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WSU Study: Foster Parents Advocate for More Training, Support to Ease Foster Children’s Transition into Home

VANCOUVER, Wash.—Foster parents interviewed in a preliminary Washington State University study say they need access to more training and better support to help foster children make the transition into their homes easier. Conducted by WSU undergraduate student Elizabeth Burleson under the supervision of WSU assistant professor Jane Lanigan, the study indicates that both factors could also ensure more successful foster placements in the future.

Elizabeth Burleson at poster session
Elizabeth Burleson, left, describes her study on foster parents during the 2012 College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences’ Undergraduate Research and Creative Projects event on April 14. Photo by Shelly Hanks/WSU Photo Services. Click image for a high-resolution version.

“I talked often with foster parents who were struggling with a variety of issues and became interested in seeing what could be done to assist them before they left foster care completely,” said Burleson, a senior majoring in human development. She works for a Vancouver nonprofit that specializes in family support services for youth and adults. “I reviewed the literature and learned there really wasn’t much done on discovering what factors in a foster parent’s training have contributed to retention rate as well as placement disruption.”

Washington state requires potential foster parents to complete nearly 30 hours of preservice training to become licensed, not including first aid/CPR and an orientation, Burleson noted. Yet according to one national study she reviewed, 46 percent of families that obtain licensure either discontinue fostering or plan to do so at six months. Some families complete training and then decide not to pursue fostering.

Burleson recruited eight foster parents with varying experience to participate in the study. On average, the parents had been fostering for longer than five years. She set out to learn about the parents’ perspectives on how well training prepared them for being a foster family, to examine challenges during the initial three-month transition and to identify ways to better support foster parents and family transition.

Those interviewed said training they received before licensure fell short for several reasons:

  • Dislike of statistics, need to make them practical. Statistics, such as numbers of youth who come from a household where drugs were used or who have a behavior disorder, were seen as useless on their own. Foster parents believed that training should instead offer practical solutions on helping these children when they encountered them. “One foster parent felt [statistics] were stereotypical and that they harmed the child,” Burleson said.
  • LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) training. Foster parents thought that too much time was devoted to LGBT issues. Parents viewed this training as a matter of common sense—that children who identified as LGBT should be treated equally and fairly. “In the sample of foster parents I talked to, the majority of them had a college degree and several worked in schools, so that could be an aspect of their acceptance of LGBT issues,” she said.
  • Misconceptions. Burleson looked for misconceptions that influenced individuals’ motivation to become foster parents before they began training. The largest misconception involved the potential for making money. Another was underestimating the necessary commitment.

Several external factors also contributed to the difficulty interviewed foster parents experienced:

  • Lack of communication with/support from social worker. Some foster parents said social workers did not respond when contacted. “The foster parents stated that they felt abandoned by the state and the [foster care] system,” Burleson said.
  • Influence of biological parent. Foster parents were surprised and frustrated that the biological parent still influenced some decisions related to the foster child.
  • Lack of available information. In the case of children just taken from their homes, certain information was not made available to foster parents due to the circumstances. “There are confidentiality issues in that, unless it’s necessary, even the foster parents won’t find out information that could assist them,” Burleson said.
  • Misinformation. Information was sometimes omitted to convince the foster parent to take a child. This included why a child was in foster care or if a child had problematic behaviors. False or circumstantial information was also obtained through other sources but not revealed as such.
Little girl with family
Asking a foster child about likes and dislikes and setting regular routines help make the transition into a foster home more successful. Click image for a high-resolution version.

Interviewed foster parents described what they believed leads to a smooth transition and successful placement into a foster home. Preparing other children emotionally and physically for the foster child is a must. They talked with current foster or biological/adopted children beforehand and rearranged and decorated rooms according to the new child’s preferences.

Foster parents also established belonging, trust, safety and comfort by treating foster children like family. They asked questions about likes and dislikes, got to know them and even hung pictures on the wall, in one case.

Finally, successful foster parents created regular routines/schedules to help promote a sense of stability and to allow children to get used to their surroundings.

In keeping with the study’s results, Burleson identified ways to better support foster parents during a foster child’s transition into the home, such as improving social worker communication and increasing access to resources that would benefit foster parents and foster children. Preservice training could also incorporate successful transition strategies and practical applications identified in the study, as well as focus less on statistics and LGBT issues.

“I definitely want to delve more into the issues the foster parents mentioned and see what could be done,” said Burleson, who plans to apply to master’s programs this fall. Her goal will be to eventually research and teach about the foster care system. “Jane and I have discussed a couple different options for the next step, including continuing and increasing the size of this current study or doing a new project that ties into this one by looking at some of the factors the foster parents mentioned.

“I have learned a lot more in terms of the challenges that foster parents face,” she added. “Talking with them made me aware of the difficulties researchers face in talking to the foster parent population due to confidentiality issues.”