J.J. Doyle of MIT has again done an extensive review of whether foster care is good for children. He concludes not using a large data base and builds on earlier work that he has done. Critics of foster care may well start to salivate at these results but, before they do, it is vital to see that the results again focus on a particular part of the foster care population.
His results show:
"The results suggest that placing children in foster care increases their likelihood of becoming delinquent during adolescence and requiring emergency health care in the short term. Along this one dimension of child safety, it does not appear that foster care is serving a protective role."
This is an important caution that replicates earlier work by not only Doyle but other researchers through the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago. But Doyle also notes that his work applies to a particular subset of children in the child protection system:
"The results do apply to a particularly policy-relevant group: those children where the investigator does matter. These are marginal cases where investigators could disagree about how to proceed. This variation is at the heart of the policy question of whether the child-protection system is too aggressive or not aggressive enough."
From a policy perspective this is quite crucial. How to proceed with cases for which the answer may not be clearly place or clearly keep in the family. In general, his work suggests that keeping those children in the family may be better. Bear in mind that other research tells us that effective supports are a crucial element to making that work.
Doyle places one other caveat: "Further, the results apply to somewhat older children, between the ages of 5 and 15, who were investigated for abuse or neglect in Illinois during the 1990s. To the extent that other foster care systems perform better than this one, the answer could change. Future research that considers younger children, other states, and other time periods would allow an examination of whether the results apply more generally to child protection policies in the U.S."
Thus, important questions related to younger children in particular remain unanswered. It is crucial that we continue to see the degree to which these impacts are true for younger children. Research in the UK suggests that getting a stable answer for children by age 7 is vital. As children age and family patterns (along with other related environmental problems) become more entrenched, negative outcomes become more likely.
As Doyle says in the introduction to his article: There is no dispute that severely abused or neglected children should be protected, and a foster family home has been judged the best alternative whenever possible. A key policy question is one of degree: how aggressive should child protective services be? Child protection agencies trade off two competing goods: family preservation and child protection ... More aggressive child protection may reduce child abuse or neglect, but removal from parents may be traumatic to children as well. For example, much has been written about the potential for such instability to hinder child development, and multiple placements once a child has been placed in foster care has been associated with greater emotional and behavioral problems among foster children."
Doyle's article is currently in press with the Children and Youth Services Review.