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Fostering Good Relations: A Study of Fostering and Foster Carers in Scotland - Research Findings

DescriptionStudy of supply and retention of foster carers in Scotland
ISBN0 7480 7498 8
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateDecember 24, 1998
Social Work
Research Findings No. 22
Fostering Good Relations:
A Study of Foster Care and Foster Carers in Scotland

Interim Report of a Survey of Foster Carers
John Triseliotis, Moira Borland and Malcolm Hill

The findings presented here are from phase 1 of a study examining foster care and foster carers in Scotland. The study aims to explore issues of recruitment and retention of carers. Phase 1 involved a postal survey in 1996 of 822 active and 96 former foster carers about their characteristics, experiences and views of the fostering services.

Main Findings

  • Most foster carers were in two parent households. They had larger families but fewer dependent children than others in the population. Seven out of 10 female carers were over 40 years old.
  • Around half the children who were fostered were described by carers as more difficult than expected.
  • The carers came into fostering mostly because of their wish to help children and at a time which suited their domestic and personal circumstances. They gave up fostering when their circumstances changed.
  • Around 9 per cent of carers gave up fostering each year, of whom over half stopped because of dissatisfaction with some aspect of the fostering services.
  • Almost 70 per cent of carers were satisfied with the operation of the fostering services and link workers were particularly praised. However, one in six carers was dissatisfied with most of the activities of the child's social worker.
  • Much dissatisfaction was expressed about the level of pay and inefficiencies in administering payments. Carers described their rapport with agencies as organisations as poor, despite generally good personal relationships with individual staff.
  • Significant statistical associations were found between carers' experience of inadequate preparation and limited social work support and availability on one hand, and finding the children difficult and their expectations of fostering not being met on the other.


In recent years concern has been expressed that there is a looming crisis in fostering as a result of difficulties in recruiting and retaining carers. Prompted by these concerns, The Scottish Office commissioned a study in 1996 with the main aims of establishing who carers are and identifying the policies, structure and organisation of local authority fostering services.

The first phase of the study involved a postal survey of active and former foster carers in 16 local authorities and one voluntary agency. It described the carers' background characteristics and circumstances, their experiences of fostering and their working relationship with the fostering services. The questions were wide ranging and covered issues the literature suggests are important for recruitment and retention. The survey also provided some feedback on the operation of the fostering service. Over 800 (74%) active and almost 100 (48%) former carers completed the questionnaires. Further qualitative material was obtained through interviews and group discussions with 40 active and 27 former carers. Additional information on why some carers left was obtained from the agencies.

Who are the foster carers

About one in every 1000 households in Scotland foster. The sample represented a wide range of social backgrounds and in most respects reflected the population as a whole.

Although most carers were aged over 40 at the time of the survey, many had started fostering in their 30s. They tended to begin fostering after completing their own families. On average they were older and had fewer dependent children than parents in the rest of the population. Carers aged 31-40 were more likely than others to have dependent children and to be working outside the home. Two-fifths of all female carers had currently or previously worked in the social care sector. Those aged 41-50 were mostly fostering for a special scheme for adolescents or for children with disabilities.

Attraction to fostering

The great majority of carers came into fostering because of their commitment to disadvantaged children and the strong conviction that they had something to offer them. Few of them declared career ambitions or were attracted by financial rewards.

Some carers have been fostering for more than 20 years, but on average they have fostered for seven years. The majority seem to foster when it suits their domestic circumstances and give up when these change.


Around two in every five carers learnt about fostering by word of mouth - that is from friends, relatives and through work. A similar proportion were influenced by feature articles and advertisements mainly in the local press or by TV documentaries.

Carers suggested the following reasons why more people are not attracted to fostering:

  • lack of awareness about need and fostering;
  • fear of not measuring up to agency expectations;
  • lack of confidence to parent another family's child;
  • the poor image of children who are fostered; and
  • a lack of confidence in social workers either 'to tell the truth' about fostering or to deliver promised services.

