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February 2005Vol. 6, No. 1System or Policy Issues Cause Majority of Foster Care Placement Changes

A study of 580 children in San Diego's foster care system found that more than 70 percent of placement changes were due to issues related to systems or policies, while only 20 percent were due to issues related to children's behavior.

Existing literature often links a child's behavioral problems with placement disruption, but few studies have examined reasons for placement changes in a systematic way. The current study involved children between the ages of 2 and 16 who were in the foster care system between May 1990 and October 1991 and were in placement for at least 5 months. Nearly three-quarters of the children were in out-of-home care for the first time, and the average length of time in out-of-home care was approximately 16 months. As a group, these children experienced more than 2,200 placement changes during the study period.

Findings indicate that the vast majority of children (94 percent) experienced a placement change due to system or policy-related issues. These included moving a child to a less restrictive setting, placing a child with kin, or placing the child in closer proximity to biological parents. Behavioral issues were the cause of approximately 20 percent of placement changes, followed by issues with the foster family (8 percent) and issues with the biological parents (2 percent).

Further analysis showed that placement changes due to behavioral issues were more likely to occur within the first 100 days of entering the foster care system. Other predictors of behavior-related placement changes included:

  • Clinical levels of externalizing problems as measured by the Child Behavior Checklist
  • Older age at entry into foster care
  • Entry into foster care due to emotional abuse

Findings also indicate that children placed in kinship care were less likely to experience behavior-related placement than those placed in other types of out-of-home care. Moreover, system- or policy-related placement changes were not associated with behavior-related placement changes.

Based on these results, the authors conclude that some children may enter foster care with attributes or conditions that put them at risk for a behavior-related placement change. Further, they suggest that these children should receive targeted interventions to reduce the risk of behavior-related placement changes.

The complete article, "Why Do Foster Care Placements Disrupt? An Investigation of Reasons for Placement Change in Foster Care," is available in the December 2004 issue of Social Service Review. Copies can be obtained online for a fee: