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Do caregivers’ children reach milestones earlier?

By Chris A Garrington, on 15 June 2023

The number of looked-after children in England has risen significantly in the past three decades, and around three quarters are placed with foster families. Many of those families have children of their own: what are the longer-term effects on them? In this blog Amanda Sacker and colleagues describe research which set out to shed light on the issue – and which suggests specific training for social workers could be helpful.

A growing body of research suggests those who grow up alongside foster children are affected in the longer term by the experience – in ways which are both positive and negative. On the plus side, these children can learn to appreciate their families, to empathise with others’ misfortunes and to take responsibility. Challenges can include having to share belongings and parents’ time, dealing with negative behaviours such as stealing or lying, loss of privacy, family tensions and sometimes a loss of innocence.

But how strong are these effects? Although findings from earlier studies are quite consistent, they tend to be from unrepresentative and often small-scale qualitative research. Using a large, representative dataset from the ONS Longitudinal Study (LS), we set out to discover whether foster carers’ children made key transitions to adulthood sooner than other young people. 

This is a subject that should be of interest to policymakers: official statistics from 2022 suggest there were 58,000 caregivers’ children in England, living alongside 82,000 looked-after children – the latter being a rise from 47,590 in 1994. 

The LS enabled us to access information on children who lived with foster-siblings between 1971 and 2001 – we identified 2656 who lived with a foster child and 209,453 who did not. We looked at whether there were differences between the groups in the ‘big five’ transitions to adulthood: finishing school; leaving home; finding work and becoming financially independent; getting married and having children. These were broken down further to give us a total of 11 measurable outcomes.

Different outcomes?

We found there were differences – but they were small. For nine out of the eleven outcomes, caregivers’ children had earlier transitions than non-caregivers’ children but for three of those nine, the effects were not statistically significant. 

There were some significant differences, although small – 83 per cent of caregivers’ children left school with few qualifications compared with 79 per cent of non-caregivers’ children, for instance. Three out of four measures for getting on in work and becoming financially independent showed differences between the two groups of children. Caregivers’ children were less likely to be in work in early adulthood – 69 per cent as opposed to 72 per cent – and more likely to be non-employed long-term. These differences were independent of the household’s socioeconomic environment.

Twenty per cent of caregivers’ children were in managerial or professional jobs compared with 23 per cent of those without a foster child in the family. Those who had left their parents’ homes were less likely to be owner-occupiers and more likely to be renting or in other less secure housing.

Caregivers’ children were a little more likely to be married before they entered their 30s – 16 per cent compared to 14 per cent – and women who grew up with a cared-for child had children younger: six per cent were teenage mothers compared with five per cent of the non-caregiver group, and 1.6 per cent of mothers had three or more children by the age of 30 compared with 1.2 per cent of others.

The only transition for which we did not find any evidence of earlier transitions was leaving home.

We found some limited indications that daughters could be more affected later in life as well as during fostering in childhood. Unfortunately, we only had information on women’s fertility and cannot comment on parenthood for caregivers’ sons.  Evidence supporting the notion that caregivers’ sons and daughters were less affected when the foster children were of the opposite sex was very limited and equivocal at best.

The effects we did find had disappeared by mid-adulthood: by the time they were in their 40s, no differences between carers’ children and non-carers’ children were seen. 

Taking action

We believe social work education and training could include knowledge and skills development relevant to foster carers’ own children, including the risk of an early transition to adulthood. Social workers both supervise and support foster carers, and they act as intermediaries between the caregiver and the foster child’s own social worker, so with better understanding of the issues they could play a key role. 

For example, supporting foster parents to keep their children in education for longer could become part of the role of supervising social workers. They might explore with foster carers any barriers to their own children staying in school, and what might prompt them to want to leave. They might also take on a wider role in supporting the children of foster parents, especially during their adolescence, though to do this, fostering services would have to ensure there was sufficient extra support time available.  

Our research suggests a broader investigation of foster carers’ households is called for: there are several areas where further study is needed. Are these earlier transitions driven by the benefit of maturity or by the challenge of sharing a home? Do caregivers’ children cope better if they are older than the foster child? Are daughters in fostering households more affected than sons? And although our focus was on the children of caregivers, it would be helpful to know whether children in foster care fare better or worse if placed with a foster parent who has children. 

Our study is the first of its kind to examine the transition to adulthood in relation to caregivers’ children – and although its findings are modest, they do support the suggestion that they make earlier transitions to adulthood. With some tens of thousands of caregivers’ children potentially experiencing these impacts, more work needs to be done on the issue.

Is foster caring associated with an earlier transition to adulthood for caregivers’ own children? ONS Longitudinal Studyis research by Amanda Sacker, Rebecca Lacey, Barbara Maughan and Emily Murray and is published in SocArvXiv Papers, 19 Feb 2023

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