The Foster Family Process
Subjects: Sociology

       Being a foster family consists of a continuous process influenced by several aspects. It involves challenges and demands. But also daily rewards. It is critical that more families be encouraged to become foster carers and also that experienced carers stay in the system to create a sustainable foster care programme. We found three types of foster families, classified according to their will to leave or remain in foster care—unconditional, hesitant, or retired. The support team are determinant for success in every stage. 

  • foster care
  • foster family
  • foster family remain
  • sustainability
  • childwelfare system

       This empirical research, based on a qualitative approach, tries to answer the main research questions “How is the carers’ will to foster a child maintained?” and “What can we learn from foster families’ experiences to improve childcare and the child protection system?”. The aim of the study is to give voice to the foster carers in order to understand their foster experience, namely the elements that contribute to their decision to remain in the foster care system and keep fostering children or just leave.

       Only by having a deeper understanding of foster carers’ experiences will it be possible to tailor the support given and the social, clinical, and financial benefits. In Portugal, studies on foster care are still limited [1][2]. The lack of investment in this child welfare measure is extremely significant. Looking at the last decade [3], the number of children placed in foster care decreased by 70%. The figures have never been so low. In 2018, there were 200 children in foster families out of 7031 in out-of-home care; that’s only 2.8%. Excluding kinship care from Portuguese foster care regulations may be one of the explanations for the huge gap between the number of placements in Portugal and other countries. However, it still does not explain the reason why foster care remains residual as a public policy measure after 2008. Political disinvestment by public authorities, as pointed out by Portuguese researchers [4][5], is unquestionable. In addition, the influence of religious charity networks that offer a very significant part of residential care can be presented as another potential reason for the resistance to reform the system, but more systematic research is needed to establish a consistent and complete explanation.

       However, foster care constitutes an issue on the social agenda, specifically after the changes to the Portuguese child protection law, Lei de Proteção de Crianças e Jovens em Perigo, (no. 142/2015 of 8 September) in 2015. The law highlights foster care as the recommended measure for out-of-home care children mainly up to 6 years old.

       The Portuguese legal framework is in line with the national and international recommendations (e.g., Portuguese Republic Constitution—Constituição da República Portuguesa (1976); Convention on the Rights of the Child; Resolution no. 64/142 of the General Assembly of United Nations of 20 December 2010—Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children; Recommendation 2013/112/EU Investing in children: breaking the cycle of disadvantage, European Commission, 20 February 2013; [1][4][6][7]) on a child’s rights to grow up in family-based care; however, the reality of the child protection system remains different. At the end of 2019, a new regulation (Decreto-Lei no. 139/2019, 16 September) was published. This revision of the legal framework highlights the importance of recruiting, training, and supporting families who become carers. Families are recruited, trained, and supported by multidisciplinary teams which work for entities that offer a foster care program in Portugal. To be developed and sustainable, the improvements to the foster care system must include the recruitment of new families who want to become foster carers and also must focus on efforts to keep the experienced carers and learn from their experience as a source to design recruitment and training processes and to evaluate and improve the foster care system.

       Sustainability relates to the ability to sustain humanity, civilisations, and the ecosystems on earth. Achieving sustainability is a challenge and one of the most important objectives of a society and its people. Sustainability is a multidimensional concept encompassing economic, social, environmental, and other factors [8]. Therefore, foster care must be thought of and designed in line with the principle of sustainability, as it is a principle of social work [9].

       As in other countries, the number of available foster families is insufficient for the system’s needs in order to place all the children that would benefit from placement with a foster family. The number of foster families available is a determinant, as noted in the foster care manual Processos-Chave [10], in order to be a sustainable system.

       Looking at European countries such as Ireland, England, Spain, or Sweden, and many other countries around the world like Australia, Canada, and the United States of America, foster care is likely to be the preferred placement for children, of course after the biological family if it is not capable of caring for them at that time. The Portuguese scenario is significantly distinct. 

       With respect to some facts and figures, in Northern Ireland, the empirical data from 2017/2018, revealed that 79% of children were in foster care [11]. In England, the number is increasing; 73% of all children looked after were in foster placements in 2018 [12]. In Spain, there were 20,172 children growing up in foster families (which includes children in kinship care) in 2015 [13]. Around the world in Australia, foster care constitutes one of the main interventions of support available to a child [14], according to the Government, 85% of children living in out-of-home care are in foster care (including kinship care) in 2018. In Canada, 437,283 children are in foster care in 2018, highlighting the increase in children fostered since 1992 when foster care included around 40,000 children [15].

