Background to the study

Policy and practice

Placement alternatives

While most children grow up in a safe and secure family environment, a minority face violence, abuse and neglect in their own homes.  When children suffer, or are likely to suffer, significant harm, the State has a duty to intervene on their behalf.  When efforts to secure children’s safety and well-being within their own families fail, the law makes provision for the responsible Health and Social Care Trust to share parental responsibility with the parent through a Care Order (Children (NI) Order, 1995).  In these cases, children ‘in care’ are placed in substitute care placements, including: 

  • foster care with relative carers or friends;
  • foster care with non-relative carers; and
  • residential care.

In some circumstances, a child can be accommodated by a Trust on a voluntary basis, perhaps as a result of temporary problems within the family (e.g. maternal depression). In these circumstances, parents retain full parental responsibility and can resume care of their child at any time.

Birth parents

When reunification with their families of origin is thought possible, children subject to Care Orders may be ‘placed’ with their birth parents, pending progress and the revocation of a Care Order. 


Adoption transfers parental responsibility firstly to the Trust (‘Freeing Order’) and subsequently to the adopters. Adoption is regarded as the best placement option for children who cannot live with their birth parents nor be placed with relatives (Cole, 1985).  Northern Ireland was slow to embrace the notion of adoption for children in public care (Kelly, 1999; Kelly and McSherry, 2002).  However the way adoption is viewed, used, and managed in Northern Ireland has changed in recent years and there is now an increased focus upon adoption by all Boards and Trusts, although not to the same degree.  This is linked to the recent overhaul of adoption law in the UK.  Key documents include: The Prime Minister’s Review of Adoption (Performance and Innovation Unit, 2000), the ensuing White Paper, Adoption: A New Approach (2000), and the Adoption and Children Act (2002).

Adopting Best Care, the report of the Social Services Inspectorate's inspection of adoption services in Northern Ireland (DHSSPS, 2002), made a wide range of recommendations directed at the Department, Boards, and Trusts.  These included a recommendation to introduce new legislation more closely aligned to the principles of the Children (NI) Order (1995), and suited to the needs of a modern adoption service.  The report also highlighted the need for a regional adoption strategy that would establish better support structures and services for children, families and all other persons affected by adoption processes.

These developments are reflected in the recent departmental consultation report, Adopting the Future (DHSSPS, 2006).  The range of children for whom adoption is now considered as a placement option has broadened to include older children and those who have been in care for extended periods (DHSSPS, 2002; Kelly and McSherry, 2002).

Foster care

Children may remain in either relative or non-relative foster care on a long-term basis. Some foster parents may choose to apply for a Residence Order, which effectively takes the child out of the public care system.  Foster care remains the placement of choice for many children who cannot remain with their birth parents and for whom adoption is not deemed appropriate. 

Over the past two years, the Department has raised foster care allowances to nationally agreed minimum rates and has introduced new funding to give foster carers direct access to educational support including computers and tutoring for fostered children. Funding is also now in place to enable fostered children to continue living with their foster carers until they are aged 21. The four Health Boards have established a regional fostering team which co-ordinates efforts to train foster carers and have also put in place a 24/7 help-line for foster carers. Work is also underway to provide foster carers with more autonomy in decision-making about fostered children on a day-to-day basis.

Furthermore, the 'Care Matters in Northern Ireland' consultation paper (2007) outlines government strategy for the future of care provision in Northern Ireland.  Proposals aim to increase preventative services; improve the range, quality and stability of placements for children in care; strengthen the ‘corporate parenting’ role of HSC Trusts; enhance educational opportunities and experiences outside school; and support young people's transition into adulthood.’

Previous research

Outcomes for children in public care 

Children who have been in care are: 10 times more likely to be excluded from school; 12 times more likely to leave school with no qualifications; 4 times more likely to be unemployed; 60 times more likely to join the ranks of the homeless; 50 times more likely to be sent to prison; and their own children are 66 times more likely to need public care than the children of those who have not been in public care themselves (UK Joint Working Party on Foster Care, 1999; DHSSPS, 2006).  Mooney, Fitzpatrick, & Hewitt (2006) indicated that in Northern Ireland, 96 (10%) of the 986 children aged over nine years old in public care were cautioned or convicted in 2002/03, compared to 1% of all children in Northern Ireland; and 9% of school age children in care were suspended from school in 2002/03, compared with 1.7% of the general school population in Northern Ireland.

A difficulty is that these figures typically compare children who have been in care with the average for the whole population, rather than children from the same backgrounds who have not been in care.  There is also a tendency for the ‘problem’ under review to be associated with the child being in care, rather than also taking into consideration the factors that may have resulted in the child being admitted to care in the first instance.

