Nola Carew, PhD

Secondary Traumatic Stress and the Foster Parenting Experience: Exploring Factors Associated with the Prevalence of Secondary Traumatic Stress in Foster Parents Caring for Children Who Have Experienced Trauma

Foster parents are a crucial component of the child welfare continuum of care. Their role can be mixed with both rewards and challenges as they engage in caring for children who have experienced trauma. The role of coming alongside and supporting traumatized populations has been documented to create emotional risks for the helper through this indirect exposure to the traumatic experiences of others. Similar to child welfare professionals, foster parents can be indirectly exposed to traumatic material in their role of caring for traumatized children such that they may be at risk for the development of secondary traumatic stress (STS). Understanding the prevalence and severity of STS in the foster parent population is important in order to provide a deeper understanding of the emotional impacts associated with this particular caregiving role. Recruiting, training, supporting, and retaining high quality foster parents can lead to better outcomes for foster children. It is important to understand their challenges and the needs of their unique role in order to provide support to those who have stepped forward to open their homes and hearts to care for vulnerable children.

The purpose of this survey study was to examine the prevalence and severity of secondary traumatic stress [STS] in the foster parent population. The relationship between secondary traumatic stress outcomes and three stressor variables were also examined. Frequency of exposure to traumatic material in the foster parent role, experience in the foster parent role as well as personal trauma history of the foster parent were examined in relationship to STS outcomes. Additionally, perceived support and self-care were examined to assess their role in impacting STS outcomes in foster parents.

The study surveyed foster parents from four child welfare organizations in Kent County, Michigan. Participants were administered the Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale, as well as a series of questions related to their foster parent role and personal traumatic life experiences. Findings of this study indicated 20% of foster parents reported experiencing moderate to severe levels of STS and 12% of foster parents to be meeting criteria consistent with diagnosis of PTSD as a result of indirect exposure to their foster child’s trauma. Findings also indicated that both support and personal trauma history are negatively correlated with STS outcomes. Foster parents who perceive having the support they need in their caregiving role experience lower STS outcomes. Foster parents with a personal history of trauma report lower levels of STS than foster parents who report no personal trauma history.

The findings confirm that the prevalence of STS in the foster parent population is consistent with other helping professional roles. Adequately supporting foster parents in their challenging role may have significant impacts on STS outcomes. Unlike findings in studies of child welfare professionals, a personal trauma history appears to act as a buffer in STS outcomes for foster parents. Understanding the personal impacts associated with the foster parent role can help the child welfare system to more effectively address the challenges and needs of this population. This study provides a beginning foundation in the development of understanding STS in foster parents, however, this subject will require further study.