The available time scale: measuring foster parents' available time to foster.

Author:Cherry, Donna J.

This article presents a new measure of available time specific to fostering, the Available Time Scale (ATS). It was tested with a national sample of 304 foster mothers and is designed to measure the amount of time foster parents are able to devote to fostering activities. The ATS has excellent reliability, and good support exists for its validity. The ATS was associated with number of years fostered, number of children fostered, and intention to continue fostering. Furthermore, it was related to desirable parenting behaviors for the general well-being and development of children in foster care; and children in foster care's behavioral, emotional, and cultural needs.

KEY WORDS: available time; foster families; foster parents; retention; utilization


Effective, quality foster parenting is a crucial and time-intensive undertaking. It takes time to address the myriad of emotional, behavioral, and developmental needs of foster children; to be an active member of a foster care team; and to work with multidisciptinary service providers (Buehler, Rhodes, Orme, & Cuddeback, 2006). Reliable and valid assessment of foster parents' views about the time they have for various foster parent activities provides valuable information that agencies can use to individualize planning with foster parents. Furthermore, specific strengths and concerns revealed by such assessment have important implications for understanding foster parent success. Therefore, an evaluation of foster parents' time for fostering should be an integral part of the assessment process.


On average, mothers spend 50.2 hours per week and fathers spend 33.4 hours per week with their children (Milkie, Mattingly, Nomaguchi, Bianchi, & Robinson, 2004). Meta-analyses of parental time involvement have found that the time parents spend with children positively correlates with better academic outcomes and with improved behavioral and psychological outcomes in areas such as school engagement, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, perceived competence, perceived control, and self-regulation (Gonzalez-DeHass, Willems, & Holbein, 2005; Jeynes, 2005). The benefits of parental involvement extend to children of any age with emotional and behavioral problems. Parents who participate in parent-child interventions or group-based parenting programs report significant improvement in their children's emotional well-being (Barlow, Parson, & Stewart-Brown, 2005; Barlow & Stewart-Brown, 2000; Mendlowitz et al., 1999).


In addition to the time involved in parenting in general, foster parenting requires much additional time. There are no studies of the time spent in specific tasks, but foster parents' time spent in activities important to foster care service delivery is evident from studies citing the prevalence of children's needs, reports of foster parent activities, and studies citing percentages of foster parents involved in service activities.

There is considerable documentation that children living in out-of-home care have significantly more health, mental health, behavioral, and developmental needs than children in the general population (Courtney et al., 2005; Hansen, Mawjee, Barton, Metcalf, & Joye, 2004; Kortenkamp & Ehrle, 2002; Pecora et al., 2006). Foster children of color are at even higher risk of health and mental health problems than are white foster children (Roberts, 2002; Stehno, 1990). Foster parents spend time scheduling appointments with medical and mental health providers; taking children to those appointments; and keeping track of medical, dental, and school records (Barbell & Freundlich, 2001; Buehler, Rhodes, et al., 2006).

Child welfare agencies increasingly rely on foster parents to be therapeutic change agents for children (Leslie et al., 2005) and to assume service activities as workers spend less time on direct care (Unrau & Wells, 2005). Moreover, foster children also are at greater risk of being placed in special education programs (Downs, Moore, McFadden, Michaud, & Costin, 2003; McMillen et al., 2005), exhibiting maladaptive school behaviors, and having school-related deficits (Pecora et al., 2006) than are children in general.They tend to perform below grade level and present higher risks for grade retention, suspension, and school dropout (Trout, Hagaman, Casey, Reid, & Epstein, 2008). Blome (1997) found that foster parents spent less time monitoring their foster children's homework than did a group of comparison parents. Similarly, teachers rated 41% of foster children's caregivers as less than moderately involved in the children's schoolwork (Dubowitz & Sawyer, 1994).

