The material side of foster care: economic and material resources among foster carers and foster youth in Swedish child welfare.

Author:Wiklund, Stefan

Outcome studies in foster care have tended to focus on children's development and long-term adjustment. The economic aspects of placements and their effect on children's immediate welfare have been little explored. Stefan Wiklund and Marie Salinas compare the economic circumstances of Swedish foster carers with adults in the wider population and contrast the situation of 125 older children in foster homes, teenagers in the community and a group in residential care. As few differences were found, except for the relative disadvantage of those in residential settings, it is concluded that there is no intrinsic reason why foster care should deprive children economically. Moreover, as the child's welfare while in care is important in its own right, the criteria used to assess the suitability of carers should include measures of available resources.


In Sweden, as in many other countries, child welfare research has extensively adopted a developmental perspective on children at risk. Overarching interests are the societal capacity to address each individual's problems and to safeguard looked after children's development into adulthood. In foster care research, this developmental perspective is reflected in study of the risk factors associated with being placed in state care, on outcomes, whether short run (eg breakdowns) or long term (eg social positioning and health indicators later in life), and on factors contributing to the successful transition of care leavers to adulthood.

With good reason, the developmental perspective has for decades had a strong influence in child welfare theory. Since out-of-home placements are such profound interventions, this seems reasonable in that the criteria employed to evaluate their effects should include their ability to address the deficiencies that led to care in the first place, and their success in paving the way for an optimal transition to adulthood.

In recent decades, however, theoretical developments have demanded that the concepts of child/children and childhood warrant a broader perspective. Within the discourse of childhood sociology, children are extensively regarded as autonomous actors and objections have been raised against the notion of childhood as merely a preliminary stage to adulthood. This view acknowledges childhood as a life phase with its own intrinsic value, regardless of outcomes later in life (see Qvotrup et al, 1994; James et al, 1998). If this assumption is accepted, an important aspect of services is success in promoting enhancing factors during the child's stay in care, and acceptance that these are significant in their own right, irrespective of later outcomes.

In general welfare theory, a fundamental assumption is that access to resources is a necessary condition for individuals to accomplish life goals and enjoy a good quality of life. Since the 1960s, the living conditions of the Swedish adult population have been assessed by recurrent surveys. These measure resources along several dimensions, including economic and material assets, as these are known to have considerable impact on children's welfare.

But, even though parental resources are doubtlessly important in the lives of children, criticism has been raised about this approach for assessing children's living conditions exclusively in such terms. This partly arises from a perception that children have little control over resource distribution within their families (Jonsson et al, 2001; Jonsson and Ostberg, 2009). Several studies have shown, for example, that parents in poor families often try to compensate for their children's deprivations by making their own sacrifices (Middleton et al, 1997).

In 2000, children (10-18 years) were incorporated as separate respondents in Sweden's national welfare surveys. Thus, contemporary studies of citizens' living conditions now focus on resources available to children as well as adults. This shift mirrors a conception of children as autonomous actors whose welfare is not exclusively assessable by consideration of parental resources.

As children in foster care form only a small proportion of the child and adolescent population in Sweden, these studies of young people's living conditions do not adequately convey the situation of separated children. As neither the welfare resources of foster carers nor those of the foster children they look after are captured in such studies, welfare levels of foster children cannot be assessed by the standards applied to the general population. This is unfortunate, especially in the light of compelling arguments within childhood sociology, which stress that the welfare of foster children during the time of placement should be considered, regardless of proximal and distal outcomes of the care intervention.

It is difficult, therefore, to dismiss the significance of a broader welfare perspective on looked after children. From Swedish as well as international research, it is well established that there is an over-representation of children from families in disadvantaged socioeconomic positions. From this position, a general welfare perspective on care seems perfectly valid as it assesses the extent to which society is able to compensate for this deprivation (Sallnas et al, 2010a). Decent economic and material conditions can be considered as a legitimate aim when the state assumes parental responsibility. Furthermore, this compensation might have a substantial effect on the immediate quality of life of children whose history has often been marked by deprivation in comparison with their peers.

Based on a design replicating the national living conditions surveys, this article describes and analyses data from 125 young people (13-18) living in foster care in Sweden. The article focuses on two specific but interrelated welfare dimensions: economic situation and possession of material goods. To our knowledge, no international or Swedish study has addressed the question of material and economic resources in foster care. There is information on the demographics of Swedish foster families, all of which shows an overrepresentation of working-class and poorly educated carers (Kalvesten, 1974; SOU, 1974; Hojer, 2001). Since these factors are highly likely to be negatively correlated with resources, it seems reasonable to hypothesise that there are fewer resources available in foster families than for the general population.

In this article, economic and material resources are described and analysed in terms of the resources of both carers and young people. Resources of carers are compared with those of parents in the general population, whereas the young people's situations are compared with two groups: those in the wider population and those in residential care. Thus, the two research questions are:

* How do the welfare resources (living arrangements, tangible assets and household economy) of foster carers compare with parents in the wider population?

* How do the welfare resources (personal possessions and economic discretion) of young people in foster care compare with their peers in the wider population and in residential care?


The Swedish welfare state, child welfare and foster care

The Swedish general welfare system has--as in other Scandinavian countries--theoretically followed a 'social democratic' model. Such a regime is distinguished by universalism and relative equality with a comparatively fine-meshed social security net. This contrasts with the 'liberal models' of, for example, the UK and the US (Esping-Andersen, 1990). The Swedish child welfare system, on the other hand, is a selective service in stark contrast to the general welfare regime. It is administered within the personal social services and assists those individuals whose needs are not met by the general welfare system (Wiklund, 2006b).

The Swedish child welfare system has been theoretically recognised as primarily oriented towards providing a family service. Such orientation is associated with the state addressing the needs in families through therapeutic interventions, primarily on a voluntary basis. It contrasts with a child protection orientation--a distinguishing feature of child welfare provision in the UK and North America--that is characterised by legalism, child-focused risk assessments and predominantly compulsory out-of-home care (Gilbert, 1997). Another important aspect of Swedish child welfare is that juvenile offending is predominantly addressed by the child welfare system and not by a separate criminal justice system, as in the US and the UK (Wiklund, 2006a).

Although theoretical distinctions between different systems capture important essentials of child welfare work in different countries, it must be emphasised that ideal models portray an oversimplified picture of real world conditions. In the UK, for example, the family service orientation has exerted a strong influence in recent decades (Parton, 2006), while in Sweden, child protection elements have been gaining ground (Wiklund, 2006b).

As in the UK and North America, foster care is the main out-of-home placement for children and adolescents in...

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