‘Foster Home Breakdown’ by David Berridge and Hedy Cleaver

David Berridge and Hedy Cleaver (1987) Foster home breakdown Oxford: Blackwell 0 631 15817 0

The 1970s had seen a dramatic increase in the proportion of children in care – contrary to the intentions of the framers of the 1969 Children and Young Persons Act. However, the mini-baby boomers of the early 1960s had all passed out of childhood and the number of children in the population was beginning the steep decline which bottomed out in the late 1970s but has never since recovered to the level of the 1960s. With the 1968 Abortion Act stopping the supply of easily adoptable babies, more couples were turning to fostering (Tizard, 1977) and, because far fewer married women in the 1980s had had the chance in the 1960s to go to university and take up a profession, there was a sufficient supply of foster parents for many local authorities to reduce their use of residential care.

However, these developments masked continuing difficulties in foster care – the high levels of foster home breakdown and the high drop-out rate of foster parents which meant that significant numbers of children in need were being cared for by inexperienced foster carers.

Key Ideas

  • Many foster parents give up fostering within a year.
  • Fostering with relatives is twice as successful as fostering with ‘strangers’.
  • Most breakdowns occur in the first year and many are unexpected.
  • The age and experience of the foster mother, the presence of children of the foster parents and the absence of siblings or another foster child were all associated with higher breakdown rates.
  • Social workers tend to underestimate the effects of foster home breakdown and fail to offer support to foster parents.


In Chapter 1 Introduction, they note that between 1979 and 1984, while there had been an increase in fostering with non-family members, there had been declines in residential care and in fostering with relatives.

Summarising Berridge (1985) and Millham et al. (1986), both of which demonstrated a need to create more stable placements, they note that 33% of the residents in children’s homes had experienced a foster home breakdown and 12% had experienced two.

Overall foster home placements were most likely to breakdown within two years, followed by independent living, residential schools, home on trial and children’s homes. However, although residential placements were more likely to end without breakdown, they were not necessarily more stable, because so many were ended for administrative reasons (Berridge, 1985).

Foster parents tended to encourage ‘exclusive’ fostering (Rowe, 1974) while 40% of foster parents decided to discontinue within one year (Social Services Research and Information Unit, 1974). Earlier, Trasler (1960) had found that most breakdowns happened early in the placement, particularly if the child had suffered an early separation, they were older, the foster mother was under forty and there was another child, other than a foster child, of the same sex as the child.

Parker (1966) had found that 52% of long-term foster placements lasted more than five years; they were more likely to be successful if the child had had a previous successful foster or brief residential placement, if they were younger and did not present behaviour problems and if there were no children of the foster parents under five or of a similar age to the foster child.

George (1970) had found that 40% of placements had broken down over five years, in particular where there had been NSPCC involvement, the child had been older or separated from their siblings, there was a younger foster mother or foster parents’ own children, regardless of age, and the foster family had a similar religious faith to the child’s own family.

Thorpe (1980) had argued that a child needed a good understanding of his/her situation and to identify with and to have regular contact with their parents while Triseliotis (1980) had argued that a child needed stability in his/her own life/relationships and would have problems if they had low tolerance or financial or other problems.

They note that no one had ever researched what goes on in a foster home.

In Chapter 2 Theory, concepts and methodology, they clarify that they want to look at the isolating effects of placements in care, especially on relationships with peers, and at households rather than just foster parents. Unlike other researchers, they intend to look at all types, long-term, short-term, intermediate, special family and holiday foster placements, though there was insufficient material to complete the last. They define a breakdown as a “placement ending that was not included in the social work plan, either in the ending itself or in the timing of the termination” (p. 30).

Data was to be gathered from two Social Services Departments, a county authority and an inner London borough, and a voluntary agency offering placements for hard-to-place children. In addition to data on long and short-stay placements, they would make an intensive study of a small number of breakdowns.

In Chapter 3 Long-term foster care: Paul – a case study, they describe how Paul was placed in foster care, how he adjusted to school and how the placement broke down because of competition for attention with the foster parents’ children.

In Chapter 4 Long Term Fostering, they demonstrate that there were nearly twice as many breakdowns in the country authority as in the inner London borough but that fostering with relatives was twice as successful as fostering with ‘strangers’ in both authorities. There had been no improvement when comparing breakdown rates before and after 1978.

Only a minority broke down but 40% of breakdowns took place in the first year and 20% in the second year; they were mostly unexpected and three quarters led to residential care, 20% to another foster placement and 2% to a return to the family/extended family.

Even placements that broke down were perceived by social workers as satisfactory, with no hint of trouble in 29% of social work records, some indication in 40% and a strong indication in a third. Child and placement focused issues contributed to 37% of breakdowns, placement-focused issues to 30% and child-focused to 20%.

Breakdowns were associated with compulsory admission or more than two voluntary admissions and a longer time in care though a brief residential placement before foster care was found to be helpful. 38% of social workers never the met the natural parents but there were fewer breakdowns where social workers maintained contact. Having some siblings with the child halved the breakdown rate though having all the siblings only reduced it by a third. Changing school doubled the breakdown rate. The age of the foster mother, but not the foster father, was significant, with foster mothers under 40 having more than double the number of placement breakdowns, and those with more than five years’ experience less than a third of those who had less than a year. Most foster parents did not foster again after a breakdown. One sixth of foster parents had a child of their own under five and they were twice as likely to have a breakdown as those without. Foster parents with children within five years of the foster child were nearly twice as likely to have a breakdown, while the presence of another foster child halved the breakdown rate and halved it again if the foster child was similar in age.

