Method: Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) data identified all children whose most recent foster care placement started between 2007-2016. Cases were tracked through September 30, 2017. Bivariate analyses estimated average length in care for cases that exited within the study timeframe. To account for censoring, a cluster robust Cox proportional hazard model estimated likelihood of permanence across an 8-level categorical variable accounting for all combinations of three dichotomized variables: older adult foster parent (yes/no), race (White/non-white), and removal due to substance use (yes/ no). Model covariates included child age, sex, number of prior foster care episodes, diagnosed disability status, number of federal benefits received, and rural/urban continuum code.
Results: Among the 2,672,321 children whose most recent foster care removal occurred during 2006-2016, 48.3% of records included information on foster parents (n = 1,290,981). Of 666,523 children with substance use removals (35.4%), 8.6% were placed with at least one older adult foster parent, a rate similar to the children without substance removals (9.2%). Children with substance removals placed with an older adult foster parent spent an average of 119 fewer days in foster care than peers with younger foster parents. However, this effect was less pronounced for children of color, who spent 62 fewer days in care than peers with younger foster parents. Results of the Cox model revealed that permanency was significantly more likely for White children with substance removals placed with older adult foster parents than similarly situated children of color. Similar to the bivariate findings, the protective effects of older adult foster parents on likelihood of permanence were more pronounced for White children than children of color.
Conclusions/Implications: Older adult foster care parents appear to be a protective factor related to foster care experiences. Given that nearly one out of ten substance use placements in our sample were with older adult foster parents, this apparent protective association of placement with an older adult represents an important possible approach for minimizing the risks associated with foster care placement. A key area for future research is to better understand the mechanisms by which older adult placements provide protection for youth in foster care. Concurrently, findings with similarly situated children of color are concerning. Understanding what supports are needed for older adults who care for foster children of color is another important area for future research. As substance abuse-related removals continue to rise, and child welfare workers turn to older adults as foster care providers, adequate supports are critical in ensuring equitable outcomes.