The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

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

“Be a Parent...Don't Just be a Foster Parent:” Nurturing Positive Foster Youth and Caregiver Relationships

Friday, January 17, 2014: 3:30 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 001B River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Heather Storer, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Susan E. Barkan, PhD, Senior Research Scientist/Associate Director of Research, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Kevin Haggerty, MSW, PhD, Assistant Director, Social Development Research Group, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Linnea L. Stenhouse, MSW, Affiliate, University of Washington, Seattle, WA

In the United States, about 125,000 youth aged 14-18 are in out-of-home foster care. It has been well documented that foster youth face considerable challenges both in care and once they have aged out of the child welfare system, including engagement in high-risk behaviors. Foster parents experience significant stress and may not be receiving the necessary training to meet the multidimensional needs of vulnerable youth in the child welfare system. Although the importance of positive connections between foster youth and caring adults has been well-documented, there has been limited inquiry into the relationships between foster youth and their caregivers and strategies to bolster these connections.


Data & Sample: Qualitative data were gathered from 9 focus groups (n=63) conducted in two Washington Children’s Administration (CA) regions: three each with former foster youth aged 18-21 (n=20), foster parents (n=16), and CA staff (n=27).


Focus group data were analyzed using conventional thematic content analysis approaches. Data analysis involved identifying and categorizing codes and developing primary themes. Codes were derived inductively from multiple readings of the transcripts. Matrices were used to identify codes both within and across individual perspectives. We utilized a collaborative process to compare, discuss and negotiate analytic discrepancies. Atlas.ti was used to facilitate the analysis process.


Youth described foster care experiences where they felt there was a lack of a genuine relationship with their foster caregivers, their basic needs went unmet, they were treated differently than their foster parents’ biological children, where their cultural backgrounds were not respected, and they perceived themselves as being seen as “damaged goods.” Foster youth reported that they wanted very basic things from their foster care placements: a sense of belonging, parental support, and someone that shows a genuine interest in their lives. Caregivers reported and exhibited signs of stress and reactivity, demonstrated deficit -based attitudes about youth in their care, and were skeptical about youth’s desires to form closer bonds. For example, foster caregivers underscored youth’s troubled backgrounds, worried about them negatively impacting their biological children, and found youth in their care to be resistant to structure.

Conclusions and Implications:

While the portraits of foster parent and teen relationships in this study were not ideal, this study is a critical first step in identifying factors that can contribute to more positive relationships between foster caregivers and youth in their care. It is imperative for foster caregivers to understand that youth desire to forge meaningful connections, want their caregivers to establish appropriate boundaries and be involved in their lives. This research points to the need for foster parents to have additional training and support around strategies to positively engage youth in family life, culturally competent parenting practices and strengths-based parenting strategies. Frequently foster caregiver trainings focus more on legal and custodial issues related to caregiving and less on the importance of connecting with foster youth in authentic ways. In turn these steps can contribute to greater placement stability, minimize caregiver burnout and encourage foster youth’s positive development.