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September/October 2011Vol. 12, No. 7Characteristics of Infants in Foster Care

Infants in out-of-home care are a vulnerable population with needs and challenges that significantly differentiate them from older foster children. A recent study by Chapin Hall explores the unique set of strengths and vulnerabilities that infants in foster care exhibit as a group. The study looks at foster care data from 14 States for the years spanning 2000 to 2008 as well as data from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW) and existing research on smaller samples of foster infants and toddlers. 

Researchers examined key findings across five main domains: incidence of first-time out-of-home placements, duration in care, experiences in care, characteristics, and vulnerability for delayed development. Results indicate the following:

  • Children under the age of 1 enter care at a higher rate than older children.
  • The youngest infants spend more time in care than older children.
  • Like older children, the most common placement for infants is a foster family setting.
  • Infants entering care are most likely to be African-American, while older children are most likely to be White.
  • Intellectual impairment, mental health issues, and higher levels of stress are more prevalent in the primary caregivers of young infants.
  • Prenatal factors heightened by the effects of postnatal trauma (i.e., neglect, abuse and/or caregiver transitions) may produce a "toxic stress" that negatively impacts most areas of development, including emotions, cognitive abilities, and physical health.

Although infants and toddlers in foster care face a number of challenges, the authors conclude that recent research points to promising new developments in the areas of recovery and brain functioning. Early intervention programs, appropriate therapeutic responses, and caregiver training and support can greatly reduce the harmful effects of toxic stress and improve the odds for better cognitive outcomes.

The complete study, Who Are the Infants in Out-of-Home Care? An Epidemiological and Developmental Snapshot, by Fred Wulczyn, Michelle Ernst, and Philip Fisher, is available on the Chapin Hall website: (562 KB)