Established by the United Nations (UN) in 1993, the International Day of Families is celebrated annually on May 15. In 2015, the UN also adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 goals that aim to eliminate poverty, discrimination, abuse, and preventable deaths, combat environmental destruction, and usher in an era of development for everyone everywhere. Families and family-oriented policies and programs are vital to the achievement of many of these goals. In 2023, the UN proposes to mark the International Day of Families by raising awareness of the impact of demographic trends on families.
At the Center for Psychological Research and Social Intervention (CIS-Iscte), the Community, Education, and Development (CED) research group explores the psychosocial adjustment of children, adolescents, and families, considering the quality of relationships as a central premise. In several research lines, the CED team conducts research concerning the assessment and intervention of individual and family systems, as well as formal and informal education settings. We talked with two researchers from this research group who work on the role of families throughout the development of children and youth to learn more about their work.
Joana Baptista (JB) is a psychologist and is currently the coordinator of CED. Her research, among other topics, explores the effects of the quality of relational care on the development of babies and children at risk, such as those in residential and foster care and those born prematurely.
Eunice Magalhães (MS), also a psychologist, has developed research in the area of protection of children and youth at risk and danger, particularly in the area of residential and family foster care.
What is foster care, and what are the (dis)advantages of this system compared to others?
EM: There are different types of foster care in the world. In Portugal, according to Article 46 of the Law for the Protection of Children and Young People at Risk, foster care is a placement measure applied to children and young people at risk. It consists "in placing the child or young person in the care of a natural person or a family, qualified for this purpose, providing their integration into a family environment and providing care appropriate to their needs and well-being and the education necessary for their full development. JB: The last 20 years have strengthened the deinstitutionalization movement in Europe. De-institutionalization is the reform of alternative care for at-risk children and youth, aimed primarily at decreasing the system's reliance on residential care while strengthening and supporting foster care and other community-based responses. This support for foster care has been informed by findings from scientific research, which for years has documented the adverse effects of institutional setting characteristics (such as inadequate caregiver-to-child ratios) on multiple domains of child development, particularly in infants and toddlers. It has been paralleled by research into the resilience of these children after integration into a family environment, such as foster care. EM: Indeed, the foster care system in Portugal is based primarily on residential placement. Statistics indicate that only approximately 3% of children and young people withdrawn and placed in foster care are placed with foster families. Therefore, data points to the need to promote this measure to recruit, select and retain quality families in the foster care system. To this end, literature should inform recruitment campaigns on the reasons that mobilize people to become foster families, as well as the barriers that prevent more people from becoming families.
Can you give some examples of this research?
JB:For example, within a research project on the effects of early residential foster care conducted in Portugal, it was found that 60% of the infants and toddlers in the sample had clinically significant socio-emotional problems after six months in foster care. Additionally, 18%, 38%, and 36% of those babies and children showed delays in their cognitive, language, and motor development, respectively, also after six months in foster care. Research conducted by the same team pointed to other difficulties in the development of children in residential care, including attention problems and signs of Reactive Attachment Disorder. These developmental outcomes were partially explained by exposure to prior adverse experiences in the biological family and the quality of relational care provided in foster care.EM: Regarding foster families, the international literature suggests that, rather than financial motivations, it is the motivations centered on the role of caring for and supporting children in danger that is associated with the desire to be a foster family. Recent data in our country also shows that participants guided by altruistic and child-centered motives tend to be more willing to become foster families. On the other hand, the lack of individual or family resources (e.g., financial, time, and skills) seems to constitute a barrier for adults in the Portuguese context to wish to become a foster family.
How does the concept of family, particularly in the context of foster care, align with the themes and goals of the International Day of Families?
EM: The right of all children to live in a family, biological or otherwise (e.g., adoptive, foster, etc.), is widely recognized. Such recognition is not only a human rights/child rights issue. Still, it stems from widely produced knowledge about the importance of care (protective, responsive) in family contexts for children's development (emotional, cognitive, and physical). JB: Family-oriented policies are crucial to meeting the SDGs. For example, policies that facilitate work-family reconciliation, such as parental and family leave and the improvement of childcare services, can help mitigate the effects of demographic sustainability challenges on parenting, with immediate and continuing impact on children's well-being and the promotion of their full development.
In your research, what are the most significant challenges faced by families involved in the foster care system, and how does this affect their overall well-being?
EM: The literature suggests that foster families' perceptions that they lack support from the system or that communication with professionals is not always adequate and functional are associated with a lower likelihood of staying in the system than foster families. In this sense, it is essential to ensure that the system provides the necessary support to foster families in the exercise of their parental role, given the particular complexity of this exercise, arising from the specific needs of these children, and the importance of articulating and involving the biological family and actively participating in the process of family reunification, when this is the intervention plan for the child. JB: The contact between the foster family and the family of origin that foster care requires is one of the most challenging elements of foster care intervention. The search for solutions to enhance the quality of the relationship between the two families is a crucial topic in foster care intervention today. There is little research on the role of the relationship quality between the foster family and the family of origin. Still, the overall results seem to indicate that the quality of this relationship is associated with higher stability in foster care, more contact between the child and the biological family, higher parental commitment on the part of the biological family, less disruption in transitions between contexts (e.g., leaving foster care), and retention of foster families in the system. For all these reasons, the relationship quality between the two families is also associated with successful family reunification and fewer internalizing and externalizing problems in the child.
Could you talk a bit about innovative approaches or programs that have been, or are being, implemented to strengthen family connections and reunification within the foster care system?
JB: The Integrated Model for Family Fostering (MIAF), developed by ProChild CoLAB and SCML, is intended as a model for assessment and intervention in family foster care, aligned with national legislation, and based on a child-centered approach. This model covers the entire foster care continuum, from the recruitment, selection, assessment, and training of foster families, to the exercise of foster care and the child's transition to a permanent life project. Before a practice model such as MIAF is fully implemented, and its effectiveness tested, process and outcome evaluations are critical to make necessary adjustments in advance. This is particularly relevant for a practice model in Portugal, where evidence indicates that foster care tends to be a relatively unknown measure to the community. Additionally, failures in deinstitutionalization processes in other countries seem to be explained, at least in part, by reforms that were too fast-paced, that did not provide specialized training to their professionals, and whose practices were not evidence-based. In this regard, the All4Children project, funded by FCT, aims to scientifically validate the Integrated Model of Family Fostering in different regions of the country.
What policy or legislative changes do you consider necessary to improve the support and outcomes for families involved in foster care, in line with the objectives of the International Day of Families?
EM: In recent years, the foster care system has undergone significant legislative changes (Law no. 142/2015, of 08/09; Decree-Law no. 139/2019; Ordinance no. 278-A/2020), which are beginning to translate into practices and should be enhanced. One of the challenges is ensuring adequate training and tools for professionals working in this context to better recruitment, selection, training, and monitoring of foster families.
On this commemorative day, what message would you like to leave to families about their importance to the future of children and young people?
JB: The family is the child's first socialization agent. Children learn to regulate and express their emotions within the family, find problem-solving strategies, and build social relationships. The role of families in society should not be underestimated. By caring for our families, we will care for our children, ensuring a better future for all!
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