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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 2, No. 4
July 1997

Separation, Loss, and Foster Parent Retention

Foster parents are in a tough position. On the one hand they are expected to welcome unfamiliar children into their homes, invest in them emotionally and physically, and help them through a difficult time.

On the other hand, this intense investment is supposed to be temporary. When the placement ends, foster parents are expected to disengage in a way that is helpful to the child and everyone else involved. In the hustle and bustle of a placement move, whether the child is going home or moving somewhere else, foster parents' feelings of loss are often not given adequate attention.

Agency Factors

In 1989, Lois Urquhart conducted a study to determine whether foster parents' experiences of separation and loss affected their decision to continue fostering children. She surveyed 376 foster homes, 275 of which were licensed and open to children, and 101 of which had been previously-licensed but had closed within the past three years.

She found that both groups of families expressed love and affection for their foster children and sadness at their loss. The two groups also felt similar levels of anxiety and uncertainty regarding foster care placements. Urquhart found that "although open home respondents more often knew how long a placement would be, both groups rarely knew from the outset a child's length of stay in their homes" (p. 203).

Urquhart did find two key differences between open and closed foster homes. The first emerged when she asked foster parents how well their agency prepared them for the separation and the grief they would feel at the end of a placement. While 36 percent of foster parents from open homes felt they had been taught skills for coping with a child's removal; only 19 percent of closed homes felt they had been adequately prepared.

The other significant difference between open and closed homes had to do with the degree to which they felt their agency supported them before, during, and after separation. Foster parents from open homes felt they were better supported by their agency in every category assessed. Parents from open homes were also provided with information about and contact with former foster children more often than were parents from closed homes.

Urquhart concludes that foster parents who are "unprepared or unsupported for the separation and loss experience can be considered foster parents at risk" of leaving foster care (p. 206).

Emotional Factors

To continue on in their work after the end of a placement, foster parents need to resolve their grief. One step in this process—expressing the pain associated with the loss—can be especially difficult for some foster parents.

In When Foster Children Leave: Helping Foster Parents to Grieve, Susan Edelstein (1981) identifies four obstacles that prevent people from expressing grief over a loss. Foster parents can run up against any or all of these. First, grieving is difficult when the relationship to the lost person was ambivalent or hostile. Foster parents may experience mixed feelings about foster children, especially those who are prone to act out. A second barrier to fully expressing feelings of loss when a child leaves the foster home is the number of other demands placed on foster parents. Usually, there are other foster and biological children still in the home. Foster parents must continue to attend to these children, leaving little opportunity to express themselves.

Expectations can be another barrier. It may be an unspoken expectation that foster parents should not get too attached to the children in their homes. Foster parents who express feelings of loss may be considered weak by their agency or other foster parents; they may even have their ability to foster questioned. The final barrier has to do with differences in individual personalities. Some people have a need to always appear confident and independent, and grieving makes them uncomfortable; they view the vulnerability that is part of grief as a sign of weakness.

For suggestions for supporting--and retaining--foster families, see "Support at the End of Placement".


Edelstein, S. (1981). When foster children leave: Helping foster parents to grieve. Child Welfare, 60(7), 467-473.

Urquhart, L. (1989). Separation and loss: Assessing the impacts on foster parent retention. Child and Adolescent Social Work, 6(3), 193-209.

1997 Jordan Institute for Families