The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Finding the Vital Few Foster Mothers

Friday, January 17, 2014: 2:30 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 001B River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Donna J. Cherry, PhD, Assistant Professor, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, TN
John G. Orme, PhD, Professor, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Knoxville, TN
Background and Purpose

Many foster parents serve briefly, and foster and adopt few children. This makes it difficult to ensure the placement, care, stability, and well-being of foster children. Rather than focus on this majority of foster parents, it may be more useful to understand highly productive foster parents. The Pareto Principle provides a useful conceptual framework for doing this. This principle originates from economics and has empirical support in other fields. It also is known as the 80-20 rule or the Vital Few and states that roughly 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. This presentation will report research that identified such a group of foster parents and will describe their characteristics.


In Study 1 we used a cross-sectional design and a national non-probability sample of 304 non-kinship foster mothers. In Study 2 we used data from the National Survey of Current and Former Foster Parents (NSC&FFP), which included a national probability sample of 876 non-kinship foster families.

We used latent class analysis (LCA) to identify discrete subgroups of foster families based on number of children fostered; years fostered; and number of foster children in home at the time of study participation. Study 1 also included number of foster children adopted and number removed at foster parents' request. In Study 1 we also examined differences between subgroups in the quality of care provided.


LCA revealed two classes: 21% and 79% of the sample in Study 1, and 19% and 81% in Study 2. We refer to the smaller group as the Vital Few and the larger as the Useful Many. Vital Few families fostered 73% and 74% of children in Study 1 and 2, respectively; 10 to 11 times more children than the Useful Many, despite having fostered only two to three times longer. Also, in both studies the Vital Few had 50% more foster children in their homes. Finally, the Vital Few in Study 1 had adopted twice as many children and requested removal rate was of one-half.

In Study 1 we regressed class membership on quality of care indicators using logistic regression. The odds of being in the Vital Few were higher for mothers who: were less likely to use psychological control in parenting or inconsistent parenting; had less need for social readjustment; had more time to foster; and anticipated more help with fostering from professionals. Mothers who anticipated more help with fostering from kin were less likely to be in the Vital Few.

Conclusions and Implications

Findings suggest that a disproportionately small percentage of foster parents care for most foster children. Understanding the characteristics of these resilient Vital Few can inform recruitment and retention efforts and the designation of other limited resources. Embracing the phenomenon of the Vital Few can reduce frustration of workers and provide more positive and realistic expectations of foster parents. Further research on the Vital Few is warranted to assess the motivations of this group, the quality of care provided, and outcomes of children fostered by these families.