‘Children in Foster Care: A Longitudinal Investigation’ by David Fanshel and Eugene B Shinn

David Fanshel and Eugene B Shinn (1978) Children in foster care: a longitudinal investigation Guildford: Columbia University Press ISBN 0 231 03576 4

The inspiration for this research was a conference in 1963 when participants were discussing the lack of longitudinal research on foster care. In order to try and exclude as many factors which might ‘muddy the waters’ as possible, the researchers decided to follow a sample of all the children admitted to foster care in New York in one year for five years. Like the children in the study by Robertson and Robertson (1971), the children were selected on the basis that they, and in this study their siblings, had never been in extra-familial care before and to fill certain age quotas. Eventually some of the children ended up in residential care but by selecting the children in this way the researchers were able to get as close as possible to understanding the impact that fostering, rather than any other form of care or treatment, might have on a child.

Like Taylor and Alpert (1973), they were surprised at their results because they had expected to find the answers in things like the condition of the children on admission, their IQs, the qualities of their parents or the qualities of their carers.

Key Ideas

Parental visiting declines steeply the longer a child remains in foster care.

  • Older children are more likely to be visited in foster care than younger children.
  • Children whose parents visit them in foster care are twice as likely to be discharged.
  • Children who were admitted for reasons related to their behaviour are more likely to be discharged.
  • 75% of discharges were planned returns home.
  • Length of stay is not a significant variable in whether children are discharged.
  • Parental visiting is associated with a greater number of moves in foster care.
  • Overall IQ scores remained stable while in foster care but some groups experienced gains or losses.
  • Foster parents who used ‘democratic permissiveness’ appeared to encourage non-verbal gains in IQ while those who demonstrated ‘perseverance/altruism’ were associated with non-verbal losses in IQ.
  • Children who were transferred to institutional care did best where there was an on-site school and the staff were young and inexperienced.
  • Overall, children made gains in their school functioning but the gains were most pronounced towards the end of the study.
  • A child’s psychological problems are not significant for the success of foster care.
  • Children who experience more moves receive less positive behavioural assessments.
  • Children who are visited more frequently experience greater difficulties in adjusting to the foster placement.
  • Children who were in good health at the outset of the placement and who spent less time in care had fewer behavioural problems


In Chapter 1 ‘The foster care phenomenon’, the authors describe how their study of 624 children placed in foster care in New York in 1966 for at least 90 days was part of a wider research project. They stress that it was not a study of fostering policies or practice in New York and that their reading of the literature raised questions about length of stay, number of moves, the pre-admission condition of the child, the qualities of their carers, the qualities of their parents, the provision of treatment and the impact of permanency. They also wanted to investigate whether the IQ of the child had any impact on the answers to these questions.

At the time of study there were 23,000 children in foster care in New York, 95% of whom were supported by public funds. Slightly over half were Catholic, the remainder mostly Protestant and Jewish (6%). Around a third were white, nearly half black and nearly a quarter Puerto Rican.

In Chapter 2 ‘Criteria for selection of study subjects and their characteristics’, they describe the identification of the sample of 624 children from 467 families, with 157 families providing two children, who had not been placed for adoption and had remained in foster care for more than 90 days. Puerto Ricans were over-represented in the sample with white and black children slightly under-represented compared with all foster children in New York.

About half the children had been born out of wedlock, more if they were black, less if they were white. There were small differences in the distribution of class, with whites more likely to be higher class and Puerto Ricans more likely to be lower class.

Just over one in five – more in white families – were admitted because of the mental illness of their carer, one in seven because of neglect/abuse and one in nine because of their own behaviour. Nearly a third were admitted after being abandoned or because their parents were unwilling to continue or to resume caring for them; one in nine were admitted on account of the ill health of their carer and another one in nine because of the death of their parent or other family problems.

In Chapter 3 ‘Procedures for study of foster children‘, the authors describe the panoply of measures they used over the five year study.

In Chapter 4 ‘Parental visiting of children in foster care’, the authors note that parents were interviewed regularly throughout the study and that previous studies had shown that around 30% of children had parental contact. They found a dramatic decline in visiting over the five years with two thirds of the children receiving no or minimal visiting by that time and black children experienced the least visiting. The fact that children whose parents visited them were twice as likely to be discharged meant you could almost use parental visiting as a predictive factor. This applied throughout the study and across all ethnic groups though older children were more likely to be visited, perhaps because they already had stronger family ties.

