Placement stability

Key findings

Placement breakdown is defined as the placement not lasting as long as planned; placement moves are planned.

Frequent moves can badly affect children.

Breakdowns, or unplanned moves, are much less likely in younger children. In comparison, 'teenage’ placements have a 50 per cent chance of breaking down.

Five factors appear to cause frequent placement moves:

It is not fully understood whether placement moves themselves produce poor outcomes for children or whether this is due to children’s previous experiences and difficulties.

For individual children, placement stability and having a parent or carer who values education is key to helping them achieve at school.

Although research shows that children crave stability, for an individual child in some circumstances, a move may be best.

Research suggests that if a child is moving it helps if:

Practice points

Placement moves and foster children

Placement moves and foster carers

What we know from research

Numbers of placement moves

Many fostered children move quite quickly from one foster home to another. One study (66) showed that in the first year, many children move placements once, twice or even three times. In this study 'planned move’ was given as the reason for not only the first move, but second and third moves as well.

Many children have periods at home interspersed with periods in care, often not in the same placement. This means that, in effect, the child is in long term foster care which results in a great deal of uncertainty and generally poor outcomes (3).

The reasons for placement moves

Research shows that several factors appear to cause placement moves:

What promotes placement stability?

In a recent practice survey (70) local authority fostering staff were clear about what they thought would promote placement stability:

Other factors (3) that make success more likely are:

From a carer perspective:

From a young person’s perspective:

However, placement stability does not always mean the relationship between the child and carer is happy or that the carers are satisfied. Sometimes, especially for younger children who are more likely than teenagers to have stable placements but less able to express their views, this is not the case.

Early indications of placement stability are important: if carers feel that children are 'settled’ from the start of a placement they are more likely to remain content.

Risk-taking behaviour in teenagers, such as alcohol and drug misuse, can often be an indication of a deteriorating relationship with carers. A downward spiral may develop where carers exercise less control, leading to an increasing acceptance of the behaviour which can initiate placement breakdown in itself (3).

Impact of placement moves on children

Research shows that generally children crave stability and that disruption may undermine their well-being and feelings of self-worth (17), (39). Nevertheless, a placement move may be in the child’s best interests at a certain time. In some cases children may want to be moved and some moves may be necessary for other reasons. Not all moves cause and are caused by serious disruption (71).

Research has not fully explained whether placement moves themselves produce poor outcomes for children, or whether they are the result of children’s previous experiences and difficulties. Some research suggests that instability itself leads to poor outcomes (33), (72), (73), and one study (74) found that children who did not demonstrate any behavioural problems before being in care were badly affected by placement moves.

Other researchers (17) have found that it is what happens as a result of the move, rather than the move itself, which has a negative effect. Furthermore, the association between placement moves and poor outcomes disappears if an allowance is made for the child’s difficulties before being fostered. At present this remains an area for professional judgement and demonstrates why performance indicators should not be the only criteria for making a decision (16), (75).

Research has emphasised that placement stability, as well as having a family member or carer who values education, is key to the child doing well at school (37-39).

Helping children move to a new placement

Research from children who have moved or are moving to adoptive placements suggest the following makes for a satisfactory and stable move:

Children who return home

Children often say there is a lack of support from social workers when they return home (3). About half of returning children maintained some contact with their former carers, which they valued but did not always consider very supportive.

Many children and carers thought their placement ended too soon and often did not understand the reason why. Some children returned home when there seemed to be little or no change in the overall situation. For instance parents who had erratically visited their children during their time away from the birth home still had poor attachment with them.

In some cases, both the child and parents wanted the placement back at home, but this was at risk of failing without additional social work intervention. Additionally, many carers and young people felt 'pressured’ to move to independence before they were ready.

Children who returned home at any stage were more likely to be re-abused, to do badly at school and to have 'difficult’ behaviour. Social workers were much more likely to think that children who were fostered or adopted were safe and that the placement was meeting their needs compared to when they were living in independent accommodation or back at home (3).