The inner workings of foster families: Implications for family therapy

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Marriage and Family Therapy


Kenneth V. Hardy


Foster families, Family therapy

Subject Categories

Marriage and Family Therapy and Counseling | Medicine and Health Sciences | Mental and Social Health | Psychology | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Social Psychology


Foster care is an understudied practice in the United States in general and in the family therapy field in particular. Given that over a half million American children grow up in substitute care, well-rounded family therapists must be prepared to work with this population and the multiple families involved in their lives: birth-, foster, and agency families. The purposes of this dissertation were to develop an understanding of the inner workings of (nonrelative) foster families as experienced by these families themselves, to offer implications for effective family therapy practice, and to identify fertile areas for future research. The "inner workings of foster families" included the impact of fostering on family relationships (including relationships between foster parents, between foster parents and their own children [FPOCs], and between foster children and FPOCs) and how foster families adjusted roles and boundaries to accommodate new, temporary family members entering and leaving the family. Foster parents and their children from nine (primarily) urban and racial minority foster families completed in-depth qualitative interviews utilizing a general interview schedule with domains drawn from Family Lifecycle Developmental Theory and the extant literature on foster family dynamics. The study yielded an understanding of these foster families as living, organic "mother ships" whose structures (motivations, role conceptualizations, boundary maintenance) and styles of interacting shaped how they moved across the terrains of other social systems (birthfamilies of foster children, the agency, school, neighborhood, etc.) and through time (the phases of placement). The findings pointed toward the critical roles of foster parent self-inclusion in the relational equation (SIRE); communication within the foster family regarding fostering-related changes; and attachment, impermanence, and loss, as well as strategies to cope with these, in shaping foster families' experiences. Clinical implications and future research directions are identified and discussed based on these findings.


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