In Chapter 5 Short-term and immediate foster care: Shirley a case study, they describe the experiences of Shirley who was placed in foster care while on remand from her parents, her experiences at school and how the foster placement broke down.

In Chapter 6 Short-term fostering, they recorded a breakdown rate of 16% up to the intended length of placement but a third of the placements lasted longer than intended, leading to a 24% breakdown rate overall. 40% of social workers were unprepared for the breakdown, though 25% had had some forewarning and 33% a strong indication that the placement might fail. Placement-focused issues accounted for 37% of breakdowns, child-focused 30% and child- and placement-focused 23%. The social workers were often more defensive towards the natural parents after the move.

Most of the factors in breakdowns were similar to those in long-term placements except that placement in residential care prior to a short-term foster care was associated with 40% breakdowns, possibly because children had often been placed in residential care on Place of Safety Orders and then separated from their siblings on leaving residential care.

More frequent social work visits were, unlike in long-term foster care, associated with fewer breakdowns, while placements with siblings were highly significant in avoiding breakdowns. Short-term foster parents tended to be more experienced overall but the younger ones had more breakdowns. There were six times more breakdowns where the foster parents’ children were under five and twice as many if the foster parents’ children were the same age. Having another foster child halved the breakdown rate, reducing it even further if the foster child was of a similar age.

In Chapter 7 Intermediate fostering, they consider the arrival of specialist foster placements inspired by the Kent Family Placement Project (Hazel, 1981); the breakdowns reflected the patterns in the other placements but most children ended up in residential care. The social work assessments were better, the reasons for breakdown were similar but there were fewer among ethnic minority and mixed race children and among seven to eleven year-olds compared with those in long-term foster care. They were more likely to be in care for neglect or abuse rather than for behaviour problems; however, 72% had been separated from their parents by the age of five and had therefore spent a longer period in care, which is a factor in foster home breakdown.

They had more contact with their parents, there was less antagonism from foster parents than in traditional fostering and visits from the social worker were twice as frequent, but these had no association with the breakdown.

However, children without siblings were more than twice as likely to experience a foster home breakdown and placements where there were foster parents’ own children were around five times more likely to break down, particularly if the foster parents’ children were under five or the same age as the foster children.

In Chapter 8 Findings from intensive study, they stress the complex nature of the breakdown process and how, in the negotiation of placement endings, the contrasting expectations of the parties were highlighted but also the isolation of the foster parents and the exclusion of the natural parents. There was generally poor coordination and there were resource difficulties.

Though the effects of breakdown varied, “social workers tended to underestimate the effects of fostering breakdown in comparison with other professional groups” (p. 171). There was little effort to assist foster parents in dealing with the experience. In the end, however, most foster children overcame the experience one way or another.

In Chapter 9 Conclusion, they stress the need to look at the ages of children in a foster home and the need for consistency in resource finding but regret that, while social workers often agreed with their conclusions, they continued to place children without regard to them.


Though many of their findings were not new, Berridge and Cleaver were the first researchers to look in detail at all the available forms of fostering and to demonstrate that the reasons for breakdown were largely the same across all of them and mostly avoidable. Yet social workers continued to disregard the evidence. Perhaps social workers took this as a wake-up call, because Triseliotis (2002) reports that, in long-term foster care at least, there has been a significant reduction in breakdowns.

Their finding that short-term foster placements following a residential placement as a result of a Place of Safety Order were more likely to break down may help to explain why NSPCC involvement was associated with foster-home breakdown (George, 1970).

It is interesting that foster mothers over 40 without young children or children of a similar age to the foster child were significantly more successful, because Tizard (1977) found that older adoptive parents had the time to devote to the children which younger natural parents did not. They also found that the presence of another foster child was beneficial, perhaps because children away from home prefer to talk about some things to friends rather than to adults (Millham et al., 1975).

The other disturbing finding was that, while most foster children recover from a foster home breakdown, little or no support is given to foster parents after a breakdown, in much the same way that natural parents are ignored after an adoption (Wiener and Wiener, 1990). Since children benefit from having an experienced foster mother, continually replenishing the pool of foster parents with inexperienced foster mothers is not going to contribute to any long-term improvement in the quality of foster care.


Berridge, D (1985) Children’s homes Oxford: Blackwell

George, V (1970) Foster care: theory and practice London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Hazel, N (1981) A bridge to independence: the Kent Family Placement Project Oxford: Blackwell

Millham, S, Bullock, R and Cherrett, P (1975) After grace, teeth: a comparative study of residential experience of boys in approved schools London: Human Context

Millham, S, Bullock, R, Hosie, K and Haak M (1986) Lost in care Aldershot: Gower

Parker, R A (1966) Decision in child care: a study of prediction in fostering London: Allen & Unwin

Rowe, J (1974) Long-term foster care London: Batsford

Social Services Inspectorate (1987) Care for a change? Report of an inspection of short term care in the personal social services London: Department of Health and Social Security

Social Services Research and Information Unit (1974) Portsmouth fostering study Portsmouth: Social Services Research and Information Unit

Thorpe, R (1980) The experience of children and parents living apart: implications and guidelines for practice In J Triseliotis (Ed.) New developments in fostercare and adoption London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Tizard, B (1977) Adoption: a second chance London: Open Books

Trasler, G (1960) In place of parents: a study of foster care London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Triseliotis, J (1980) Growing up in foster care and after In J Triseliotis (Ed.) New developments in fostercare and adoption London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Triseliotis, J (2002) Long-term foster care or adoption? The evidence examined Child and Family Social Work 7 (1), 23-33

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