In Chapter 5 ‘Discharge and other outcomes’, the authors discuss the difficulties in defining ‘discharge’, for example, if the child were later adopted or sent for treatment. For the study they adopted the most rigorous definition by which 56.1% of the sample were discharged. Though younger children were less likely to be discharged, length of stay was not significant. Children who entered foster care because of their own problems and those who entered because of abuse/neglect were more likely to be discharged while black children were generally less likely to be discharged.

Discharge could be predicted by using the amount of parental visiting, the social worker’s evaluation of the mother, the amount of activity of the social worker, the child’s ethnicity and their age at placement.

Though most children experienced up to two moves over the five years and just over a quarter three or more, with black children most likely to have moves, lower parental contact was associated with fewer moves.

In Chapter 6 ‘Circumstances at the time of discharge’, the authors report that 75% of those discharged returned home on a planned basis with most discharges because of a changed view of the family’s ability to cope and some because of changes in the child’s behaviour. The agencies were mostly happy with the discharges.

In Chapter 7 ‘Mental abilities of foster children’, the authors report that they were able to test about 60% of the children three times during the study and about 35% one or two times. At the outset, 7% were rated ‘defective’, 13% ‘borderline’, 73% ‘normal’ and 6% ‘advanced’ with ethnic differences increasing with the age of the child.

Over the five years, the biggest gains in IQ were made by black Catholic infant females and by black male toddlers and the biggest losses by white older females, black Catholic older females and black Protestant infant females though, overall, IQ scores remained generally stable.

In Chapter 8 ‘Analyses of IQ change over five years’, the authors report that overall the children showed modest statistically significant gains in IQ with older children and those whose parents visited showing the higher gains. However, there were differences among ethnic groups with white children showing losses in IQ by the end of the study, Puerto Rican children showing gains overall and black children showing no significant gains overall.

Foster parents who demonstrated ‘democratic permissiveness’ and role competence were associated with non-verbal gains while those who demonstrated perseverance/altruism and strong age preference for the children they cared for were associated with non-verbal losses. Among those who had gone into institutional care after initial foster placement, IQ gains were associated with attending an on-site school.

In Chapter 9 ‘The study child in school’, the authors describe the measures they used to assess children’s attainments and behaviour in school. Overall, over half the children were functioning below their age though there were improvements over the study period; generally the older children were more behind than the younger children. Taken as a whole, girls were better behaved in school than boys and white children better behaved than black or Puerto Rican children.

In Chapter 10 ‘Analysis of change in school achievement’, the authors report that there was an initial decline in achievement followed by an overall improvement. During the first part of the study the white boys improved while the black and Puerto Rican did not, whereas the opposite happened for the girls; in the second part of the study the younger girls made the most improvement.

Children with no early childhood development problems and a positive social worker evaluation of their mother were most likely to show gains; none of the other factors was significant. The puzzle was why the effect was delayed.

In Chapter 11 ‘Clinical assessment of the children through psychological testing’, the authors report that, while children admitted because of their own behaviour showed more disturbance at the outset, there were no significant differences between the children by the end of the study.

In Chapter 12 ‘Child behaviour characteristics of foster children’, the authors report that the children tended to receive less positive behaviour assessments over time but there was little correlation between these assessments and other test results.

A positive social worker evaluation of the mother and parental visiting were associated with a positive evaluation by teachers while the number of moves a child had had was associated with a poor behavioural assessment by a foster parent.

Interestingly, among those who had been transferred to institutions, those cared for by younger less experienced staff received more positive behaviour assessments.

In Chapter 13 ‘The child’s adaptation to foster care’, the authors report how the reason for the placement and the expectation of the length of placement impacted on children’s behaviour. Interestingly, children regularly visited were perceived to have greater separation anxiety than those who were not and those visited by inexperienced social workers were reported to have coped with separation better. Social workers perceived those who were not visited as more attached to their parents and those who were visited as having more difficulties with relatives.

Overall the authors found that the more frequently visited children:

  • had less capacity to cope with separation,
  • had less capacity to cope with a fostering environment during the early part of placement,
  • were less embedded in the foster placement throughout.

In Chapter 14 ‘Behaviour symptoms at end of study’, the authors describe the measures they used to assess these and report that lack of behaviour symptoms at the end of the study was associated with:

  • physical health at the outset,
  • less time in foster care.

They also note that secure children were more likely to be visited, that girls and those in care for a long time were more likely to exhibit psychosomatic symptoms, while boys, those who had had emotional problems pre-admission and those whose mothers received a poorer social worker evaluation were more likely to exhibit aggression. In other words, behaviour problems were related to sex, pre-admission emotional problems, physical health problems, length of time in care, a poorer social worker evaluation of the mother and lower parental visiting.

