We don’t know enough about peer violence in foster homes

An article this month in Child & Family Social Work looks at the scant amount of research on peer violence in foster homes.

Whilst evidence on peer abuse in residential settings is limited even less is known regarding peer abuse in foster care. Although no specific research has been undertaken, work by some (e.g. Farmer & Pollock 1998) indicates the issue of peer abuse is as salient in these settings as in the residential context. Many of the specific dynamics associated with abuse in residential settings, including peer cultures, are either absent or very different in relation to foster care placements. The populations of children in foster and residential care also vary considerably by age and care histories. In addition, the ‘family’ situation of foster care holds unique characteristics and risk factors not present in residence. The relative isolation of young people in foster care from other looked-after children means that the nature of peer abuse may be different. These differences highlight the importance of considering the distinctiveness of peer violence experiences in foster care. In addition, foster families’ own children may be vulnerable to victimization from looked-after children (Höjer et al. 2013). The manifestation and experiences of peer violence in foster care are particularly relevant within a policy context that favours family-based care and a resulting reduction in the use of residential care since the 1970s (Berridge et al. 2012).

We know, because our clients tell us, that peer violence happens too frequently in foster homes. Violence often goes unreported by children and youth for a wide range of reasons, including fear of not being believed, fear of retaliation, and fear of placement disruption to a potentially worse situation. Some foster parents likewise fail to seek help for peer violence in their homes for fear of losing their license or being perceived as unable to care for children appropriately. The result is a culture that minimizes problems for the sake of preserving appearances, until the problems are too egregious to ignore.

The article offers several policy implications:

  • There should be a focus on identifying children and young people who are or have been involved in negative peer interactions including ways of reporting that are accessible by young people. This identification should lead to appropriate responses and support for these young people.
  • The careful placement and supervision of the instigators of peer violence in foster care is required as there may be risks posed to other children and young people in the placement and to placement stability.
  • Placements of children and young people who have instigated peer violence need to be effectively supported including support for the fostered young people and other children within the placement (including children of foster carers), and support and training for foster carers to manage this behaviour.
  • Research is needed about the full extent of all forms of exploitation and violence that are experienced and instigated by young people in foster care, the circumstances in which it takes place, the young people who are more likely to be affected and its co-occurrence with other difficulties. Research should also focus on the neglected area of children and young people’s perspectives.

Lutman, E., and Barter, C. (2016) Peer violence in foster care: a review of the research evidence.Child & Family Social Work, doi: 10.1111/cfs.12284.

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