In the hour-long television show Judging Amy, Maxine Grey ‘” the protagonist Amy Grey’s assertive mother ‘” is a social worker for DCF (the Department of Children and families). As a social worker, she assigns orphans and abused children to appropriate foster care. When the show focuses on Maxine’s life and her line of work, the show delves into issues related to foster children and their wellbeing. Sometimes, despite Maxine’s competency and her dedication in her field, her efforts result in a tragedy. For instance, in one episode, when Maxine makes it possible for a girl to return to her biological family, the girl comes back to Maxine all bloodied, having shot her father for making sexual approaches toward her. Though only a drama, the show makes a rather decent effort into exploring the psychological mindsets of these kids who have family issues, who are mostly presented in the show as troubled, rebellious, and anxious. Whenever these kids are shown in groups, the camera spits out images of teenage angst, of them smoking, of them fighting, of them making out.
When exploring the issue of foster care, many questions arise. How problematic is the issue with foster children? Is it often better for the child to stay with their foster parents or to go back to their biological parents? What difference is there in a child’s welfare when he/she is with foster parents or with biological parents? Are there any key differences in the parenting styles of both kinds of parents? As an undergraduate student majoring in social work, as someone who hopes to end up in a career path similar to that of Maxin, I am often deeply perplexed and sparked by such questions. With 500,000 children in the United States currently under the care of foster parents (U.S. Department of Health and Services, 2005, cited in Dozier & Lindheim, 2006), I was especially interested in the overall question of the difference between kin foster care and nonkin foster care and how much that mattered in a child’s welfare.
There have been many research studies on the difference between kin and nonkin parents. Research has shown that biological parents of a child in foster care are more likely to live in poverty and in fact, according to the 1997 National Survey of America’s Families, 39% of children in kinship foster care lived under the federal poverty line while only 13% of nonkin caregivers did so (Berrick et al., 1994, cited in Timmer et al., 2004). There are more research that hint the fact that children under kin foster care are under harsher circumstances compared to those under nonkin foster care. Kin caregivers were more likely to have less formal education (Le Prohn, 1994, cited in Timmer et al., 2004) and their children were more likely to be victims of abuse or neglect (Ehrle & Geen, 2002, cited in Timmer et al., 2004) and also, children under their care were more likely to be removed from their homes because of parental substance abuse (Beeham, Kim, & Bullerdick, 2000, cited in Timmer et al., 2004).
A peer-reviewed journal article by Timmer, Sedlar, and Urquiza, which is titled “Challenging children in kin versus nonkin foster care: perceived costs and benefits to caregivers” attempt to explain the key differences between these two types of cares, not only what is different about their environments and circumstances but also the perceptions and the interactions between the caregiver and the child. Regarding behavioral differences between the two, the article states, “In spite of the difference in maltreatment history, children in kinship care were found to have lower levels of behavior problems than children in nonkin care (e.g., Dubowitz & Sawyer, 1994; Keller et al., 2001), although both groups of children have more behavior problems than the norm (Armsden et al., 2000).” The article speculates that this is because either there really are fewer behavior problems under kin caregivers or because the kin caregivers perceive there to be fewer problems than there actually are (Timmerman, 2004). Deciding which is the absolute fact may be hard to discern since there exists data supporting both reasons, one being that there are higher levels of agreement with children under kin foster care than other children’s according to kin caregivers’ and teacher’s ratings (Shore, Sim, Le Prohn,&Keller, 2002, cited in Timmer et al., 2004) while there are more court-ordered placements for children under kin caregivers. The article seem to suggest though that it is more of the latter, that the case has mostly to do with kin caregivers perceiving the problem to be not as severe as the nonkin caregivers would.
For the most part, the article is an explanation of a study it conducted on 102 kin and 157 nonkin foster parents. These were parents who had been required for PCIT (Parent-Child Interaction Therapy) because the child was either difficult to manage or had difficulties adjusting to the new caregiver. The foster children in the sample had an age range of 2 to 8 years with 38.6% of them being African-American, 39% of them white and Non-Hispanic, and 19.7% of them Latinos. More than 75% of foster parents and foster children matched on ethnicity. The study included intensive interviews, questionnaires, and coaching sessions in which they were evaluated by measures such as the CAPI (Child Abuse Potential Inventory) and the CBCL (Child Behavior Checklist). ‘¨Though the study’s purpose was “to examine the factors that contributed to kin and nonkin foster parents’ perceived costs and benefits of parenting foster children who are referred to PCIT for treatment of behavior problems” (Timmer et al., 2004), it also found that there are many demographic similarities between kin foster parents and children and nonkin foster parents and children. With their study, Timmer, Sedlar, and Uquizar conclude that minimizing placement changes would be the most beneficial for children’s welfare, since there are many key differences between the perceptions and the environments of kin foster parents and nonkin foster parents. The article concludes, there are harsher environmental problems in a kin caregivers’ house and there seems to be more severe behavior problems as well, but there is a stronger agreement between kin caregivers and the child.
