Brännström Lars, Vinnerljung Bo, & Hjern Anders. (2020). Outcomes in Adulthood After Long-Term Foster Care: A Sibling Approach. Child Maltreatment,25(4), 383–392. DOI: 10.1177/1077559519898755
Using a Swedish national cohort, the researchers conducted a longitudinal sibling study to establish whether there are any beneficial impacts for children who have been in long-term foster care. The study examines children who were in foster care for at least 5 years before the age of 13 and compares them to siblings who remained in the care of their birthmother.
The researchers relied on high quality national register data for the Swedish population, linking the following databases using a unique persona ID number: The Child Welfare Register, the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare, Statistics Sweden, and the Crime Prevention Council. Included in the study were people whose birthdates were between 1973 and 1982, who were alive and residing in Sweden at age 15, who were in foster care for at least 5 years before the age of 13 and who had a sibling who grew up in their birth mother's care. A total of 533 former long-term foster children and 616 full and half siblings were included in the study.
The researchers conducted a multilevel regression analysis of 16 outcome variables including education, income, crime, physical and mental health and mortality. The study found that children who had been in long-term foster care had similar outcomes except on four outcome variables, where they had significantly poorer results. Persons who had been in long-term foster care were more likely to have been convicted of a crime (48.2% vs. 31.7%), and be excluded from the labour market (15.5% were receiving disability pensions vs 8.7%). In addition, they were more likely to have a higher mortality rate (4x the rate of their siblings), and more likely to have completed and attempted suicide (11.4% vs. 5.4%), than their siblings who had remained with their birth mother.
Those working with former foster children need to be aware of the higher rates of suicidal behaviour amongst this population. Whilst this finding is salient, it is a possibility that those siblings who remained at home and those who were placed in care may have had different profiles and individual characteristics from birth, which may confound the findings.
Overall, long-term foster care does not seem to improve the life chances of children who have experienced maltreatment.
Longitudinal studies comparing siblings are rare and the use of high-quality data from national registers makes this study particularly strong. Its main limitation is the lack of historical data about the children and their families, which would have gone undetected in the registers.