In this article I will first present a short summary of the Norwegian foster care system. Following that, I will describe some key dilemmas in connection to foster care.
Children and young people in foster care
When children and young people are placed in out of home state care in Norway, foster home placements are the preferred options. In 2009, 87% of the children needing out of home care were placed in foster homes of different kinds, whilst the remaining 13% were placed in various forms of residential care. As shown in table 1, more than eleven thousand children and young people in Norway were placed in foster care during 2009. The table also shows that children between 6 and 17 years were most frequently in foster care.
Table 1. Children and young people in foster care in Norway. 2009. Statistics Norway (SSB). 1
|0-2 years||3-5 years||6-12 years||13-17 years||18-22 years|
The most common reason for foster placements in Norway involves inability on the part of biological parents to care for their children (Sundt 2010). The origin of these kinds of problems range from poor parental mental health to their misuse of alcohol and/or drugs, material or social problems in the family and physical/emotional violence and sexual abuse. Sundt (2010) refers to studies showing that many children placed in care had been involved in petty criminal activities and had experienced emotional difficulties and conflicts/violence between their parents. In many instances, these children had experienced neglect, threats, violence and unclear limits. In contrast to their peers, these youngsters also had much larger responsibility for everyday family life. These findings, it must be noted, are not unique to children in Norway: they have been documented among youngsters placed in care in other countries.
Sundt (2010) has also shown that there are major differences in the kinds of problems experienced by children and young people prior to being placed in foster care. Havik (2007) studied how 867 foster parents in Norway viewed the problems of their foster children at the time when they were placed. Their answers can be seen in table 2.
Table 2. Problems at the time when the foster children were placed in care - viewed by foster parents.
|Lacking every day skills||33%||30%||37%|
This study shows that emotional problems were adjudged by foster parents to be the most common problems among children at the time of their placement. The foster parents reported that 84% of the children had some or major emotional problems. But in other areas, too, such as behavior, learning and every day skills, the foster parents reported problems.
Havik also asked these foster parents to judge whether or not these problems had changed after the children had been in their homes. The results are shown in table 3.
Table 3. Problems after the foster children had been in care for some time - viewed by foster parents.
|Lacking every day skills||57%||36%||7%|
As the table indicates, foster parents believed that the situation of the foster children had improved considerably. They judged the changes to be most improved in areas involving emotional problems and every day skills. These findings suggest that living in a stable family environment contributes to improving a range of problems that these children and young people bring with them into care. It also suggests that foster parents are aware of the problems that they must work with and that they actively engage in this work.
In a Nordic/British research review carried out by Backe-Hansen, Egelund and Havik (2010), it was shown that the backgrounds of children and young people in foster care often contained a number of common characteristics. To a large extent, many came from single-parent families where in many cases, fathers were absent. The mothers in these families were younger than other mothers when they have their first child. They were marginalized from the labor market by poor education and they were therefore poorer than the average population. The biological parents of the children in foster homes were more likely than others to abuse alcohol and drugs; they were also more likely to suffer from mental illness and die at a younger age than other parents in the general population. In light of these and related statistics, it is by no means an exaggeration to say that foster children share very difficult backgrounds.
Bunkholdt (2010) discusses reasons for major difficulties in the lives of children in foster care and has suggested that one possibility is that these children often are helped too late. This may be understood as indicating that they develop severe problems during the period while the child welfare services are trying to help their biological parents to function better. Another possible reason may involve the steady accumulation of risk factors that take place in their homes as they are growing up.
Norwegian foster parents
In Norway, foster parents are recruited from a variety of backgrounds. The Norwegian Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs (BUFDIR) states on its web page 2 that foster parents can be married, cohabitants or single. They can also be a couple in a same sex relationship. About 90% of the foster homes consist of two adults, one woman and one man, and most of the remaining 10% are foster homes with a single female foster parent (Synovate 2011).
Some foster parents have their own children, others do not. BUFDIR states that foster parents can be recruited among all ethnicities, but practitioners most often find that foster parents as a rule are ethnically Norwegian.
