Almost half a million children live in foster care, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Of those children, 42% are 5 years old or younger, ages pivotal for cognitive development. More than 1 in 4 foster children remain in foster care at least two years before they are reunified with their families or adopted.
A foster care social worker plays an instrumental role in placing foster children in permanent homes and ensuring their safety and well-being while in the foster care system. Foster care social workers also help keep families intact or reunify children with their parents or caretakers.
The Effects of Foster Care on Child Development
By the time children are in foster care, they have almost always experienced traumatic events. Most commonly, children enter foster care due to:
- Substance misuse by a parent
- Inability of a parent or caregiver to provide care
- Physical abuse
Many foster children have also experienced sexual abuse, abandonment, or the loss of housing. These traumas, often cumulative, can have a profound impact on a child’s psychological and physical well-being. They can also harm a child’s ability to:
- Reach developmental milestones
- Succeed academically
- Build healthy social relationships
While foster care offers children relative safety from mistreatment and neglect, it cannot bring about quick solutions for children’s emotional and psychological wounds. Presently, researchers have conducted limited studies on the overall effects of foster care on child development.
Research shows that early life experiences factor into a child’s later development and ability to function. Additionally, many studies have shown that children severely deprived of sufficient social and intellectual stimulation, as can happen to children who are neglected when very young, can suffer long-term developmental and functional consequences.
A study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry suggests that foster care may increase the probability that a child will overcome developmental and functional delays.
According to the results of the study, 56% of children with histories of severe early deprivation placed in foster care demonstrated adaptive functioning at 12 years of age, compared with only 23% of the children who experienced deprivation but were not placed in foster care. (Adaptive functioning refers to when a child reaches age-appropriate levels of maturity, social skills and judgment.)
Emotional Issues in Children in Foster Care
When traumatized children enter foster care, they experience significant disruptions to their lives.
For example, foster care placement sometimes separates siblings, switches children to different schools or moves children away from friends. Foster care also disrupts the relationship between children and their previous caregivers. While this may provide critical relief to children, especially in cases of abuse, a child naturally experiences being removed from their home as a traumatic event.
This, along with prior mistreatment, likely accounts for the findings in numerous studies that show foster children have higher rates of mental health concerns and behavior problems than children in the general population. The challenging histories of children in foster care make them especially vulnerable to struggles with social-emotional functioning — the ability to express and manage feelings, develop self-confidence, and get along with others.
Children in foster care frequently exhibit externalizing behaviors, or unhealthy coping behaviors in which individuals externalize their pain through:
- Unwillingness to conform to rules or authority
- Delinquent behavior such as stealing or destroying property
- Inability to focus
- Foster care children may also internalize their pain, which can present as:
- Social withdrawal
- Somatic complaints, such as headaches, stomach pain or weakness
These behaviors and emotional issues in children often lead students to underperform at school or drop out at higher rates than other students. Additionally, such challenges make it more difficult for these children to build enduring relationships with their foster families.
Instability in placement can negatively affect the well-being of foster care children. For this reason, foster care social workers prioritize identifying such behaviors early on. This allows them to better support foster parents and more quickly arrange for appropriate treatment for foster care children.
The Role of a Social Worker in Foster Care
Foster care social workers help ensure the welfare of children in the foster care system. This involves:
- Screening and training foster families
- Matching children with foster families or relative caregivers capable of meeting their needs
- Evaluating ongoing foster care placements
- Supporting foster parents and children in foster care
- Finding long-term solutions for children through family reunification or adoption
The role of a social worker in foster care also involves serving as a liaison between foster parents, social services agencies and families. For example, foster care social workers may become involved when social services agencies conduct investigations or have to remove children from their homes for safety reasons.
Foster care social workers also look for solutions that help address the developmental, emotional and social needs of the children under their charge. Finding these solutions requires knowing the services in the community where they serve and seeking to understand the community’s population. This allows them to anticipate language barriers and cultural differences.
What Does a Foster Care Social Worker Do?
In their advocacy for foster care children’s welfare, social workers take on several responsibilities.
