From Care to Where: Summary Report

picture with parent and child

Research Team:  Dominic McSherry, Emma Larkin, Montse Fargas, Greg Kelly, and Clive Robinson

Supervisor: Geraldine Macdonald

Location: Institute of Child Care Research, Queen’s University, Belfast

Funder: Research and Development Office (Northern Ireland)


The Northern Ireland Care Pathways and Outcomes Study has been following a population (n=374) of children who were under five and in care in Northern Ireland on the 31st March 2000, tracking the types of placements provided for these children, and examining how the children and their carers are getting on.  A more detailed report for practitioners, together with a report for parents, and for children and young people, is available free from

Where were the children living?

The percentage of children staying in non-relative foster care fell between 2000 and 2004 (from 61 to 22%).  This was mostly explained by the rise in the number of children being adopted (0 to 38%).  There was also an increase in the percentage of children living with their birth parents (14 to 27%), with this increase slowing with time, i.e. there was an 8% rise between 2000 and 2002, but only a 5% rise between 2002 and 2004. 

What influenced where the children were living?

Location (Board area)

Higher percentages of children followed the adoption pathway in the Northern (59%) and Southern (69%) Boards, compared to the Eastern Board (33%) and the Western Board (19%). Higher percentages of children followed the non-relative (46%) and relative foster care (14%) pathways in the Western Board; and a higher percentage of children followed the birth parents (34%) pathway in the Eastern Board. 

Parental alcohol problems

Children whose parents had a history of alcohol problems were 3 times less likely to be returned to their birth parents by 2002 than those who did not.  Only 8% of children who were returned to birth parents by 2004 came from a family with a history of alcohol problems.

Mother’s living arrangements

The percentage of children whose mother was living alone on 31st March 2000 was high (54%) compared with the normal population for Northern Ireland of around 15% (Percy, Higgins, and McCrystal, 2001).  This high level of lone parenting mirrors other research in this area (Kelly and McSherry, 2002; Selwyn et al., 2003).  Children whose mother was living alone when the study started were 2½ times more likely to be adopted than those whose parents were living together.

Age the child first entered care

Children who first entered care under one year old were 2½ times more likely to be adopted than those who first entered care aged between 1-2 years old.  Most of the children (70%) who were adopted by 2004 were less than one year old when they first entered care. 

The parents’ perspectives


What the foster parents said:

Some foster parents said that contact visits disrupted the children’s routines and explained how children were sick and aggressive after they returned from the visits.  Other foster parents felt that the disruptive effects of contact visits wore off once a child had settled long-term in a placement; and that contact was less of an issue if the child had been placed quite young.

What the adoptive parents said:

Adoptive parents mentioned some concerns about contact:

The child would be too young to make sense of contact;The child might be upset by parent(s) not availing of contact;There may be difficulty retaining anonymity; andIt challenged parental role identity.

Adoptive parents also mentioned some benefits of contact:

  • Facilitating an ongoing exchange of information between the child and his/her birth family;
  • Useful source of information on the child and his/her backgroundHelped the children to make sense of the key people in their lives; and
  • Could reduce feelings of abandonment.

What the birth parents said:

For some birth parents, contact visits were emotionally difficult and stressful, particularly when contact sessions were regulated, highly supervised, in awkward and hard-to-reach places, and fairly short in duration.  They felt that this often put restrictions on the communication between themselves and their children, and they felt intimidated by the continual surveillance from social workers.

What support was provided?

Support from Social Services was not initially wanted by many adoptive parents; deemed insufficient (or nonexistent) by most birth parents; and mostly basic by foster parents.

Some foster parents said that they did not rely on Social Services support but they felt reassured by the knowledge that support was there if needed.  Most felt that the financial support was little more than adequate and far from generous.

Most adoptive parents felt support was more intense and frequent at the start but that it petered out afterwards, although they felt that help was still available ‘at the end of the phone’.  They were quite keen to have social services out of their lives in the beginning, so that they could get on with a ‘normal’ family life.  However, a few adoptive parents whose children had more difficulties were not happy with the level of support available to them.

Some birth parents felt that Social Services failed to give them the practical help needed to prevent their children being taken into care.  Many felt Social Services were only concerned about checking up on them, rather than providing practical help.  Because of the perceived pressure ‘not to slip up’, some were afraid to ask for support.  Most said they needed respite care that would give them ‘a break’.

Parental stress

The parents interviewed in this study completed a questionnaire (Parenting Stress Index – Short Form) (Abidin, 1995) that measures parental stress in relation to interactions with their children.  Compared to foster parents and birth parents, adoptive parents experienced significantly less overall parenting stress, and were significantly more likely to perceive that their child matched their expectations and that interactions with the child were rewarding.  However, a percentage of adoptive and foster parents were found to be experiencing significant problems in relation to parenting stress.  Birth parents experienced very high levels of stress. 

Children’s strengths and difficulties

The birth parents, adoptive parents, and foster parents interviewed also completed a questionnaire (Strengths and Difficulties) (Goodman, 1997) that evaluates children’s pro-social behaviour, and behavioural and emotional problems.  All the parents thought their children were considerate of others, helpful and kind (pro-social behaviour scale).  Children who had been returned to their birth parent/s appeared to have more difficulties than the adopted and fostered children in terms of behaviour problems, hyperactivity and overall difficulties.  However, a significant number across all three groups showed signs of hyperactivity, behaviour problems and overall difficulty. 


Abidin, R. (1995).  The Parenting Stress Index Short Form, Third Edition.  Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

Goodman, R. (1997).  The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire: A research note.  Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 38, 581-586.

Kelly, G., and McSherry, D. (2002).  Adoption from care in Northern Ireland: Problems in the process.  Child and Family Social Work, 7, 297-309.

Percy, A., Higgins, K., and McCrystal, P. (2001).  The Youth Development Study: Research Update for Schools. Issue 1, Autumn 2001.  Belfast: Institute of Child Care Research, Queen’s University.

Selwyn, J., Sturgess, W., Quinton, D., and Baxter, C. (2003).  Costs and Outcomes of Non-infant Adoptions: Report to the Department for Education and Skills.  London: DfES.