Numerous Government initiatives have been launched in Great Britain to help ensure the best life-outcomes for children in care (Quality Protects, DOH, 1999; Choice Protects, DFES, 2002; and Every Child Matters, 2003).  However research continues to suggest that children in long-term foster care are more likely to move placement than those in adoptive placements (Ward, Munro, Deardon, and Nicholson, 2003; Wilson, Sinclair, Taylor, Pithouse, et al., 2004; Sellick, Thoburn, and Philpot, 2004; Sinclair, 2005).  For example, Sinclair (2005, p.157) noted that in most instances ‘long-term foster care does not offer a secure family for life’.

Placement stability

There has been much debate as to why it is proving difficult to improve placement stability for children in long-term foster care.  One argument is that current foster care structures do not encourage the level of commitment of foster carer to child necessary to see them both through the inevitable crises that they face.  An alternative argument is that the concentration on adoption as the ‘holy grail’ of placements has resulted in a diminution of the status of, and investment in, foster care.  Rushton (2004, p.91) argued that ‘advancing adoption as the preferred placement choice is driven not only by child-welfare imperatives, but also by the need to reduce State expenditure on the ‘in care’ population.  Furthermore, to favour adoption ... may also turn alternatives like long-term foster care and residential care into second-class options, although good quality placements of this kind may be the first choice for some children’.  Similarly, Sinclair (2005, p.17) noted ‘a lack of attention to long-term foster care as opposed to the more highly valued adoption’.     

Adoption and fostering

Research that compares adoption and long-term fostering consistently reports adoption as delivering better outcomes.  Triseliotis (2002, p.31) noted that ‘compared with long-term foster care, adoption still provides higher levels of emotional security, a stronger sense of belonging, and a more enduring base in life for those who cannot live with their birth parents’.  Sinclair, Baker, Wilson, and Gibbs (2005, p.103) reported that adopted children were doing better on most outcome variables, although not dramatically so.  They attributed this, in part, to the ‘family’ feeling that adoptive placements generate in children. They noted that the ‘difference between adoption and long-term fostering is partly symbolic.  Foster carers are not parents, while adoptive carers are’. Yet, research by Schofield (2002, p.271) highlights that some children who spend their lives with foster parents do consider them to be ‘their real parents’, in much the same way that adopted children view their adoptive parents.

Returning home

Although there has been a growth in interest and research over the last decade on the lives of children who remain in foster care or are adopted, the experience of those children who return home after a period in care has received relatively little attention (Bullock, Gooch and Little, 1998).  Research that has managed to incorporate the experiences of these children (Aldgate and Bradley, 1999; Cleaver, 2000; Selwyn et al., 2003; Skuse and Ward, 2003; Sinclair et al., 2005) has highlighted both the difficulty of attempting to recruit hard-to-reach children, and the importance of trying to do so.

Skuse & Ward (2003) interviewed 49 children (39% of their sample) who had returned home at some point during the tracking period of their study, which was examining children’s own perspectives of care and accommodation.  The study revealed a worrying picture of the lives of rehabilitated children, which was typified by a lack of formal support.  Older children tended not to remain at home for long, with multiple transitions between different relatives being commonplace.  The study raised questions about the emphasis that is placed on children returning home; the extent to which these placements are supported when the child does return home; and the appropriateness of defining return-home placements as permanent.


Many studies look at what influences where the child is placed, be it either foster care, adoption, or a return to birth parents, and/or the experiences of the children and their families.  However, there are very few longitudinal studies that have examined the range of placements, that is, relative and non-relative foster care, adoption and return to birth parents, and compared outcomes (Sinclair et al., 2005; Ward, Munro and Deardon, 2006).

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland provides the ideal environment for such research.  Its size means it is possible to investigate a total population of children within a single study, rather than sub-groups.  The opportunity to conduct such a study was provided by the Research and Development Office in 1999.  Their funding allowed the Institute of Child Care Research to design and conduct a large-scale longitudinal study on children’s care pathways and outcomes, with a particular focus on the type of care pathway followed and how the carers or parents felt the child was doing in that placement.  The aim of the study was to provide information that would assist in the decision-making process regarding the long-term placement of young children in care, and help towards ensuring that every child achieves the best possible long-term placement.  The following report describes the findings of the first two phases of the study – Care Pathways and Outcomes: Multiple Placements (2000–2003) and Care Pathways and Outcomes: The Carers’ Perspective (2003–2006). 

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