When foster parents use words that emphasize a sense of belonging, it can be a powerful tool to help ease foster children into a new home and even enhance the possibility that it will be a successful placement.
When a foster parent says, “This is our house; this is your room,” to a foster child, they’re relaying an important message of belonging: “You are part of this family — the whole family,” and that’s a strong statement, says Annette Semanchin Jones, an assistant professor in the University at Buffalo (UB) School of Social Work.
This is known as “claiming language,” and its consistent use by foster parents plays a critical role when foster children enter a new home. These children are better able to adapt when they feel a sense of belonging, and even further, know that their foster parents will advocate for them and help with the stressful transition to different schools and neighborhoods.
Jones conducted the research with her colleague Barbara Rittner, UB associate professor of social work, and Melissa Affronti of Coordinated Care Services Inc., a human service agency in upstate New York.
It is well understood that foster children who adapt successfully to a foster home reap long-term benefits. However, there have been very few studies exploring the link between foster parent characteristics and the developmental outcomes of children in their care. The new findings highlight important strategies that foster parents can use to successfully transition children into new homes.
For the study, researchers conducted interviews and focus groups with 35 experienced foster parents to explore how they contributed to a “functional adaptation” that helped their children transition successfully and sustain their placements.
“This study really speaks to helping to make sure that foster parents are well prepared,” says Semanchin Jones. “Every jurisdiction has pre-service trainings, but our research shows the need for ongoing support once kids are in foster homes.”
She adds that the turnover rate of foster parents is nearly 50 percent, and nearly 90 percent of children in foster care experience at least one disruption.
“When we think about kids who have already been removed from their homes of origin, placement disruption can be a re-traumatizing experience,” she says.
Research has shown that foster children who experience frequent disruptions often have poor psychosocial outcomes.
“Even kids who didn’t come into foster homes with behavior problems end up having both internalizing behaviors like suicidal ideations and externalizing aggressive behaviors such as physical aggression,” she says.
This can set up a perpetuating cycle of instability for children as their continuing poor behaviors cause each new set of foster parents to request the child be placed elsewhere.
Foster parents also need to understand that children are often still emotionally attached to the birth family.
“Foster parents should be respectful in honoring the birth family,” says Semanchin Jones. “That can be difficult because not every situation is going smoothly, but kids have multiple senses of loyalty and foster parents should not be talking down about the birth family.”
The new findings can help foster parents identify what’s important in helping a child transition into their home.
“Our research can really help child welfare agencies. Those agencies that are responsible for licensing foster homes and training foster parents can use this information in an ongoing way,” says Semanchin Jones.
“Foster parents need to know there are areas for continued improvement: skills building-pieces. Some of these things may come naturally to foster parents, but it doesn’t mean you can’t build capacity.”
The study findings are published in the Journal of Public Child Welfare.
Source: University at Buffalo