The general demands on foster parents are that they should have:
- A special ability, time and energy to give children a safe and good home
- A stable life situation
- Good health
- Good co-operation skills
- Economy, living arrangements and social network providing the child space for self-realization
- Unblemished record (i.e., no criminal offences)
These points are meant to secure foster homes for children needing stable and nourishing care situations. However, some critical voices in recent years have criticized these criteria as favoring middle class nuclear families.
Child welfare services in Norway are required to approve every new foster home. In order to avoid possible favoritism, the child welfare services in a district other than the one where the placement is to occur are required to make the final approval. This approval process is much concerned with insuring the foster parent's general ability to bring up children as well as the suitability of the foster home for each child in question. In Norway great emphasis is placed on the needs of the individual child as a guide for the choice of the foster home. The question of matching is considered an important one and special consideration is given to the child's ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background. A central guiding principle is that the child welfare services should have the best interest of the child in mind. The Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs has issued guidelines stressing that if someone is related through kinship with the child or in other ways has a close relationship with the child, they should be looked upon as the preferred choice - if they are judged as qualified in terms of the aforementioned criteria. The biological parents of the child should always be invited to give their opinion when the foster home is chosen. If the child is 7 years old or older, her/his feelings about the placement are by law to be elicited.
The child welfare services in charge of a placement offer specialized training for new foster parents in what is called the Pride training program. This is a course based on ten three-hour sessions. In addition the workers of the child welfare services make four visits to the proposed foster home for each child.
Agreement on conditions
When a family is approved to be foster family for a concrete child, the local child welfare services sign an agreement with the foster parents (Sundt 2010). In Norwegian child welfare agencies, this is a standardized agreement that in detail covers all areas necessary for securing the placement. The law makes this agreement mandatory. The agreement covers such areas as
- Plan for the care situation of the foster child
- Supervision to the foster parents
- Contact with biological parents
- Covering of costs
- Responsibilities of the foster parents
Different forms of fostering
According to Bunkholdt (2010) foster care is one of the most complex areas of Norwegian child welfare. It is also an area that is constantly developing and new research has created a much better understanding of foster care than what earlier was known about it. The most central finding of this research is that when working within foster care, one has to seek flexible solutions.
Norwegian child welfare services designate three different types of foster homes. Bunkholdt (2010) describes these as:
- Foster home - a home for children who need an alternative care situation because they do not receive adequate care from their parents.
- Stand-by home and crisis foster home - a home for children who have an acute need for placement for a limited period of time in a crisis situation.
- Enhanced foster home - a home where special conditions are agreed upon because of the child's special problems. Some of these foster homes are called treatment foster homes, and are especially set up to handle behavior problems unique to a particular youngster.
The main idea of foster care is that some children and young people need to be moved to a safe and affirmative family environment to feel safe and to develop normally through childhood and teen-age years.
Earlier, Norwegian foster homes were basically meant as a substitute for the child's biological home, when the parents no longer were able to provide adequate care for the child. Then, foster parents were expected to be "replacement parents" possessing good parenting skills and able to provide the child with a stable family environment. During recent years there has been a development where many foster children have problems demanding a new role for foster parents (Bunkholdt 2010). Increasingly, children and young people in Norway today who carry with them major burdens of problems are placed in foster homes. Their problems are often extremely complex ones. According to Havik (2007), the tasks and roles of foster parents in Norwegian society are rapidly changing. Some foster parents today are expected to have a more professional approach, and possess skills for helping children with highly problematic backgrounds. This also connects to the situation of residential care for children and young people in Norway. State policy says that residential care should not be used if another alternative, such as foster care, is possible. This policy is widely discussed in the practice field and among researchers, too (Storø et. al 2010)
It is increasingly necessary that foster parents can handle children and young people with many and compound problems. This has lead to other forms of foster homes than the traditional form; mainly what are called enhanced foster homes. These reflect the fact that a somewhat more professionalized foster care has become a reality in recent years. In these kinds of foster homes, one of the foster parents is employed full time to follow up children or young people with special needs. The foster child lives in the foster home on a regular basis, and the difference from "ordinary" foster homes is that one of the foster parents is at home full time for the well-being of the foster child as his or her main task.
In Norwegian child welfare policy, it is generally assumed as important that children and young people in foster care have contact with their biological parents because this contributes to a feeling of continuity and coherence in their lives (Backe-Hansen et al. 2010). It is important to organize the way that this contact is to be carried out, so that the children (and the parents) do not suffer from conflicts and different views on how the child should be brought up. Backe-Hansen and her associates (2010) have found that children and young people in foster care want contact with their parents, but also that they are ambivalent to this contact.
