A 17 Year Longitudinal Study of Vital Few Foster Families

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Background. Four studies have found a core group of families who foster longer and foster and adopt a disproportionate number of children. We refer to these 20% as Vital Few families and the remaining 80% as Useful Many families. Three of these studies were cross-sectional and probably overrepresented families who foster longer and foster and adopt more children. The sole longitudinal study did not follow families over their entire fostering careers and perhaps underestimated length of service and number of children fostered and adopted. Futhermore, these studies did not provide information about characteristics of either group of families at the outset of their fostering careers, making it difficult to know how to recruit Vital Few families.

This presentation will describe a longitudinal study used to address two questions: (1) Is there a small group of families who provide a disproportionate amount of foster caregiving and, if so, how large is this group and how do they differ from other families in terms of foster caregiving? (2) If there is a relatively small group of families who provide a disproportionate amount of foster caregiving, how do they differ at the outset of their fostering careers?

Methods. From 1996 through 1999, 161 families participated in our study of foster family applicants, 113 were approved to foster, and 17 years later 100 of these 113 participated in our follow-up study. We used latent class analysis (LCA) to: (1) determine whether there are discrete types of families in terms of number of children fostered, adopted, and removed at families’ request, number of years fostered, and licensed capacity (all measured at follow-up); (2) determine the size of subgroups; and (3) assign families to subgroups.

Results. Our LCA identified two groups of families, the Vital Few (10%) and Useful Many (90%). Vital Few families fostered two-thirds of all children, and they fostered three and one-half years longer. They adopted twice as many foster children and were licensed to foster twice as many children. Finally, the requested removal rate for Vital Few families was less than one-fourth that of Useful Many families.

There were also differences between groups at the outset of their fostering careers. Vital Few families were more likely to say they would foster a sibling group. Also, Vital Few families were more likely to have children in the home; older mothers and fathers; mothers with previous foster parent experience; mothers not employed outside the home; and fathers with less education.

Conclusions.Vital Few families are important to the foster care system and the children and families it serves because without them the chronic shortage of foster and adoptive families would be exacerbated and placement disruptions even more prevalent. In addition, previous research has demonstrated that Vital Few families place fewer restrictions on characteristics of children they are willing to foster and this is important given the many foster children with special needs. For these and other reasons we need to know more about how to recruit and retain these families.


San Antonio, TX, Washington DC

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