I have been writing on the topic of foster care since 2006. All of my early work was undertaken in collaboration with Martha Augoustinos and Paul Defrabbro, and funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant. I also have undertaken research with Ryan Ogilvy on the topic of other forms of care, such as specialist and residential care. More recently I have written about the experiences of separation and divorce amongst foster and adoptive families, with Stacy Blythe. My work on foster care has been reported to senate inquiries and in the media, and has been utilised in the production of guidelines for working with foster parents. I have recently contributed to a new Australian Psychological Society information sheet on LGBT people and foster care, available here.
A full list of my research publications on the topic of foster care can be found further down the page, and are drawn on in the applications of research findings sections below.
In Australia, approximately half of all children who are removed from their birth parents due to issues of abuse and neglect live in a foster placement. A significant number of these children remain in a foster placement for the long-term. Fostering is thus a growing mode of family formation. Some people may choose to both foster and give birth to children. Other people may only become parents through foster care.
Applications of research findings for practitioners
One of my studies on foster care included a comparative element with families formed via adoption, commercial surrogacy, or reproductive heterosex. The research findings from this study suggest that families formed via fostering experience considerable scrutiny and regulation. Participants viewed government regulation as impacting upon their families, usually negatively. In particular, families formed via fostering expressed the most concerns about government impact on family finances and scrutiny of parenting, and negative experiences of interactions with government agencies. The findings also suggest that families formed via foster care are mostly likely to view their families as under public scrutiny. This included being aware of other people’s judgments and constant exposure to people’s opinions and questions, as well as the perception that others implicitly or explicitly questioned the legitimacy of their family. These findings suggest that agency workers should understand that they are involved in regulating foster families to some extent, but that the negative impact of this regulation should be minimised where possible, and discussed explicitly and openly when necessary.
Findings from the comparative study also showed that there was a lack of familiarity and recognition of fostering as a family form amongst extended family. The unfamiliarity with this family form, including uncertainty or misunderstanding about the children and the process of fostering, led to a reported lack of support and inclusion. These findings suggest that agency workers need to have a broad definition of what a family is and, if possible, to work with extended family members to increase their understanding and support of this family form.
Another study that I conducted with Clemence Due involving interviews with 30 foster carers found that visual similarities between members of a foster family were often important. In some cases foster carers stated that they looked like their children, even though they were not genetically related, whereas others were sensitive to comments from others that they did not look alike. The participants also discussed the difficulties in not knowing whether to be complicit in other people’s assumptions that they were genetically related or to disclose that they were not, often for the sake of not erasing their children’s birth family. These findings suggest that it can be useful for agency workers to prepare foster parents for discussions about appearance, and discuss with them ways they may address assumptions made by others. It may also be useful for agency workers to explore with children their feelings about comments over resembling their foster families as these may be welcomed as a way of feeling they fit with the family, or they may be experienced as glossing over their birth families.
The diversity of families who foster indicates that agency workers need to be inclusive of all family forms (e.g. individuals and couples, heterosexual and same-sex relationships, people who are already parents by foster care or other means) and not make normative presumptions about who makes up a family. In addition, the different arrangements of foster care need to be considered (e.g. long-term and short-term placements). Agency workers need to be both inclusive of all family forms and aware of the broader policy and legal requirements relating to foster care. In particular, one of my research studies which included interviews and focus groups with lesbian and gay foster carers found that they relied on supportive agency workers to achieve positive outcomes (e.g. having a child placed with them, supporting them when dealing with other agency workers). However, this reliance on individual workers, rather than the profession as a whole, meant there was insecurity with knowing how they would fare if other workers became involved. These findings suggest that there need to be clearer policies to support lesbian and gay foster carers and training for agency workers. In addition, agency workers need to uphold these policies and support all foster carers and potential foster carers.
In a separate study of 85 foster carers, the findings highlighted the tensions between the public and private. One example is the ways in which the potential for abuse allegations (from children, birth parents, or others) impacted on family intimacy, both carer-child and between two carers in couple relationships. Fear of allegations can have an impact on practices that other families take for granted, such as cuddling or bathing children. Male participants or partners of male participants were most likely to talk about concerns of allegations. This suggests that it would be useful for agency workers to discuss with foster parents the processes involved in abuse allegations and practices which can encourage closeness between foster parents and children whilst minimising the risk of allegations. This study also considered the role of birth families in the lives of foster families. The findings suggest that it may be useful for agency workers to support foster parents in maintaining some kind of connection with the birth families of the children, even if it’s just in terms of displaying photos. As the research found, foster families may need to support children in relation to their birth families, such as when a birth parent dies. Building relationships between foster carers and birth families is another area in which agency workers could play an important role. Finally, this study also shows the unusual relationships between foster carers and agency workers, particularly when foster carers need to disclose significant amounts of information about themselves and when agency workers enter the homes of foster carers to transport children for access visits. This suggests that agency workers need to maintain professional boundaries with foster families, whilst being caring and approachable.
