Foster Youth Perception of the Foster Home As a Predictor of Internalized Mental Health
Although a significant body of research suggests that social-familial processes within the home environment may influence the development of at-risk youth (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006; Biglan et al., 2012), the specific mechanisms through which foster youth are integrated within the foster home and environment remain understudied, particularly from the perspective of youth themselves. This paper reports on analyses testing the measurement properties of an instrument designed to assess inclusion and relationships among foster children in their foster homes through the experience of the foster child with respect to predicting multiple mental health outcomes. In so doing, the paper provides a youth-centered perspective on relational qualities within the foster home, which have been traditionally measured via impressions of outside agents such as caseworkers or social workers, or through the perspective of the foster parent (Orme & Buehler, 2001).
Data were collected from 150 Oregon sibling dyads and their primary foster parent. In terms of youth characteristics, 73% of siblings lived together; and average ages of the older and younger siblings were 13.1 (SD=1.48) and 10.7 (SD=1.74), respectively. Youth-completed assessments of mental health functioning included the Hopelessness Scale for Children (HSC, Kazdin et al., 1983; alpha=.71-.76), Child Depression Inventory (CDI, Kovacs, 1981; alpha=.82-.90), and Child Report of Posttraumatic Symptoms (CROPS, Greenwald & Rubin, 1996; alpha=.88-.89). Foster parents completed the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL, Achenbach, 1991; alpha=.88-.97). Additionally, youth completed an 11-item, 10-point Likert-type measure of their perceived inclusion in their foster family and the quality of their relationship with their foster parent. Items included: “To what extent do you feel included in your foster home?” and “How good is your relationship with your foster parent?” (alpha =.87-.89). Multi-level models were conducted with siblings grouped by family. Quality of home environment was examined as a predictor for each outcome controlling for age, gender and living situation.
Results indicated that youths’ perceptions of the foster home experience were significantly and inversely related to CBCL Total T-scores (γ10=-2.79, p<.05), CBCL Externalizing T-scores (γ10=-3.77, p<.01), CROPS scores (γ10=-3.42, p<.01), HSC scores (γ10=-3.04, p<.01) and CDI scores (γ10=-3.61, p<.01). They were marginally significant for CBCL Internalizing T-scores (γ10=-1.66, p=.058) above and beyond the effects of all covariates.
These findings suggest that internalizing mental health outcomes are significantly associated with foster youths’ perceived relationship with foster parents and inclusion within the foster home. Albeit associational, these results highlight the value of measuring foster youth perspectives on key social dimensions of the foster home environment, and suggest that foster home integration and the youth-foster parent relationship may serve as intervention levers for responding to the mental health needs of foster youth. Additional research is needed to clarify foster home attributes most responsive to intervention and how household and familial factors (e.g. poverty) may moderate or mediate those attributes (Robinson et al, 2012).