Reunification with parents or another relative is the goal for 53% of children in care (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS], Administration for Children and Families, 2008). Foster parents support children's contacts with parents and siblings, take children to visits, and report to workers on children's reactions after contacts (Hess, 2003; Warsh, Pine, & Maluccio, 1996).The literature suggests that the time foster parents spend helping children save keepsakes gives foster children a sense of continuity during transition and contributes to placement adjustment (Aust, 1981; Berman, 1986; Rycus & Hughes, 1998). In one study on foster parent training (Sanchirico & Jablonka, 2000), 77% of foster parents reported taking children to visits, 63% encouraged phone calls, and 51% supervised children's visits with birth family members.

Successful foster parenting requires that foster parents participate in case planning, assess and share information about children's progress toward goals, and meet with workers and other professionals to review progress (Child Welfare League of America, 1995). More frequent worker contacts are associated with placement stability (Walsh &Walsh, 1990). Foster parents' not having input regarding case decisions and not being taken seriously can result in placement breakdown (Brown & Bednar, 2006). Almost a third of foster parents in Sanchirico, Lau, Jablonka, and Russell's (1998) study of foster parent training indicated that they took part in case planning activities. Developing trusting relationships with workers that facilitate sharing of information takes time.

Foster parents commit time to learn about foster care and the unique needs of children in care. All states call for foster parents to complete preservice and in-service training, though time requirements vary considerably. Foster parents spend between six and 45 hours in preservice training as a prerequisite for licensure (National Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice and Permanency Planning [NRCFPPC], 2005). They attend between four and 20 hours of in-service training during each licensing cycle (NRCFPPC, 2008).

Some foster parents make time to share their dedication and expertise through leadership roles with the agency (Ryan, 1987). Using foster parents to recruit potential applicants, to train new foster parents, and to mentor less experienced foster parents represents promising practices for developing an experienced pool of foster families (Noble & Euster, 1981; HHS, Office of the Inspector General, 2002). Foster parents' participation in local, state, and national foster parent associations provides grassroots advocacy for children as well as opportunities for information and training (Pasztor & McFadden, 2006). Only the most involved foster parents spend time in these activities. For example, 1% of U.S. foster parents belong to the National Foster Parent Association (NFPA) (Pasztor & McFadden, 2006). Agencies encourage foster parents to take advantage of leadership opportunities while recognizing the difficulty of meeting the time commitments for these activities.

Providing foster care requires a significant time commitment, and insufficient time for fostering can have detrimental effects on foster parents and on foster parent families. Cole and Eamon (2007a) found that insufficient time to carry out responsibilities was related to higher levels of depression in foster mothers. The time demands of fostering can result in strain on foster parents' marital relationships (Dando & Minty, 1987; Seaberg & Harrigan, 1999). Foster parents may become so busy with foster children that they lose sight of their own children (Hojer, 2007; Twigg, 1994).

A number of factors may affect both actual time available and perceptions of available time, and both are important. Foster parents who see themselves as having more time for foster parent tasks may have personal and family characteristics that support that availability of time. Having greater levels of dedication to providing family placements also may influence how foster parents allocate time to the role. Competency in understanding children's developmental and cultural needs may contribute to the perception of having time. Individuals with more capacity to address behavioral concerns may be more prepared to give time. Help from family, friends, and a network of professionals in caring for a foster child may contribute to foster parents' perceptions regarding time spent fostering. Having healthy family interaction patterns and coping strategies may decrease competing demands and result in more time for fostering. Furthermore, it is reasonable to expect that the number of children in a foster parent's care is at least partially determined by his or her perception of time available for foster parent activities (Gibbs & Wildfire, 2007) and that those with more time stay in fostering long enough to develop a sense of being successful foster parents (Brown & Campbell, 2007; Cole & Eamon, 2007b).


Foster parenting demands a special level of commitment to make time available to assess children's strengths and problem areas and to provide corrective developmental experiences within the context of safe, secure parental relationships. The foster...

To continue reading