Another aspect of foster care I have researched is the experiences of disenfranchised grief amongst foster carers who have had a placement terminated unexpectedly. The participants particularly indicated that they needed more support following the termination of the placement, and the acknowledgement of the emotional grief they may experience when a placement is terminated. Some participants also said that if they had more support from their agency workers then their placement would not have needed to be terminated. These findings show that agency workers need to recognise the significant attachments that foster carers can experience with children in their care, and recognising the grief that may be experienced if the placement is unexpectedly terminated.
Finally, I have also examined experiences of separation and divorce amongst foster families. This research found that foster families receive varying responses from services providers, including by location or agency and amongst individual agency workers. In some cases, children could be removed from foster placements due to a separation or divorce. These findings suggest that foster care agencies need to provide clear guidelines as to the processes which would follow separation or divorce. It is particularly important that agency workers are knowledgeable about these processes and ensure that foster carers are also aware of these.
Applications of research findings for (intending) parents and families
The research findings highlight that foster families can face considerable scrutiny and regulation, including in terms of government policies and laws, from their own families, from strangers, and from the media. This high level of scrutiny can impact on the degree to which foster families feel protected and supported by the public and the government. These findings suggest that intending foster parents need to be aware of the challenges that may arise from fostering, and to seek information and support when needed.
Further findings showed the tensions between the public and private for foster care families. In particular, the potential for abuse allegations (from children, birth parents, or others) impacted on family intimacy, both carer-child and between two carers in couple relationships. Fear of allegations can have an impact on practices that other families take for granted, such as cuddling or bathing children, particularly amongst men. These findings highlight the need for foster carers to reflect on the level of interactions they have with their foster children, and to seek advice and guidance on this if they are unsure.
The research also found that it’s important for foster carers to consider the role of birth families in their lives. Having some sort of relationship with birth families is usually beneficial to the children involved. In addition, as the research found, foster families may need to support children in relation to their birth families, such as when a birth parent dies. In addition, the research shows that foster carers need to be prepared for a relationship with agency workers, as foster carers often need to disclose significant amounts of information about themselves to workers and may have workers entering their homes to transport children for access visits.
Another research finding was that of the grief experienced by foster carers when they had a placement terminated unexpectedly. The participants particularly indicated that they needed more support following the termination of the placement, and the acknowledgement of the emotional grief they may experience when a placement is terminated. Some participants also said that if they had more support from their agency workers then their placement would not have needed to be terminated. These findings indicate that foster carers need to proactively seek out as much support as possible, including counselling if needed.
Finally, the research examined experiences of separation and divorce amongst foster families. Depending on the agency and agency worker, children could be removed from foster placements due to a separation or divorce. It is important for foster carers to learn if their agency has clear guidelines about the processes which follow separation or divorce, and to seek support to continue to maintain the placement after separation.
Resources for practitioners
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare – Child protection overview
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2019). Child protection Australia 2017-18 (Child Welfare series no. 70. Cat. no. CWS 65). Canberra: AIHW.
Child Information Welfare Gateway (US) – Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) families in foster care and adoption
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (UK) (2015). Looked-after children and young people.
