Good Neighbors

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


For mistreated children, foster care is usually the destination of last resort. But how children finally end up there is still not fully understood. New research shows that it doesn't depend just on the child or his family. Where he lives matters, too.

A recent study from Denmark, published in the June 2010 Social Service Review, finds that mistreated children are less likely to end up in foster case if they live in communities that spend more on schools, day care centers and other institutions. The same is true if they live in communities with strong social networks that include volunteer organizations like soccer clubs and self-help groups.

“You have people who help you overcome your problems,” says Signe Hald Andersen, a senior researcher at the Rockwool Foundation Research Unit in Copenhagen and author of “A Good Place to Live? On Municipality Characteristics and Children’s Placement Risks.”

Andersen had an unusually rich body of data. Danish records, which track all citizens from birth, allowed her to study the whole population of Denmark, including more than two million children, from 2003 to 2005. 

Andersen’s study compared placement rates in different municipalities in relation to four categories. “Formal support” was institutional support from local governments, such as schools. “Social support” included voluntary associations. She also looked at social disorganization, indicated by poor housing and high crime rates. Finally, she tracked political preferences—whether local leaders belonged to the Conservative or Social Democratic parties.

Variations across communities in the rate of foster care placement, even when taking into account obvious differences like income and education, have long perplexed researchers. Some studies have found that children in rural areas spend more time in foster care than children from urban areas. But apart from geography, little has been known about what lies behind the variations.

Some of Andersen’s findings were predictable. Social disintegration in a community made foster home placements more likely. Others were more surprising. A community’s political preferences made no difference, even though local elected officials in Denmark typically sit on the boards that make decisions about foster care.

Social support helped. Andersen speculates that communities with strong social networks and civic organizations cultivate social trust and put families in a position to benefit from neighbors, acquaintances, coaches and others, helping families with their problems before foster care becomes necessary.

Andersen’s study does not explain all the variation seen in foster-care placements from community to community. She has lately been examining other factors, such as the tendencies of individual social workers. Meanwhile, her study raises the stakes on efforts to help vulnerable children. “Hopefully it will make policy makers and administrators aware that you can’t just address of the problems of vulnerable families,” she says, “but also the problems of whole communities.”

Andersen, Signe Hald. 2010. “A Good Place to Live? On Municipality Characteristics and Children’s Placement Risk.” Social Service Review 84 (3): 201-24.