In Chapter 15 ‘The children and their social workers perceive foster care’, the authors reproduce a number of quotations from the responses of children and their social workers to the study.

In Chapter 16 ‘An overview and look to the future’, the authors note the limitations in what they have been able to present because of the huge amount of data a longitudinal study generates and pick out a number of key themes:

  • The problem of ‘drift’ – only 56.1% of children had been fully discharged at the end of five years.
  • The issue of parental visiting – at the end of the study 57% were not being visited.
  • The apparent association between the social worker’s evaluation of the mother and certain outcomes.
  • The gains the frequently visited children had:
  • in IQ over the five years,
  • in emotional adjustment,
  • in behaviour,
  • in attainments at school.

However, they note that, if children do remain in foster care for five years, there are increasing strains on the relationship with their parents. The only advantage of a longer stay appeared to be in IQ gains.

Among good foster parents ‘democratic permissiveness’ appeared to be the most beneficial approach for children while for children in institutions being exposed to younger, less experienced staff was more advantageous.

Though the majority were behind at school, most had improved, mostly towards the end of five years of the study.

They conclude that we need to think of new ways of managing discharge.


Like Taylor and Alpert’s study (1973), this study challenged a century of professional attitudes. In the 19th century in England, fostering had been very much conceived as finding a ‘good’ family for children from a ‘bad’ family and it was not uncommon in the 1970s, notwithstanding the finding by Trasler of ‘several conspicuously successful placements … in which the natural parents were welcome visitors to the foster home’ (1960, p. 233), to keep foster and natural parents at arms’ length (Berridge and Cleaver, 1987).

The idea that, for a successful outcome to a fostering placement, a social worker needed to support and encourage the child’s parents to visit and support and encourage the foster parent to put up with the slightly more difficult behaviour that they might encounter because of this regular contact flew in the face of all the guidance that had been and continues to be issued about selecting foster parents and matching children to foster parents. Of course, as Berridge and Cleaver (1987) pointed out, failing to pay attention to those factors which will undermine a placement is essential but, once you have got all that right, the key still remains the frequency of parental visiting along with support for the foster parents to accept regular visiting.

A number of Fanshel and Shinn’s results do not contradict results in other areas; for example, when putting their results on IQ and school attainments alongside those of Taylor and Alpert (1973), you get a similar profile to that reported by Trotzkey (1930) over forty years earlier and to that to be reported by Wiener and Wiener (1990) over a decade later: children in positive institutional environments tend to do better than foster children in positive environments. As Wiener and Wiener were to suggest, this may be because foster parents are often unsupported and unable to offer the range of positive experiences to which children in positive institutional environments have access.

Fanshel and Shinn also support another finding by Taylor and Alpert (1973) that children who attended an on-site school in institutional care did better and throw an interesting light on why professional interventions in residential care may have so little effect.

Their finding that children in institutional care did best with young inexperienced staff may also explain the differential effect of institutional and foster care. Throughout our lives, those who do best have models whom they can emulate who are not too distant from them; so those young children who learn peer group skills best tend to have older siblings who introduce them to peer groups; relationships of admiration/affection between a younger and older child or adolescent tend to encourage positive growth and adults who are mentored by a teacher, supervisor or manager whom they admire and who is not too distant from them tend to develop most.

Though institutional care presents difficulties in providing long-term attachments for children and young people because the staff who have most face to face contact with the child are the ones most likely to move on quickly, where a child has already made attachments the variety and multiplicity of alternative relationships with people who are less ‘distant’ from them than people of their parents’ generation provides a level of stimulation for the child’s development which only those families, natural and foster, with an extensive and active network of younger friends and relatives can match.


Berridge, D & Cleaver, H (1987) Foster home breakdown The practice of social work: 16 Oxford: Blackwell

Robertson, J & Robertson, J (1971) Young children in brief separation: a fresh look Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 26, 264-315

Taylor, D & Alpert, S W (1973) Continuity and support: following residential treatment New York: Child Welfare League of America

Trasler, G (1960) In place of parents: a study of foster care London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Trotzkey, E L (1930) Institutional care and placing-out; the place of each in the care of dependent children Chicago: The Marks Nathan Jewish Orphan Home See also Children Webmag November 2008

Wiener, A & Wiener, E (1990) Expanding the options in child placement Lanham MD: University Press of America

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.