It was suggested that experienced carers and young people who have been or are being fostered could play a major role in recruiting new carers and other related activities such as preparation and training.

Carers commented positively on the responsiveness of agencies to enquiries and the approval process including the home study. In a minority of cases, though, responses to inquiries were considered by carers to be slow and preparation and home studies were thought to be too protracted.

Preparation and training of carers

For the majority of carers (60%), preparation, continuing training and peer support groups had proved helpful. However, many important gaps were identified in training and two out of five carers claimed to have had either no preparation or had mixed views about its value. Besides more information on the management of children's behaviours, there was a call for more systematic and coherent continuing training. Almost three in 10 carers had not received or taken up this type of training.

The foster children

Carers were more likely to express preferences about the age than the sex of the child they wanted to foster.

Just over half the children fostered were over the age of 10 and almost a fifth were under five. Most households were fostering one or two children, but some were fostering sibling groups of more than two. One in every five households had sibling groups placed and a sixth was fostering a child with a disability. One in every four placements (26%) was part of a special scheme for adolescents.

Almost half the children across all age groups and both sexes were found by carers to be more difficult than expected. Carers felt that the children badly needed more direct help from social workers and other related professions, which was not always forthcoming.

Foster carers and parents

Though the majority of carers subscribed to the idea that it was in most children's interests to have contact with their parents, a minority expressed reservations and one in six made critical comments about parents. Most carers' primary motivation was to care for children and only a few spoke positively about working alongside parents. Most contact took place outwith the foster home. The carers' commitment to the idea of contact needs to be strengthened if aspirations about partnership are to be fulfilled.

The operation of the fostering service as perceived by carers

Almost 70 per cent of carers were positive about the fostering services, whilst also pointing to important gaps and deficiencies requiring urgent attention. The majority felt valued and appreciated, particularly by link workers, who were singled out for special praise.

Only 6 per cent of carers were consistently dissatisfied with the activities of the placement/link worker in contrast with 16 per cent who were critical of most aspects of the activities of the child's social worker. Carers were especially dissatisfied with the frequency of visits, availability and support provided by the child's social worker. Few examples were given of team work or shared planning between staff and carers. Senior management was usually experienced as distant. Carers were particularly dissatisfied with agencies' payment arrangements.

Significant statistical associations were found between carers' experience of inadequate preparation, limited social work support and availability on one hand, and finding the children difficult and their expectations of fostering not being met on the other.

Carers suggested the following types of support from fostering agencies would be helpful:

  • more frequent visits and greater social work availability;
  • a specialist 24 hour stand-by service;
  • better team work and sharing of information;
  • more listening and appreciation;
  • continued training, especially around managing children's difficulties;
  • more respite; and
  • more support through allegations.

Former foster carers

According to the figures held by the 17 agencies participating in phase 1 of the study, annual carer losses for the period 1995 and 1996 amounted to around 9 per cent. Almost three-fifths of those who ceased to foster did so for reasons related to the operation of the fostering services. Applied nationally, this means that around 80-100 carers leave the service each year because of dissatisfaction with the fostering service.

Carers in the survey who ceased to foster had an average of 7.5 years of fostering experience, which was almost the same as the average for active carers. Few significant differences were found in the background characteristics and lifestyles of continuing and former carers. The carers who ceased to foster because of dissatisfaction with the fostering service identified the same sources of frustration as did some continuing carers, but more strongly. A number of interacting factors contributed to the final decision to give up fostering.

The study was conducted by Professor John Triseliotis of the University of Strathclyde, Moira Borland and Professor Malcolm Hill from the Centre for the Child and Society at the University of Glasgow. It was funded by the Social Work Services Group of The Scottish Office.
'Fostering Good Relations: A Study of Foster Care and Foster Carers in Scotland - Interim Report', the research report summarised in this Research Findings, may be purchased (price £6.00 per copy).

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