, Andries, Caroline, Child Welfare


The high prevalence of mental health problems in foster children is well-documented (e.g., Armsden, Pecora, Payne, & Szatkiewicz, 2000; Tarren-Sweeney, 2008). From an ecological perspective, it can be expected that several factors in different systems (e.g., foster child, foster family, biological parents, and community) influence foster children's behavioral problems. Mainly, the influence of pre-care experiences, such as a history of maltreatment (Oswald, Heil, & Goldbeck, 2010), and in-care experiences, such as the number of out-of-home placements (Newton, Litrownik, & Landsverk, 2000), is investigated and confirmed. Although the body of research on predictive factors of foster children's behavioral problems is growing (McWey, Acock, & Porter, 2010), the possible influence of one important party is being neglected: biological fathers. This is remarkable given the central role of birth parents in family foster care (O'Donnell, 2001), and even more striking given the growing evidence of the influence of fathers on developmental outcomes of children (Lamb, 2010). This study reports on the involvement of birth fathers during foster care placement of their child and their association with the foster child's well-being. First, we review the literature on the influence of parents on foster children's mental health and discuss the limited research on fathers' involvement. Next, the results of our study are presented and discussed.

Research on the influence of parents on foster children's mental health mainly focuses on retrospective or unchangeable factors, such as history of maltreatment (Oswald et al., 2010) or psychiatric problems of the parent (Strijker <3cKnorth,2009). From an ambiguous loss framework (Boss, 2004), it can, however, be understood that also their involvement during the foster placement has an impact. An ambiguous loss is defined as "a situation of unclear loss resulting from not knowing whether a loved one is dead or alive, absent or present" (Boss, 2004, p. 554). This type of loss is the most stressful, because it defies resolution and may freeze coping and grieving processes (Boss, 2004). Lee and Whiting (2007) show how this theoretical lens is also applicable to foster children's behavioral problems. A foster care placement usually does not mean a clear-cut "loss" of the parent. Parents are physically absent (to a certain degree), but kept psychologically present. The placement can raise questions about the identity of foster children as members of their family of origin and about the degree to which they are real foster family members (Samuels, 2009). Foster children, experiencing ambiguous loss, can have conflicting thoughts and feelings (e.g., feeling both love and anger for the lost person). Confusion about family boundaries and roles can also lead to loyalty conflicts (Boss, 1999; Moore, 2008).

Within this theoretical framework, the quality and amount of involvement of parents during foster placement may impact foster children's well-being. The more the child experiences the separation from the parent as ambiguous, the more problematic behaviors can be expected in the foster child (Moore, 2008). Leathers ( 2003), for example, found that maternal visiting was not directly related to behavioral problems of foster children, but was associated with greater loyalty conflict; this was, in turn, associated with more behavioral problems. Not just the visiting frequency, but also the parent's acceptance of the foster placement and the parent's relationship with the foster parents may impact the foster child's well-being. Research found that non-acceptance of the foster placement by the parents, especially the mother, impeded the foster child's adjustment to the foster family (Bakhuizen, 1998; Strijker & Knorth, 2009). Bastiaensen (2001) argues that conflicts between parents and foster parents may induce a loyalty conflict in the foster child. Linares, Rhodes, and Montalto (2010) found a relationship characterized by conflict/triangulation to be predictive of both internalizing and externalizing problems of the foster child. …

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