       In Portugal, children have always been taken care of by other families in an informal agreement between two families or as an answer to orphans’ situations [4]. Four periods define the foster care stages in the Portuguese system: origin, institutionalisation, expansion, and setback. The first stage lasted until the seventies of the twentieth century, and it revealed that foster placements have always existed [4]. According to the facts and figures, foster care in Portugal remains in the setback process. The first law regulating foster care was published in 1979 (DL no. 288/79 of 13 August), but it defined it as a “family placement”. Later in 1992 (DL no. 190/92 of 3 September), a new law revealed an effort to improve upon the previous one. In the past, foster care was part of a social benefit instead of a child protection measure as is nowadays.

       The term “foster family” in Portugal denotes a single person or a couple, specifically qualified for the task of placing a child or an adolescent and taking care of him or her, addressing his/her needs, and promoting the child’s well-being and education needed for global development (Decreto-Lei no. 139/2019 of 16 September). Since 2008, foster care kinship has not been allowed. If a caregiver is a relative of the foster child, it is not considered foster care; it is a biological family measure to support the child’s family. Since then, the number of children placed in foster care has been decreasing significantly, as stated previously [3].

       In terms of geographic presence, in the north of the country, we find more foster carers, and there are some regions without any foster families and therefore without any fostered children. In the north is where one non-governmental organisation has offered a foster care programme for 12 years in accordance with international standards. Across the country, the social security public institute has the responsibility of carrying out foster care; however, at the moment it is almost residual. Government decentralisation is the tendency.

       In Porto District, the foster carer’s profile has been characterised by Delgado et al. [4] (p. 80). They are aged, with a poor/basic level of education; wives are likely to be domestic workers. In one third of these foster families, both carers are unemployed. Unemployment reveals their complete availability to take care of a child but also their economic fragility and perhaps professional interest. In Portugal, foster care professionalisation is not possible. Fostering is not conceived as a profession but instead it is considered as a voluntary and solidary activity [2].

       Since 1992, foster families have been protected by legal rights (DL no. 190/92 of 3 September). However, after a deep discussion involving a public hearing, carers saw their benefits extended (DL no. 139/2019 of 16 September). This means that they receive, after January 2020, a monthly allowance of around 522.91€ per child, and a bonus of 15% for children up to 6 years old or for children with special needs. The law focuses on duties as well.

       A foster family is required to give emotional security, affection, and love to a child, but the family must also be available to collaborate in the recovery of the child’s family [16], for example, maintaining a cordial relationship and connection, giving a positive/neutral image of the birth family, and promoting child–parents contact. Martins [17] highlights that carers are involved in a complex situation, perhaps with rivalry and antagonism. However, the relationship built between the social actors may lead to different scenarios.

       Reasons to foster a child in Porto District are based on affective and humanistic motivations, a love of children and a desire to help [1]. Financial motivation is not significant as findings from a recent research study [2] indicate. The authors also find the transmission of social values to biological children as a motivation to foster. Personal and family life paths can foster the desire to take care of and protect a child who was maltreated in the past. So, in Portugal, in line with other countries, it seems that the motivation to become a foster family stems from one or more of these three drivers: child-centred reasons, self-oriented reasons, and society-oriented reasons, with the focus likely being on the child-centred reason [18]. In Portugal, it seems unlikely to find “second families” among families experiencing the empty nest syndrome, as found by Schofield et al. [19], because one of the family features in southern countries like Portugal is precisely that adult children still live in their parents’ home [5].

       About the fostering experience, Delgado et al. [4] have found that in Portugal carers appreciate the love given by the foster child and that carers give this love back. Negative aspects are the financial costs and the fear of losing the child. Only one of the participants referred to the child’s behaviour and social discrimination. Diogo [5] identifies the experience as rewarding, as well as feeling valued by society, but also with challenges.

       Finally, in terms of the will to continue fostering children, retention success is not easily defined and may be different for different types of caring models [20]. Nevertheless, Sinclair et al. [21] state that foster carers must feel supported; therefore, the principles of the kind of fostering that carers are asked to undertake must fit with foster families’ situations and preferences. Foster families need to be treated as part of the team and of the support system, and foster carers need a supportive response to critical events (such as placement breakdown and abuse allegations). Early intervention might help to prevent this sort of event.

In summary, to invest in new and experienced foster carers seems to be the secure path for the Portuguese government and social services in order to achieve a solid child protection system.

This entry is adapted from 10.3390/su12197942


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