National Resource Center for Adoption, the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections, and the National Resource Center for Recruitment and Retention of Foster and Adoptive Parents at AdoptUSKids (US) Strategies for recruiting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender foster, adoptive, and kinship families
Resources for (intending) parents and families
Foster care – government sources
ACT Government – Community Services – Foster care
ACT Government – Community Services – Foster carers and kinship carers guide
Government of Western Australia – Department of Communities, Child Protection and Family Support – Fostering and adoption
Government of Western Australia – Department of Communities, Child Protection and Family Support – Foster care handbook for foster families
Health Direct – Adoption and foster care
NSW Government – Family & Community Services – Foster care
NSW Government – Caring for kids: A guide for foster, relative and kinship carers
NT Government – Become a foster or kinship carer
Pregnancy, birth & baby – Adoption and foster care
Queensland Government – Foster and kinship care
Queensland Government – Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services – Foster and kinship carer handbook (2017 edition)
South Australian Government – Foster care
South Australia – Department for Child Protection – Children in care
South Australia – Department for Child Protection – Resources for foster and kinship carers
Tasmanian Government – Department of Health and Human Services – Foster care
Victoria State Government – Health and Human Services – Caring for children
Foster care – additional sources
Anglicare – Foster care and adoption
Barnardos – Become a carer
Foster Care Association of Victoria – Support for gay and lesbian foster carers
Parentline – Tipsheets – Children in foster care
Rainbow Families Queensland – Foster caring
Raising Children Network – Raising foster children
Trauma & Grief Network – Foster care & adoption
Essential Baby – Fostering (log in to access)
Canadian Foster Family Association (Canada)
Child Welfare Information Gateway – Foster care (US)
New Zealand Government – Fostering a child (NZ)
UK Government – Foster carers (UK)
Books/sources with personal stories
Barnardos Australia – Foster care in Canberra: One family’s story
South Australia – Department for Child Protection – Foster carer stories
Creating a Family: The National Infertility & Adoption Education Nonprofit – Best Books for Kids Adopted from Foster Care
My research publications
Bartholomaeus, C., & Riggs, D.W. (2017). Terms of endearment: Meanings of family in a diverse sample of Australian parents. In R. Harding, R. Fletcher & C. Beasley (Eds.), Revaluing care in theory, law and policy: Cycles and connections (pp. 182-197). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Mclean, S., Kettler, L., Delfabbro, P.H., & Riggs, D.W. (2012). Frameworks for understanding challenging behaviour in out-of-home care. Clinical Psychologist, 16(2), 72-81.
Ogilvy, R., & Riggs, D.W. (2014). Young people’s experiences of receiving individual packages of care in South Australia. Children Australia, 39(1), 49-54.
Riggs, D.W. (forthcoming). Diverse pathways to parenthood: From narratives to practice. Elsevier.
Riggs, D.W. (2015). Australian foster carers’ negotiations of intimacy with agency workers, birth families and children. Families, Relationships and Societies, 4(3), 433-448.
Riggs, D.W. (2015). Keeping up appearances: Resemblance talk amongst permanent and foster carers in Australia. In C. Kroløkke, S. Adrian, L. Myong & T. Tjørnhøj-Thomsen (Eds.) Critical kinship studies: Kinship (trans)formed. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
Riggs, D.W. (2012). Non-indigenous lesbians and gay men caring for Indigenous children: An Australian case study. In C. Phellas (Ed.) Researching non-heterosexual sexualities. Surrey: Ashgate.
Riggs, D.W. (2011). Australian lesbian and gay foster carers negotiating the child protection system: Strengths and challenges. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 8(3), 215-226.
Riggs, D.W. (2011). “Let’s go to the movies”: Filmic representations of gay foster and adoptive parents. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 7(3), 297-312.
Riggs, D.W. (2011). Perceptions of support among Australian lesbian and gay foster carers. In M. Morrison, D.T. McDermott, M.A. Carrigan & T.G. Morrison (Eds.) Sexual minority research in the new millenium. New York: Nova Science.
Riggs, D.W. (2010). Angels and saints: The impact of lay understandings of foster care upon carers. In J.A. Jaworski (Ed.) Advances in sociology research (pp. 217-228). New York: Nova Science.
Riggs, D.W. (2010). Pragmatic imbalances: Australian lesbian and gay foster carers. In. P Gerber & A. Sifris (Eds.), Current trends in the regulation of same-sex relationships. Annandale: Federation Press.
Riggs, D.W. (2009). Developing a “responsible” foster care praxis: Poly as a framework for examining power and propriety in family contexts. In M. Barker & D. Langdridge (Eds.) Understanding non-monogamies. New York: Routledge.
Riggs, D.W. (2008). Attachment theory as a “practice of heterosexism”: Resisting the psychologisation of lesbian and gay foster carers. In J. Nathanson & C. Tuley (Eds.), Mother knows best: Talking back to the baby “experts” (pp. 148-157). Toronto: Demeter Press.
Riggs, D.W. (2008). Towards a “non indifferent” account of child protection. Australian Feminist Studies, 23(57), 375-388.
Riggs, D.W. (2007). Re-assessing the foster care system: Examining the impact of heterosexism on lesbian and gay applicants. Hypatia, 22(1), 192-212.
Riggs, D.W. (2006). Developmentalism and the rhetoric of “best interests of the child”: Challenging constructions of families and children in foster care. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 2(2), 57-89.
Riggs, D.W. (2004). Resisting heterosexism in foster carer training: Valuing queer approaches to adult learning and relationality. Canadian Journal of Queer Studies in Education, 1(1).