Working Toward Permanency
Except in extreme cases, the foster care system prioritizes family reunification. Foster care social workers develop permanency plans for families. These plans outline a path toward giving children permanent, safe living situations that support their well-being through family reunification, adoption or long-term foster care.
The development and realization of permanency plans usually involves working with a child’s natural caregivers to create a roadmap for reunification. Foster care social workers discuss the reasons for a child’s removal with natural caregivers and develop strategies to alleviate the circumstances that led to the removal. They set goals to help natural caregivers reach a point at which they can:
- Keep their children safe from abuse and neglect
- Meet their children’s need for emotional support, food, medical care, etc.
- Demonstrate a commitment to improving their parenting skills
This often involves the natural caregiver’s participation in programs that help resolve drug and alcohol misuse and family violence. Foster care social workers connect natural caregivers to services that address issues such as:
- Anger management
- Parenting skills
- Building resilient family bonds
Permanency plans may also require natural caregivers to participate in substance use testing and therapy and sexual abuse counseling.
During the separation of children and their natural caregivers, foster care social workers arrange for regular visits between them, and they keep natural caregivers informed about their children’s progress and health. Foster care social workers also monitor natural caregivers’ progress in achieving plan goals.
Placing Children in Supportive Foster Homes
Foster care social workers need to find stable and safe environments for the children placed under their charge. Finding related caregivers often offers children an easier transition than placing them with people they don’t know. So, foster care social workers explore that as an option first.
If no one familiar to the child can take on caregiving responsibility, foster care social workers locate appropriate foster families. Finding the right match is key. Foster care children who get bounced around suffer. On the other hand, finding a stable and lasting placement can mean:
- Less trauma to the foster child, so fewer behavioral and emotional problems
- Better opportunities for the foster child to build healthy attachments with adult caregivers
- More continuity in the foster child’s schooling, medical care, therapy and relationships
Foster families must demonstrate their ability to care for children. Social workers conduct interviews and home studies to measure the fitness of prospective foster parents and ensure their home environment meets safety, health and state requirements.
They seek compassionate foster parents who already share stable nurturing relationships with family members. Foster care social workers also search for foster parents open to learning new skills and methods for positive discipline and who want to share a loving safe home with a child who needs one. The well-being of foster children partly depends on the foster parents’ willingness to put in the time and effort to help them work through their issues.
Home studies check to ensure prospective foster parents can provide clean living spaces in good repair. The basic requirements of a home study typically include having:
- Enough bedrooms to accommodate children
- Adequate heating and cooling, along with other necessary utilities like running water
- Telephone service
- Safe storage of potentially hazardous items
- Functioning smoke detectors on every floor
These are just some of the variables foster care social workers evaluate when conducting a home study, and requirements can vary from state to state. Interviews with prospective foster parents aim to understand an applicant’s motivation for wanting to foster children and assess their current familial relationships. Specifically, they strive to weed out any applicants seeking ways to make extra income or prey on children. During these interviews, social workers screen applicants for mental health problems, financial stability, parenting abilities and the potential for child abuse, among other things.
Once applicants have passed home studies, interviews and background checks, they become eligible to host foster children. Foster care social workers then match children with foster families. First, however, they share details about a child’s background and needs. In this way, foster parents can gauge their ability to provide a home to the child in question.
Providing Ongoing Support to Foster Families
Children in foster care need ongoing support, as do their foster parents. Foster care social workers play a key role in helping foster parents provide safe and therapeutic homes to the children in their care.
In regular visits to foster family homes, social workers assess the psychological and physical needs of children and give support to foster parents. Since most foster children have experienced trauma, they often have special needs that require attention.
During visits to a home, the foster care social worker discusses the child’s progress in school, behavior and emotional state. The foster care social worker also speaks with the child, asking them questions about their adjustment and needs and answering any questions they may have about their developing situation. These interactions help the foster care social worker determine the child’s developing needs.
Foster care social workers help organize therapy and other services children might need. This may involve coordinating with other agencies to make sure foster children receive all the support they are entitled to.
