Foster Care in a Life Course Perspective

AuthorFred Wulczyn
Published date01 November 2020
Date01 November 2020
/tmp/tmp-17RAlIFzYn5XKo/input 976535ANN
The Annals Of The American AcademyFoster Care In A Life Course Perspective
To understand what placement outside of one’s home
means to the young people involved, we must under-
stand foster care from a life course perspective. I ana-
lyze young people’s experiences in foster care from this
perspective, accounting for when foster care happens,
how long it lasts, and what happens when foster care
placements end. I show that the population of children
coming into foster care is younger and less urban than
it was 20 years ago. I also show reliable measures of
Foster Care in a exposure to foster care over the life course. Children
who enter care early in life are the children who spend
Life Course the largest proportion of their childhood in foster
care—a fact that rarely weighs on the policymaking
process. We know very little about state and local vari-
ation in foster care placement rates, not to mention the
influence of social services, the courts, foster parents,
and caseworkers over foster children, so I close by
arguing investment in research should be a clear policy
Keywords: foster care; life course; urban; rural; devel-
opmental effects; permanency
FreD WuLCzyN
In the united States, there is no one foster
care system. The federal government sets
guidelines that states follow, but policies from
the federal level grant states broad discretion
over their state’s policy. As a consequence, state
policy varies tremendously (see Berger and
Slack, this volume). Two recent examples, per-
taining to adoption (Vesneski 2011) and con-
gregate care (Wulczyn, Martinez, and Weiss
2015), illustrate the point clearly. The number
of state fast track provisions, which are thought
to influence how quickly children move through
Fred Wulczyn is a senior research fellow at Chapin Hall
at the University of Chicago, where he directs the
Center for State Child Welfare Data. He holds an aca-
demic appointment as professor (part time) at the
University of Chicago’s School of Social Service
Administration. He is a member of the American
Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.
Correspondence: or
DOI: 10.1177/0002716220976535
ANNALS, AAPSS, 692, November 2020 227

the system to adoption, varies between eight (the federal minimum) and twenty-
seven. The provisions differ in the population of children targeted and their
reason for being in care. However, the evidence suggests that those policy differ-
ences likely have little, if any, impact on adoption rates.
State policy is equally variable for congregate care (Wulczyn, Huhr, and
McClanahan 2018). Of the twenty states I reviewed, about half had policies
requiring the use of an assessment prior to placing a young person in congregate
care; in the remaining states, I found no reference to an assessment requirement.
Some states require certain staffing ratios in facilities as a matter of policy, but
others do not. even licensure policies vary between states to a significant degree.
In fact, whether the policies are those that govern maltreatment reporting,
guardianship, access to services, or any other policy area affecting the child wel-
fare system, between-state policy variation is substantial.
Nevertheless, there are important continuities that characterize how young
people experience foster care in the united States (Wulczyn et al. 2005). To see
those continuities, I apply a life course perspective to the basic questions that
start most policy and practice discussions: When do children tend to enter care?
How long do they stay? and What happens to them when they leave? The life
course perspective is a body of inquiry that spans social science disciplines (elder
1998). The life course “refers to the interweave of age-graded trajectories such as
work, careers and family pathways, that are subject to changing conditions and
future options, and to short-term transitions ranging from leaving school to
retirement” (elder 1994, 5). Life course research stresses the timing, sequence,
and duration of events over the life course.
Following the life course perspective, life events join to form trajectories.
Trajectories are defined as patterns in the timing, duration, spacing, and order of
events (elder 1998); trajectories have a normative structure that shapes the nar-
rative connecting institutional structures to life course patterns. Placement trajec-
tories are made up of entries, exits, and changes in placement laid out in temporal
order, with time measured as age laid on top of time measured with a calendar.
The result is a placement trajectory tied to the normative, ontogenetic develop-
ment of the child, nested within a social, institutional, and historical context.
Most critically, when something happens is often more important than whether
it happens. For example, the effects of exposure to adverse experiences during
certain developmental periods may be largely inconsequential, developmentally
speaking, because of when they happened.
To locate foster care placement within the life course perspective, it is
important to understand when placement first happens, how long placement
lasts, what happens when children leave care, and whether child age is associ-
ated with how such questions are best answered. To illustrate this point, I rely
on the multistate Foster Care Data Archive (FCDA), unless otherwise noted.1
The FCDA is a research database built from the data states collect about chil-
dren in their legal custody and organized with life course theory in mind. The
FCDA includes information pertaining to when a child entered care, the num-
ber of placements they experienced, when they left care and why, and whether
they returned to care.

Foster Care in the Context of Childhood
The link between when a child enters care for the first time and the impact that
foster care has on the child’s life course outcomes is perhaps the most important
reason why a life course perspective is important. Practitioners, policy-makers,
advocates, and social scientists all agree that exposure to foster care has an impact
on how well children will do going forward. However, the evidence as to whether
placement is a protective factor or a risk factor vis-á-vis outcomes later in life is
anything but clear. Compared to similar children who were not placed in foster
care, one study found that former foster children exhibited higher rates of delin-
quency in adolescence (Doyle 2013). However, Gross (2020) found that foster
care placement reduced future maltreatment, increased school attendance, and
improved math scores (Gross 2020). For youth making the transition to adult-
hood from foster care, the path forward is difficult whether one is looking at
education, housing, or employment (Courtney et al. 2018.; Font et al. 2018). yet
other studies suggest that when compared with youth who were reunified with
their birth families, similar youth who aged out of foster care had significantly
higher odds of graduating from high school and comparable earnings from
employment (Font et al. 2018).
Collectively, these are important studies but not because they examine the link
between foster care and life course outcomes. rather, embedded in each ques-
tion lies a more fundamental question: What does it mean to be a former foster
child? A substantial portion of the literature has focused on youth transitioning
to adulthood from foster care and rightly so. However, the population of former
foster children is far more diverse than young people who leave care on the cusp
of adulthood. Six months spent in foster care at age 16 is substantially different
than six months spent in foster care at age 5 in terms of preplacement experi-
ences, postplacement experiences, and the potential impact foster care could
have on life course outcomes net all the other factors that influence what hap-
pens in a person’s life.
rather than isolate one group of children exposed to foster care from another,
the life course perspective necessitates an integrated perspective that sees foster
care within the context of childhood in its entirety. To reinforce this sort of com-
prehensive view, I have developed two views of placement relative to childhood.
The first considers the likelihood a child will enter placement and spend the rest
of what remains of their childhood in care. In this instance I have limited our
view of the data to children who stayed in her or his first foster care spell (i.e.,
were never discharged). I ask, given the age at admission, what fraction of those
children reach age 18 still in their first placement spell, notwithstanding place-
ment changes that may have taken place?
The second question expands the view of foster care and childhood by asking,
when all the days in care are added up (this includes non–first placement spells),
what fraction of a child’s total childhood (through age 18) was spent in place-
ment? For example, a child admitted to care for 1 year as a 2-year-old who comes
back to care for 1 year as a 12-year-old, spent 2 years out of 18 in foster care.

Percentage of Children Reaching Age 18 before Leaving Foster Care: Children Admitted
to Care between 2000 and 2018, First...

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