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June 2005Vol. 6, No. 5Study Explores Foster Parent Retention

With more than 500,000 children in foster care across the country, child welfare agencies are continually challenged to retain qualified foster parents. Understanding Foster Parenting: Using Administrative Data to Explore Retention, a new study published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), uses data from child welfare agencies in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Oregon to explore foster parent retention.

The report presents some surprising findings:

  • Length of service in foster parenting is shorter than many would expect. The estimated median length of service for foster parents in this study, 8 to 14 months, contrasts with the mean time of 5 to 8 years reported in earlier studies.
  • Burnout does not appear to be a factor in length of service. Higher foster home occupancy and higher levels of care for infants, adolescents, and children with special needs were consistently associated with greater length of service. This finding does not support the common notion that burnout caused by high levels of placement and demand of children in care is a factor in length of service.
  • A relatively small group of foster parents provides most of the foster care. In the three States studied, one-fifth of the foster parent population provides 60 percent to 80 percent of all foster care.

The research team conducted three types of analyses: 1) characteristics of foster parents over multiple years, 2) utilization of licensed homes, and 3) longitudinal analysis modeling the length of service in foster parenting. Consistent patterns of foster parent activity were identified:

  • At least one in five foster homes exited the system each year.
  • On average, homes had between one and two children at the same time.
  • Homes with nonwhite foster parents, those in rural or nonmetropolitan counties, and those with two parents cared for more children at a time and had higher rates of placement turnover.
  • Foster parents caring for infants were typically younger, urban, and in two-parent homes.
  • Foster parents caring for adolescents were likely to be older, rural, and in single-parent homes.
  • Foster parents with greater length of service were likely to be older, live in a metropolitan area, and be engaged in more intense foster parenting activity, as indicated by higher occupancy rates and care for infants, adolescents, and children with special needs.
  • No significant association was found between length of service and race.

Readers should note two important limitations. First, experiences of three States cannot be generalized to foster parents in other States. Second, these analyses do not provide much insight as to why foster parents stay or leave.

Print copies of this report can be ordered from ASPE at

Related Item

Another study released in January by ASPE, Male Perpetrators of Child Maltreatment: Findings from NCANDS, explores the characteristics of male perpetrators of child maltreatment, the patterns of maltreatment and outcomes associated with male perpetrators, and a mother co-perpetrator's influence on the circumstances or outcomes. This report is available at (PDF - 368 KB).