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Making the right decision: A comparison between professionals approaches


Aim. The province of Piacenza, which provides foster care services and supports the local services, carried out a research study in collaboration with the professionals working in the local foster care services in order to gather original data on the processes of foster care. This paper presents the preliminary results of the research. The next step will be a comparison with similar studies carried out by the research group at the University of York (Wade et al. 2011; Biehal 2007; Biehal et al. 2010).

Method. In order to document and evaluate the provision of foster care at the Province level and to improve its effectiveness, the project was developed in two main phases. The preliminary data - here described - derived  from a questionnaire submitted to professionals involved in the foster care process.

Findings. This analysis concerns 30 children who, in the last three years (2010-2012), were - or still are - in foster care (21 children in non kinship foster care). Overall, on December 31st 2012, 27 children were still in foster care.  At the time of the research, 17 were between 10 and 20 years old and the group 6-10 years old is the largest (13). When they were admitted to foster care, however, almost half (14) of the children were under 6 years old,  around one-third (9) between 6 and 10 years old, 2 were 11-13 years old and 3 over 13 years. The proportion of males and females (14 males and 16 females) was almost the same as in the overall child population in Italy. Most of the children (25) are Italian.

Family situations. In general the children came from families with multiple problems: in 17 families both parents and siblings had specific difficulties, in the remaining families only the parents had specific problems condition.

The birth parents: in 16 cases both have specific problems, in 9 cases only the mother, in 4 only the father. In 17 cases also another sibling has specific personal problems. Mothers were more likely than fathers to have psychological problems (17 vs 6), fathers have more experiences of detention (10 vs 14). The level of serious health problems (5), drug abuse (6) and gambling addiction (2 vs. 1) is instead nearly the same. These families exhibit high instability (in 21 cases with divorce or separation) and significant income problems (11 mothers and 11 fathers have a job, not always a regular one). At the time of foster care referral, almost half of the families (14) were already receiving services of different nature.

Children in foster care: Most (20) of the children have specific problems, and 14 have problems in two or more domains (social, educational or psychological). The situations of deprivation (8 children), learning difficulties (8) and exposure to parental involvement in crime (5) are prevailing, followed by specific learning disabilities (4) maltreatment (4) behavioural problems (3). Five of the 30 children experienced neglect and/or abuse (in one case, both). Two children are disabled, while there are no children with serious illnesses. Three children had experienced irregular school attendance and two had to repeat one or more years of school. School problems are also present in the last year of foster care. Seven children had difficulties and performed lower than average.

The majority (27) of the children had undergone previous placements (the vast majority only one). The first placement took place, in half of the cases, when the child was less than six years, in one third between 6 and 10 years. The reasons for placement were related to incapacity of parents to take care of their children and to neglect.

The decision-making process and management of foster care. In half of the cases, social and psychological supports are already active and the foster care plan is not an emergency decision but it is a planned intervention (26), built in integration between social services and psychological/health services (27). At the time of the admission to foster care, a quarter of the children were already in out-of-home care, the majority in a residential placement.

The foster care intervention becomes part of a helping path that derives from a specific difficulty of the child (referred by public services, juvenile courts, schools, paediatricians), while in 12 cases the demand for help comes directly from parents (to social services). In 29 cases there is a judicial measure for the foster care placement (decree from the Juvenile court).

The intervention of social workers and psychologists is also addressed to the birth parents, with regular meetings (in 18 cases), support and assessment of parental competences (13), supervision of the birth family (10), meetings between birth parents and children in a neutral place (7), working facilities for parents (7), economic support (6).  The foster family can count on: psychological support meeting (in 14 cases), psychological counselling (9), afternoon day care centre (2), support from the educators and / or youth centre (3), working facilities for the youngsters (1) and support for work socialization (3).

Aspects related to the emotional experience of foster care. For the 23 cases in on-going foster care some qualitative aspects can be measured:

- considering how different subjects involved in foster care express a collaborative attitude (i.e. acceptance of the situation and development of positive behaviour for the success of the foster care), the social worker reports that the foster parents and the child work «very hard» (19 and 16 cases), while a much lower level has been attributed to birth parents (4) and other relatives (2);

- considering, however, the level of opposition to the situation, social workers identified mainly other relatives (5), even more than parents (4), while no child expresses oppositional attitudes towards the situation.

Children perceive foster care as a very positive intervention: 18 children perceive it as a long-lasting situation, and 14 think that this will be his/her family for life; they feel part of the foster families, they trust them, they do not feel out of place or under scrutiny; they feel that foster families are committed «a lot» to them, they  feel encouraged, and do not want to leave the foster family. The only critical aspect that emerges is the perception, in children, of a certain prejudice against their birth parents by foster families.

Birth parents have a greater complexity in their feelings toward foster parents and foster care: on the one hand, they express low levels of trust in the caregivers (only 7 fathers and 2 mothers indicate «high»), on the other hand, they perceive the caregivers as people who take good care of their child (18 mothers and 8 fathers). There are clear signs of the difficulties that this experience generates in them: 14 mothers and 3 fathers feel «out of place», 9 mothers and 1 father feel blamed by foster parents, and 8 fathers and 10 mothers feel a little level of acceptance by foster parents, have little confidence with the foster parents but they would like more opportunities to interact with them (16 mothers and 4 fathers). Even trust in social services is not so poor as the trust to the Court.

Outcomes of foster care. Even though the foster care was planned for family reunification in 19 cases, foster care has become a long term care intervention. Only in 4 cases it is temporary and in the other cases the situation is still uncertain.

With regard to the ongoing situations, professionals agree on the fact that foster care is adequately addressing the needs of the child (16 «a lot» and 7 «somewhat») but also of the mother (21) and the father (15). Those who responded that the situation is not appropriate for the child propose, as an alternative, the reunification with the mother.

As for the children whose foster placements have ended, two aspects should be noted:

  • Foster care lasted less than two years (as required by the Italian law) in four cases, over three years (two cases exceeded ten years) in the other three cases;
  • The support in out-of-home care is not yet concluded: three children were placed in a residential placement, two in another family and only two have returned to their parents.

Conclusions. Considering the currently available data, it is possible to say that the findings are in tune with the general Italian situation (Maurizio 2009). In particular the study confirms some aspects:

  • foster care intervenes in situations that are already known to the services, situations that deteriorated or with some emerging crisis;
  • foster care placements last many years, many more years than expected and with little chance of reunification;
  • work with birth families is carried out, also during the foster care period, but not enough to modify the conditions that led to the child's placement. The involvement with birth families seems more developed in this Province than in other areas in Italy and this issue requires further exploration;
  • the relationship between birth families and foster families is small or absent in many situations. The role of social work is important as a mediator between the two families.

These are partial conclusions but they already outline some similarities with data from British studies. It should be noted, however, that contexts and countries are different, each with its own culture of foster care. While the British research indicates that the main reasons for taking care are related to abuse and neglect, from the Italian analysis socio-economic background and lack of parental competences emerge as the main reasons for placements.

Key references

Biehal, N. (2007). Reuniting Looked After Children with their Families: Reconsidering the evidence on timing, contact and outcomes. British Journal of Social Work, 37, 807-823.

Biehal, N., Ellison, S., Baker, C., Sinclair, I. (2010). Belonging and Permanence: Outcomes in Long Term Foster Care and Adoption. London: Baaf.

Centro nazionale di documentazione e analisi per l'infanzia e l'adolescenza (2013). Bambine e bambini temporaneamente fuori dalla famiglia di origine. Affidamenti familiari e collocamenti in comunità al 31 dicembre 2010, Quaderni n. 19 della ricerca sociale. Firenze: Centro nazionale di documentazione e analisi per l'infanzia e l'adolescenza.

Maurizio, R. (2009). Le politiche e le esperienze regionali. In V. Belotti (a cura di). Accogliere bambini, biografie, storie e famiglie. Le politiche di cura, protezione e tutela in Italia. Lavori preparatori alla relazione sullo stato di attuazione della legge 149/2001. Firenze: Centro nazionale di documentazione e analisi per l'infanzia e l'adolescenza.

Wade, J., Biehal, N., Farrelly, N., Sinclair, I. (2011). Caring for abused and neglected children. Making the right decision for reunification or long-term foster care. London and Philadephia: Jessica Kingsley Publisher.

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