Another study from New York University Child Study Center explores the different discipline practices among biological and foster parents. In this study straightforwardly titled “Discipline Practices Among Biological and Foster Parents” by Linares, Montalto, Rosbruch, and Li, 62 pairs of biological and foster parents were selected to complete self-report questionnaires and to be interviewed by a college-level bilingual and/or by a bicultural research assistant. Using a two-level screening, eligible children were selected for the study and interviewed as well. According to their peer-reviewed journal article, the study seems to have been executed thoroughly and includes a data analytical plan and regression analysis, albeit the authors themselves have written that the study may rely too heavily on self-reports and so may not be as accurate as it possibly can be. Nonetheless, the study has produced significant results about parental discipline, a topic that is rarely explored and moreover not known well (Morrison Dore & Lee, 1999, cited in Linares et al., 2006).
According to the study, there is hardly any difference between the discipline practices among biological and foster parents, especially regarding positive discipline and harsh discipline. The results of this study(Linares et al., 2006) shows that the only significant differences among the parents seemed to be that foster parents had higher clear expectations and biological parents were more likely to practice appropriate discipline. Beyond the data on the graph, appropriate discipline was attributed to girls of age rather than young boys or girls. Further data in the study implied that “younger children (younger than age 6) may be more demanding of time and emotional resources, suggesting the need for extra resources and age-specific training for parents of preschool children” (Linares et al., 2006).
Of course, most of the studied data was on children younger than 8 year-old and children who were reported to have behavioral problems since most needed therapy and thus the discovered similarities among kin and nonkin foster parents and children may not be as similar as the studies suggest. In Judging Amy, there is a humongous difference in the parenting styles and parental attachment of foster parents and biological parents to their children. There are lots of various issues but still, the images of children in foster care compared to the one under kin parental care ‘” even though the shows most of these relations as problematic to some degree ‘” are rougher and harsher realities. In Denzel Washington’s film Antwone Fisher, the protagonist Antwone Fisher is a naval soldier who had a history of growing up in a foster home. In the movie, the discipline practices of his foster mother are likened to that of a sadist’s and his foster sister that of a sexual predator’s. The movie ends on a high note with Antwone finding his real biological family, suggesting that somehow nonkin foster life is substantially worse than life under kin care.
The film script was written by Antwone Fisher himself and so perhaps such sentimentalities have been true in Fisher’s life but according to the two studies discussed above, what matters in foster care is not whether the caregivers are kin or nonkin, but whether they show commitment (Dozier & Lindheim, 2006). In a peer-reviewed journal article “This is my child: differences among foster parents in commitment to their young children,” Dozier and Lindheim writes that commitment more than anything is what stabilizes family relationships in foster care. Contrary to popular notion, the more children foster parents take care of, the less they are able to show commitment to their foster children and thus the less able they are to stake care of them. They also write in their article that the younger the children are, the easier it is for them to show commitment and love to the children. They concluded this after having studied 84 foster parent-child dyads, having defined commitment as “as the extent to which the caregiver is motivated to have an enduring relationship with a particular child” (Dozier and Lindheim, 2006). Experience, they conclude, is thus a thing that should not be sought out as a qualification of a foster parent but rather, how willing they are to take care of a child as their own. It is given that a kin foster parents would probably be more committed to the children but with so much similarities between kin and nonkin caregivers, commitment is the one that that really seem to matter.
Commitment is immeasurable however and there are times when even commitment fails. In those cases, research has shown that interventions is important; parent training on social learning principles is one of the most successful interventions in the treatment and in the prevention of child externalizing problems (Horwitz, 1994, cited in Linares et al., 2006). The impact of intervention was studied in the peer-reviewed journal article “A promising parenting intervention in foster care” by Linares, Montalto, Li, and Oza. In this study 128 biological and foster parents were selected to undergo a 12-week parent-training course and their progress was evaluated. The findings, even though some parents ended up not finishing the course (or technically considered “incomplete), have shown that co-parenting and joint cooperation between the two kinds of parents and parent intervention is substantially correlated to better familial stability for parents and children in foster care.
These studies have shown much about the objective workings among kin and nonkin foster parents and children. Though popular TV shows and films like Judging Amy and Antwone Fisher are not too wrong in depicting how foster care works in America, these studies show that there is much more at work than foster parents being bad and real family being loving when it comes to issues regarding foster care.
Armsden, G., Pecora, P., Payne, V., & Szatkiewicz, J. (2000). Children placed in long-term foster care: An intake profile using the Child Behavior Checklist/4-18. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 8, 49-64.
Berrick, J. D., Barth, R., & Needell, P. (1994). A comparison of kinship foster homes and foster family homes: Implications for kinship foster care as family preservation. Children and Youth Services Review, 16(1-2), 33-63.
Dozier, M. & Lindhiem, O (2006). This is my child: differences among foster parents in commitment to their young children. Child Maltreatment, 4. 338-45. [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]
Dubowitz, H., & Sawyer, R. (1994). School behavior of children in kinship care. Child Abuse and Neglect, 18, 899-911.
Horwitz, S. M. (1994). Brief Services Assessment for Children and Adolescents. In P. J. Mrazek & R. J. Haggerty (Ed.), Reducing risks for mental disorders: Frontiers for preventive intervention research. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
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Shore, N., Sim, K., Le Prohn, N., & Keller, T. (2002). Foster parent and teacher assessments in youth in kinship and non-kinship foster care placements: Are behaviors perceived differently across settings? Children and Youth Services Review, 24, 109-134.
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