Foster care

Matching children to foster carers? Only in your dreams!

My heart leapt when I read the title of this article. I thought perhaps we could improve outcomes for children in foster care by better matching them to foster carers. Sadly, I was disappointed. Nonetheless the article’s literature review may be of interest to Practitioners as it provides a summary of the key findings on matching children to foster carers.

Rationale for the study

The author’s note the difference between a positive and negative foster care placement is primarily determined by the foster child’s characteristics, the quality of the foster carer, and the interaction between the foster carer and the foster child. Therefore, predicting a beneficial interaction between child and their carer’s characteristics can diminish the negative impact of out-of-home placements; it’s hard to argue with this rationale.

The researchers searched through 8,000 peer-reviewed journals looking for studies that met rigorous methodological requirements to answer the following question:

“What is known about the decision-making in the family foster care matching process?”


Key findings ie the bad news

The primary finding was that the matching question could not be answered in an empirical sense because most placements were made based on availability of a placement (ie any placement!) rather than matching the child to the placement. This will come as no surprise to Practitioners! Nonetheless, the most common matching criteria within this constraint was ethnicity or race of the child, whether the placement involved siblings, and the behaviour the child.

The study references another study (Strijker & Zandberg, 2001) that looked at matching children to foster parents based on their their emotional problems and their behaviour. This study found that children with emotional problems are frequently placed with families with warm, affectionate relationship that can stimulate a child to autonomy. Children with frequent conflicts were placed with families with clear family structure. However, the authors preferred the matching decision to be ‘profile orientated’ and created typologies for children and foster carers. They distinguished four types of child behaviour problems and four types of foster families using a cluster analysis approach.

The child profiles:

  1. Normal: The child had no notable problem behaviour
  2. Aggressive-Delinquent: The child exhibited heightened social, aggressive and delinquency problems
  3. Attention-Social problems: The child exhibited internalising problems with prominent scores on attention and social problems
  4. Withdrawn-Social: The child exhibited severe withdrawal and social problems, and feelings of depression and fear.

The family profiles:

  1. Conforming: The family places a strong emphasis on adjustment and conforming to family rules, norms, and habits
  2. Structured: The family emphasised high social control between family members along with an organised performance of daily tasks
  3. Involved: The family emphasised high societal involvement, room for individual emotions, and limited emphasis on adjustment
  4. Fragile-Structured: The family was characterised by few regulations and little focus on adjustment or personal development, showing a clear structure but frequent conflicts.

Children with a Normal or Aggressive-Delinquent profile were preferentially placed in Structured or Involved families, children with an Attention-Social profile in Involved or Fragile-Structured families, and children with a Withdrawn-Social profile in Conforming families.

It is important to note that this typology is only a theory. The study provided no empirical evidence to demonstrate that such matching improves outcomes for children in foster care. This will only become an issue when there is surplus of foster carers awaiting foster children.


I am sure Practitioners dream about this!!!


Zeijlmans, K., et al. (2017). “Matching children with foster carers: A literature review.” Children and Youth Services Review 73: 257-265.


Strijker, J. and T. Sandberg (2001). Matching in foster care: Treatment demands versus pedagogical offer. Amsterdam.


About graemembaird

I am a psychologist with a special interest in improving the outcomes of families, children and young people in the Out of Home Care and Juvenile Justice systems.
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