Methods: Individual semi-structured phone interviews (n=20) were conducted with foster parents in one U.S. southeastern state. Foster parents self-reported as predominantly female (85%), 65% white (30% black, 5% other races), and a mean of 54.00 years old (SD=12.29 years). They were experienced (M=11.00 years as foster parent, SD=10.76) and serve numerous groups of children including children 0-12 (90% of sample have fostered this group), children 13-15 (55%), children with extensive medical needs (65%), and children with mental health or behavioral needs (75%). Inductive thematic analysis was used by a qualitative team to develop a codebook. This was revised with each new transcript until no new themes emerged. Analysis was conducted in NVivo 12.
Results: Motivations to foster include six themes: early exposure, specific child, family history, religious motivation, professional exposure, to grow family. Across several themes (early exposure, family history, professional exposure, specific child) the experience of meeting a foster child encouraged fostering. Growing up with an extended family who fostered, knowing a foster family as a young child, or coming in contact with foster children professionally (e.g., teacher) were all discussed. Numerous participants started fostering for a specific child and then branched out to other children. Several participants reported being open to the experience because they had a large family of biological children. Most rewarding experiences included five themes: child growth, child happiness, successful reunifications, adoption, child returns with gratitude. Participants’ most rewarding experiences were often simple. They appreciated the child’s developmental, academic, or emotional progress. They found the child’s happiness to be innately rewarding. Both adoption and successful reunification were rewarding experiences. Some participants reported reunions with grown former foster children who were grateful. Most challenging experiences included four themes: inability to meet child needs, child transitions, communication difficulties, low resources. Participants experienced significant hardship when they could not meet the extensive medical, mental health, or emotional needs of children. Noteworthy, the examples identified (e.g., pyromania, animal cruelty) were symptomatic of larger child needs. Child transitions included the logistical and emotional strain of children moving in or out of the home. Communication difficulties included communication with children, birth families, and bureaucracy. Low resources included acquiring tangible items for children, paperwork, and necessary services.
Conclusions/Implications: Understanding motivations to foster and fostering experiences can support foster parent recruitment. Foster parents’ most rewarding experiences were witnessing positive outcomes for children. While not all of the challenging experiences can be prevented, many can be mitigated with training, enhanced communication, and financial resources which can be provided through system-wide foster parent support and retention programs.