For example, foster care social workers may arrange for a foster child to receive Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care for Preschoolers (MTFC-P). This evidence-based treatment method can help foster children between the ages of 3 and 6 build secure attachments with their foster parents. It uses therapeutic play groups to teach children skills and also trains foster parents to set limits that address disruptive behaviors and use positive reinforcement for appropriate ones.
Previous mistreatment often makes it difficult for foster children to form trusting relationships with adults. They then behave in ways that push foster parents away. For instance, they may lie, show physical aggression or refuse to cooperate. Foster care social workers help foster parents better understand and respond to such behavior.
Foster care social workers may recommend therapeutic interventions for the parents, such as Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC). ABC helps foster parents reinterpret a child’s disruptive behaviors and respond with nurturing care instead of anger. ABC teaches foster parents to behave in nurturing ways even when children don’t elicit it. This might involve offering encouraging or consoling words, as well as physical affection or comfort.
Children who’ve had their bids for reassurance rejected in the past often stop asking for reassurance and comfort, even when they still want or need it. ABC also shows foster parents how to create predictable environments that best support children learning to regulate their behaviors.
Additionally, foster care social workers may counsel foster parents on parenting strategies and provide information about foster parent support groups and mentor programs. They may also give them referrals for child therapists, local daycare centers, pediatric dentists and other resources, as needed.
Self-Care for Foster Care Social Workers
Foster care social workers report that while they find their jobs greatly rewarding, their role comes with high levels of stress and can be emotionally overwhelming. As witnesses to family turmoil, cases of abuse and stories of trauma, foster care social workers often experience secondary trauma.
What Is Secondary Trauma?
Secondary trauma refers to the emotional duress that individuals, such as foster care social workers, experience when hearing about and addressing the traumatic experiences of others. The heavy workload coupled with the tremendous responsibility of protecting children also demands a lot of energy. Foster care workers have reported experiencing intense worry about accidentally overlooking details that could negatively affect a child’s safety.
Additionally, the nature of foster care social work carries safety risks of its own. Foster care social workers must talk with individuals about their violent behavior, drug misuse and other topics that can make others perceive them as a threat. This perception can lead people to lash out at foster care social workers.
For these reasons, foster care social workers must prioritize self-care. The following strategies can safeguard the well-being of foster care social workers and prevent burnout.
Pay Attention to Physical Health
Stress and long work hours can lead many to neglect their physical health. Foster care social workers should focus on getting good rest that helps compensate for the fact they do not work traditional 9-to-5 schedules. They also need to eat healthy meals, engage in regular exercise and decompress from the day.
Set Boundaries Between Work and Personal Time
Getting wrapped up in the responsibilities of foster care social work is easy to do. However, foster care social workers need to draw a clear line between work and personal time to avoid burnout. Activities such as practicing a musical instrument, walking a dog or practicing yoga can help foster care social workers unwind. Devoting time to oneself and compartmentalizing the stress from work also contribute to maintaining healthy boundaries.
Adopt Mindfulness Practices
Mindfulness exercises such as intentional breathing and meditation help lower blood pressure and create grounding. Foster care social workers can perform them at their desks, on their commutes and at bedtime to help them relax, destress and reconnect with a more peaceful state of mind.
Take Mini-Breaks Throughout the Day
Getting up and taking a brisk five-minute walk around the block can allow foster care social workers a chance to get some fresh air and find a moment of calm during tense workdays. These mini-breaks can also help people reorganize their thoughts and gain a different perspective.
Promote Child Welfare as a Foster Care Social Worker
Children in foster care need compassionate advocates with the skills and expertise to find them safe homes where they can thrive. Foster care social workers leverage their knowledge of community resources and effective therapeutic interventions to give children in foster care a chance to heal from traumatic experiences and live more gratifying lives.
Discover how Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work Program prepares graduates to promote child welfare and make a difference.
Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, “Frontline Workers in the State Child Protective System: Perspectives on Factors That Impact Effectiveness and Efficiency of Child Protective Work”