Research Watch: Foster Care as Musical Chairs

Diana Zuckerman
July 1, 1999

Jill Duerr Berrick, et al.

Oxford University Press, 1998

$19.95 at

Foster care is the “cure” that can be worse than the disease, according to “The Tender Years,” a report by Jill Duerr Berrick and her colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley.

One in three infants and almost half of the toddlers entering foster care with individuals other than relatives will have three or more placements during their first two years of foster care, they write. This instability causes profound emotional damage, especially for children under the age of three.

“Each placement means that the child must adjust to new parents, new siblings, new surroundings, new rules, new expectations, new routines, new foods and a new place to sleep,” Berrick says. Each time a child has to adjust to a new home, he or she will feel less secure and will eventually learn to avoid establishing new attachments. “If we focused more resources on the first 30 days [in foster care], providing development assessments for the children and finding an appropriate placement, it would cost more up front, but the rest of their time in foster care would be less harmful to kids and much less expensive.”

Berrick says the system needs to be redesigned because the current child protective services system focuses primarily on the parents, since the goal is to reunify the family, but does not focus enough resources on placing the children. The authors also criticize the foster care system for abruptly moving children without letting them make pre-placement contacts with their new families, or without giving them the chance to say good-bye to their old families.

The Los Angles-based Children’s Institute International, where the authors work, recommends:

  • System-wide training of social workers and judges about how changing placements affects attachment and behavior problems;
  • More rigorous screening of prospective foster parents, even in communities that have a shortage of foster parents, because a short, unsuccessful placement does more harm than good;
  • Increased support services for foster families, such as weekly home visits, respite care, foster parent support groups and timely treatment referrals;
  • Careful matching of children with foster families, with documented rationales for placement in the case file;
  • Development of more foster/adopt homes so that foster care placements can more easily become adoptive placements;
  • Administrative review of all failed placements, with a licensed professional conducting a comprehensive assessment of the child’s current and future placement needs.

Overall, the authors recommend no more than two placements per child per stay in foster care, which should include a brief emergency placement to assess the child’s needs and to find an appropriate match, and the “permanent” placement for the duration of foster care.

Berrick also recommends that when parental drug abuse is involved, parents should be required to get into treatment immediately after their children are put in foster care, and treatment must be available for them. If mandated drug treatment is available and parents don’t participate, that will help determine whether the child is likely to be reunified with the parent, or if long-term placement is likely to be needed.
Although the author’s concerns about multiple foster care placements is based on research data, Berrick admits that the recommendations are not. Unfortunately, there are very few model programs to evaluate and few well-designed studies to evaluate them. Meanwhile, the Adoption and Safe Families Act is a new federal law that requires shorter timelines for foster care placement, but states are not necessarily providing the resources to accomplish those goals.

Zuckerman, Diana. "Foster Care as Musical Chairs." Research Watch review of The Tender Years. Youth Today, July/August 1999, p. 12.

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