Project Update 1: The long-term stability of placements for young people who enter care at a young age

Stability is defined as the strength to stand or endure.  As such, it is crucial for young people’s wellbeing and their ability to maintain supportive and caring relationships. We have been tracking the placements of our study population (n=374) since 2000, when they were all under the age of five and in care in Northern Ireland.


In this blog post, we focus on the stability of the placements that the young people had on 31st March 2007, and whether they were still living there on 31st March 2016 (aged 16 to 21), or at least had remained there until they were 18 years of age. We particularly looked at whether or not young people remained living continuously with the same parents and carers (not just in the same type of placement).

placement-stabi_25862938 (2)

We found high levels of stability for these young people, as illustrated by the infographic.  Clearly, adoption and Residence Order placements provided the highest levels of stability through to 18.  The adoption figures may need to be treated with some caution as not all adoptive families are traceable by social services, and it may be the case that some disruptions have occurred that have not been accounted for.  However, a rate of 4% would be consistent with Northern Ireland government statistics.  The rate of stability for return home placements is also very high.  In these circumstances, by stability we mean that the young person did not re-enter the care system.

Rates of stability in foster care and kinship foster care were lower than the other three placement types, but these can be considered as still quite high and are at odds with the notion that foster care is not well placed to provide stability through to 18 for children in the care system.  Our findings show that this is clearly not the case.  Furthermore, foster placements require statutory leaving care planning by social services with the young person, and these can at times create an inexorable momentum towards care exit.  Additionally, evidence is emerging from the study that even where foster and kinship foster care placements have disrupted during the teenage years for young people, the relationships with the carers are often maintained, i.e. the ‘family’ remains intact.  The point is that physical endings, i.e. where you live, do not always result in relational endings, i.e. who you consider to be your mum, dad, son, daughter, brother, sister, etc.  This notion of relationship permanence in the context of placement instability will be further discussed in a future blog post.

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3 Responses to Project Update 1: The long-term stability of placements for young people who enter care at a young age

  1. Gregory Kelly says:

    Hi Dominic
    Very interesting and mostly encouraging. A couple of points
    in relation to adoption, and tracing placements would it not be more likely that social services would know their whereabouts if they had broken down, in that they would most probably have come into contact with the care system. The adoption figures are great – you should be trumpeting them from the rooftops

    Don’t know why you don’t make the point more strongly that adoption is very significantly more stable than foster care

    38% ‘breakdown’ in long term foster placements is better than some of the historical studies – but not a lot better

    the ‘relationship permanence’ concept is interesting and very worth exploring but it does look like a bit of a consolation prize.

    hope you and yours are well and have a good christmas

    be nice to get out for a coffee or lunch sometime


    • Dominic McSherry says:

      Hi Greg,

      Thanks for those thoughtful comments.
      You are right, the adoption rates are fantastic, as are those for Residence Order, as they have been throughout the study, and we’ve sang this from whatever rooftops we can get ourselves perched on.
      But what we wanted to flag up in this blog post, was the still high rates of stability in the foster and kinship placements. It’s worth bearing in mind that this study is not designed as a boxing match between adoption and long-term foster care. It’s about looking at a range of longer-term outcomes across a set of long-term placement types, and seeing what appears to work best, and in what circumstances, within and between all the placement types.
      Placement stability is one of those issues, and the general thrust of the literature would suggest that adoption is much better placed than long-term foster care to deliver this through to adulthood, or the age of 18. Out findings confirm that this is the case, but not to the extent that might have been expected. The rates of stability through to 18 for foster care and kinship care placements are still very high. Furthermore, many of the placements did not ‘breakdown’ but involved a planned transition to a different type of placement during the late teens, more often than not some semi-independent residential placement. The striking issue for us has been the extent to which the relationships, and sense of ‘family’, are almost always maintained, even when the young person has left the placement. This then suggest that long-term foster care can provide a family for life for these children, and beyond the age of 18, in much the same way that adoption can.
      We’ll be able to expand on this a lot more when we present findings from the interviews with the young people and their parents and carers. Hopefully we’ll be able to give a flavour of those findings early in the New Year.
      Also, we are currently working on a paper on the issue of placement stability for the Special Issue of the journal ‘Children Australia’, which I am guest editing, and which will present an international perspective on outcomes from care. This is due for publication in June 2018, so you should keep your eye open for that. All the best.

  2. Adrian van Breda says:

    Dear Dominic

    Thank you for sharing these interesting results with us, and for (as always) using creative and visual ways of presenting them. It is very encouraging to see the high levels of placement stability, and your points about relational permanence are worth pursuing, particularly qualitatively.

    It would also be useful to disaggregate the foster and kinship care impermanence results a bit more carefully, to follow up on your response to Greg. You mention, for example, that some transition in a planned way from foster care into a semi-independent residential placement. More detail on that would be useful, and also to what extent these care-leavers did maintain a relationship with their previous carers that provided a real experience of relational permanence.

    Thank you again for sharing your work with us

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