Internalizing and externalizing behaviors of adolescents in kinship and foster care: Findings from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-being

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2007-05-07

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The mission of the United States child welfare system is to promote safety, permanency and well-being for children and youth. The underlying assumption of out-of-home placement is that kinship and foster families provide a safer, better quality care environment than biological families. Yet, decades of research have found out-of-home placement to be associated with negative child outcomes. This study answers the question, "What is the effect of out-of-home placement in kinship or foster care on adolescent behavior?" It contributes to previous findings using a series of hierarchical linear regressions in an improved research design. Data are drawn from a subset of 839 adolescents in the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-being (NSCAW). Measures at baseline, and 18 and 36 months after baseline allow for a longitudinal examination of the development of problem behaviors over time.

After correcting methodological shortcomings in previous research, this study finds no negative effects of kinship and foster care on behavior. Kinship care has a direct protective effect on girls' externalizing behavior and foster care has an indirect protective effect on girls internalizing and externalizing behavior. Selection effects are corrected by considering the influence of pre-placement circumstances on post-placement outcomes. Outcomes for youth placed out-of-home are compared to the best available comparison group of youth that are investigated by Child Protective Services, but not placed.

This study also advances our theoretical understanding of how placements affect child outcomes. Results suggest that the current care environment, as measured by child/caregiver relationship and parental monitoring, is a better predictor of adolescent behavior than the out-of-home placement experience. Foster caregivers provide more parental monitoring than biological parents, but the child/caregiver relationship might not be as good in foster placements as it is in the biological family. There is no difference in child/caregiver relationship quality in kinship families relative to biological families and there is a trend toward increased parental monitoring from kinship caregivers compared to biological parents.

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