Kinship care is a relatively new form of foster care in Norway. Therefore we do not have much research on this form of placement. In the previously mentioned review of Nordic/British research on foster care, kinship care was also included. Here it was noted that children placed in such care often have no siblings, and that they have less problems than other foster children. This type of placement is relatively stable, compared to other foster care arrangements. Kinship foster homes are most often done with grandparents or aunts and uncles, mostly on mother's side of the family. Kinship foster parents are, according to Backe-Hansen and her associates (2010) not followed up to the same extent by child welfare authorities as are "ordinary" foster homes.
Stability and continuity
There are different ways to conceptualize qualities concerning the care of children. Bunkholdt (2010) has emphasized continuity and stability as two central concepts in this regard. Continuity is connected to having a coherent life history. The people that we have around us often represent continuity. But also places that we have lived, and memories made live by pictures from our life and things we have had also help connect us to a feeling of coherence. Continuity influences our identity by helping us to be connected. Stability is another quality of care. Seen from the child's view it is important that the adults are trustworthy and predictable. Their care for the child should be warm, with an interest for the child, and the reactions on the child's behavior should be understandable, reasonable and adequate. In the light of this concept it is crucial that the child is secured a stable supply of emotional nourishment.
These two concepts are useful to discuss in relation to foster care. As Bunkholdt (2010) has shows, some professionals feel that continuity is the most important quality of care. They will often argue that children should live in their families even if the care is not at its best. In their view children can handle some disadvantages concerning stability if continuity is not broken. The biological bonds between children and parents are seen as the most important issue, and placements in foster care therefore are seen as options that should not be used before they are absolutely necessary. Other professionals are more concerned about stability. They argue that the everyday qualities of care are more important for the child's well-being than who the care giver is (the biological parent or a foster parent). In their opinion it is not so dramatic to move a child to a foster home, if the care received there is of high quality and it is stable and brings the child into a new stage of continuity.
Research on children and young people in foster care
According to Egelund et.al (2009) and Backe-Hansen et.al (2010) there is no Nordic/British research with strong enough methodology that can predict outcomes of out-of-home placements. Clausen and Kristofersen (2008) have found that young Norwegian adults with care careers (both foster homes and residential care) have severe problems after the transition to adult life. They face a larger risk than their peers to have low income and no higher education. They are more likely to suffer various illnesses and die in a young age. They also are convicted of crimes more often than their peers who have not been in care.
Despite these statistics, it is widely assumed that foster care has a very positive impact on children and young people at the time of placement and while they are staying in the foster home. Some of the problems they face in independent life may be more rooted in their problematic family histories before they came into care, while some problems too may be related to insufficient support and other forms of follow-up assistance after they have left care.
Backe-Hansen, Elisabeth; Egelund, Tine and Havik, Toril (2010): Barn og unge i fosterhjem - en kunnskapsstatus. Nettdokument. Oslo: NOVA
Bunkholdt, Vigdis (2010): Fosterhjemsarbeid. Fra rekruttering til tilbakeføring. Oslo: Gyldendal Akademisk
Clausen, Sten-Erik and Kristofersen, Lars B. (2008a): Barnevernsklienter i Norge 1990 - 2005. En longitudinell studie. Oslo: NOVA. Rapport 3/2008
Egelund, Tine; Christensen, Pernille Skovbo; Jakobsen, Turf Böcker:, Jensen, Tina Gudrun and Olsen, Rikke Fuglesang (2009): Anbragte børn og unge. En forskningsoversikt. Copenhagen: Socialforskningsinstituttet 09:24
Havik, Toril (2010): Slik fosterforeldre ser det - II. Resultat fra en kartleggingsstudie i 2005. Bergen: Barnevernets utviklingssenter på Vestlandet
Storø, Jan; Bunkholdt, Vigdis and Larsen, Erik (2010): Er institusjonen alltid et onde og familien alltid et gode? Norges Barnevern, nr. 3/2010, Vol 87
Synnovate (2011): Undersøkelse blant fosterforeldre 2010.