Therapeutic foster care is also known as therapy foster care, multidimensional treatment foster care, specialist foster care, treatment foster (family) care and family-based treatment. It is designed for young people who cannot live at home, usually due to behavioural problems including chronic delinquency. These young people are placed in a foster home in which foster parents receive training to provide a structured environment to promote the learning of prosocial and emotional skills. Part of the care includes intensive monitoring at home, at school and during leisure activities.
Foster parents not only receive training from programme personnel, but may also collaborate with teachers, probation officers, and others in order to ensure an environment where prosocial learning and behaviour is encouraged.
This narrative is based on three reviews. Review 1 (covering 5 studies) compared individualised, therapeutic, community and foster family-based intensive services to no treatment or existing foster care services. Review 2 (covering 13 studies) and Review 3 (covering 5 studies) compared therapeutic foster care to group care (bringing together a small number of young people in group homes).
Review 1 contributes to all but the Moderators section of the EMMIE framework. Review 2 contributes primarily to the Effect, Mechanism and Moderator sections, and Review 3 contributes to all sections of the EMMIE framework.
Across the three reviews, the crime outcome measures are changes in delinquency (unspecified including reconviction and arrest) and anti-social or undesirable behaviour, using both self-reported measures and officially recorded crime statistics.
The primary studies included in the reviews are were based on evidence from the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the United States.
Overall, the evidence suggests that therapeutic foster care has reduced crime.
A meta-analysis in Review 1, covering two of the five studies, found statistically significant reductions in the number of criminal referrals of young people who had completed therapeutic foster care, at both 12 months and 24 months after the programme had ended. Criminal referrals were defined as all officially reported misdemeanour and felony offences on the young peoples’ records. The meta-analysis also found significant reductions in the total number of days in secure settings for treatment groups compared to control groups, at both 12 and 24 months after the programme had ended. These secure settings included detention, correctional facilities, and or prison. All three primary studies that reported criminal outcomes in Review 1 saw statistically significant reductions in anti-social behaviour for the group which had therapeutic foster care.
Review 2 reports that therapeutic foster care was estimated to prevent nearly half of delinquent or criminal acts over the one to three-year follow-up compared to group care. However, the reduction was not found to be statistically significant and despite the promising effect of therapeutic foster care there are limitations across many of the individual studies that lessen the inferences that can be confidently drawn. Review 3 reports that therapeutic foster care for juveniles with a history of chronic delinquency reduced violent crime by 71.9% in comparison to the control group (young people receiving other residential treatment within the community).
Reviews 1 and 2 were sufficiently systematic that many forms of bias that could influence the study conclusions can be ruled out. Review 3 was sufficiently systematic that few forms of bias that could influence the study conclusions can be ruled out. Review 1 considered many elements of validity, conducted relevant statistical analyses and used quality assurance to ensure the accuracy of the information collected from primary studies. The review authors only combined studies with similar outcomes, and the review was restricted to the studies of highest design quality – randomised control trials. However, the review did not take into account possible unintentional outcomes.
Review 2, whilst well designed, highlighted a number of concerns about the individual studies; primarily that a large number of the individual studies were conducted by the same team, residences were generally poorly defined and diverse in structure (for example, ranging from two to more than 25 young people per home, sometimes within the same study), and adherence to the principles of treatment foster care varied greatly across the groups. As such, the review authors caution that the findings should be viewed as suggestions rather than assured knowledge.
Review 3 is a systematic review covering 5 studies, which demonstrated high quality in terms of having a transparent and well-designed search strategy. No meta-analysis was conducted and Review 3 did not sufficiently assess the risk of bias in the analysis, separate analysis for distinct evaluation research designs or quantify an overall effect for unanticipated outcomes such as displacement caused by the intervention or conduct.
The reviews suggested a number of mechanisms by which therapeutic foster care might have an effect on crime:
The reviews note that the effect of the intervention might differ by age, sex and background:
However, the reviews did not analyse or test these moderating variables.
Review 1 noted that implementation should centre on the support available to the foster carers and young people (with respect to regular meetings and therapeutic and clinical services being available). In addition, the young people should be closely supervised in the home (and school) setting, and contact with delinquent peers prohibited. It was made clear that any infringements of the rules should result in a direct consequence.
Review 1 also noted that for girls in particular, the foster care needs to address emotional and psychiatric conditions that reportedly often appear alongside delinquency (and which may contribute to it, or cause impediments to treatment). Girls were taught skills to avoid social-relational aggression as this was seen as a particular problem (social or relational aggression is a type of bullying which damages someone’s relationships or social standing e.g. through exclusion from social activities, spreading rumours about the victim in front of others).
Review 3 also mentioned some barriers to implementing therapeutic foster care, including difficulty recruiting, training, and retaining suitable foster families. It was reported that recruitment and training must be conducted year-round in order to maintain a group of well-trained foster parents. It was also noted that providing an additional monthly stipend to the normal reimbursement rate increased foster parent retention.
While none of the Reviews conducted a cost benefit analysis, or attempted to synthesise evidence about programme costs, Reviews 1 and 3 provided evidence of costs from individual studies where this was available.
Review 1 reported the costs of therapeutic foster care in 1991 ($3,000 per month per participant) compared to the control group, who were in the state mental hospital ($6,000 per month per participant). This led to an average saving of $10,280 per participant in hospitalisation costs for those who were placed in therapeutic foster care. The review also noted that while therapeutic foster care was more expensive than regular foster care, it is less expensive than residential care.
Review 3 reported one study which saw average programme costs of $18,837 per young person in 1997. These costs included personnel (case manager, programme director, therapists, recruiter and foster parent trainer), foster parent stipends, and additional health services such as mental health care. A second study in Review 2 reported a cost-benefit analysis of therapeutic foster care compared to standard group care. The additional cost per participant for therapeutic foster care was $1912 in 1997, but the total net benefits for programme participants ranged from $20,351 to $81,664.
Overall, the evidence suggests that therapeutic foster care has reduced crime. Significant reductions in the number of criminal referrals and the days in secure settings were seen for participants compared to control groups. Therapeutic foster care is believed to work by removing young people from delinquent peers and providing supervision and structure by foster carers who encourage prosocial behaviours. Placement of seriously at-risk young people in less restrictive environments such as therapeutic foster care (as opposed to secure facilities) is preferable. The core components of therapeutic foster care are well documented, but the number of studies remains low and more research is needed to investigate the effectiveness of this programme in the UK context.
Review 1: MacDonald, G.M. and Turner, W. (2007) 'Treatment foster care for improving outcomes in children and young people', Campbell Systematic Reviews 2007:9, DOI: 10.4073/csr.2007.9Review
2: Osei, G.K., Gorey, K.M. and Hernandes Jozefowicz,
D.M. (2016) ‘Delinquency and Crime Prevention: Overview of Research Comparing
Treatment Foster Care and Group Care’, Child Youth Care Forum 45: 33-46 DOI: 10.1007/S10566-015-9315-0 Review 3: Hahn, R. A., Bilukha, O., Lowy, J., Crosby, A., Fullilove, M. T., Liberman, A., Moscicki, E., Snyder, S., Tuma, T., Corso, P. and Schofield, A. (2005) 'The Effectiveness of Therapeutic Foster Care for the Prevention of Violence: A Systematic Review', American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 28:2S1, 72-90
This narrative was prepared by UCL Jill Dando Institute and was co-funded by the College of Policing and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). ESRC Grant title: 'University Consortium for Evidence-Based Crime Reduction'. Grant Ref: ES/L007223/1.