Riggs, D.W. & Augoustinos, M. (2009). Institutional stressors and individual strengths: Policy and practice directions for working with Australian lesbian and gay foster carers. Practice: Social Work in Action, 21(2), 77-90.
Riggs, D.W., Augoustinos, M. & Delfabbro, P.H. (2009). Role of foster family belonging in recovery from child maltreatment. Australian Psychologist, 44(3), 166-173.
Riggs, D.W., Augoustinos, M. & Delfabbro, P. (2007). “Basically it’s a recognition issue”: Validating a foster parent identity. Family Matters, 76, 64-69.
Riggs, D.W. & Bartholomaeus, C. (2016). Adoption and foster care agency discrimination. In A. Goldberg (Ed.) The Sage encyclopedia of LGBTQ studies. London: Sage.
Riggs, D.W., Bartholomaeus, C., & Due, C., (2016). Public and private families: A comparative thematic analysis of the intersections of social norms and scrutiny. Health Sociology Review, 25(1), 1-17.
Riggs, D.W., & Blythe, S. (2017). Experiences of separation and divorce amongst foster and adoptive families: The need for supportive responses. Adoption and Fostering, 41(1), 75-81.
Riggs, D.W. & Delfabbro, P.H. (2008). Economies of care: Recognition and remuneration of foster carers. Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, 10(1), 94-104.
Riggs, D.W., Delfabbro, P.H. & Augoustinos, M. (2009). Foster fathers and carework: Enacting alternate forms of parenting. Fathering, 8(1), 24-36.
Riggs, D.W., Delfabbro, P.H. & Augoustinos, M. (2009). Negotiating foster families: Identification and desire. British Journal of Social Work, 39(5), 789-806.
Riggs, D.W., King, D., Delfabbro, P.H. & Augoustinos, M. (2009). “Children out of place”: Representations of foster care in the Australian news media. Journal of Children and Media, 3(3), 234-248.
Riggs, D.W., & Ogilvy, R. (2015). Professional carer experiences of working with young people in specialist care placements in South Australia.Children Australia, 40(4), 361-366.
Riggs, D.W. & Willsmore, S. (2012). Experiences of disenfranchised grief arising from the unplanned termination of a foster placement: An exploratory South Australian study. Adoption and Fostering, 36(2), 57-66.
Other research publications (selected)
Australian Institute of Family Studies. (2018). Children in care: CFCA resource sheet— September 2018. AIFS.
Blythe, S.L., Halcomb, E.J., Wilkes, L., & Jackson, D. (2013). Caring for vulnerable children: Challenges of mothering in the Australian foster care system. Contemporary Nurse, 44(1), 87-98.
Blythe, S.L. (2012). The stories of women who provide long-term foster care in Australia. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Western Sydney, Sydney.
Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian. (2012). 2011 views of children and young people in foster care survey: Overview and selected findings. Brisbane.
Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian. (2013). Views of children and young people in foster care survey: Education. Brisbane.
Family and Community Services. (2017). Results from FACS survey of guardians, adoptive parents and other carers. NSW Government.
NSW Department of Community Services. (2006). Spotlight on safety: Community attitudes to child protection, foster care and parenting. Ashfield, NSW.
Brooks, D., & Goldberg, S. (2001). Gay and lesbian adoptive and foster care placements: Can they meet the needs of waiting children? Social Work, 46(2), 147-157.
Brown, H.C., & Cocker, C. (2008). Lesbian and gay fostering and adoption: Out of the closet into the mainstream? Adoption & Fostering, 32(4), 19-30.
Brown, H.C., Sebba, J., & Luke, N. (2015). The recruitment, assessment, support and supervision of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender foster carers: An international literature review. Rees Centre for Research in Fostering and Education, University of Oxford.
Caritas Fostering. (2012). So much more to give: Attitudes to fostering in UK. Salford: Caritas Fostering.
Downs, A.C., & James, S.E. (2006). Gay, lesbian, and bisexual foster parents: Strengths and challenges for the child welfare system. Child Welfare: Journal of Policy, Practice, and Program, 85(2), 281-298.
Dugmore, P., & Cocker, C. (2008). Legal, social and attitudinal changes: An exploration of lesbian and gay issues in a training programme for social workers in fostering and adoption. Social Work Education: The International Journal, 27(2), 159-168.
Glangeaud-Freudenthal, N.M.-C., Sutter-Dallay, A.-L., Thieulin, A.-C., Dagens, V., Zimmermann, M.-A., Debourg, A., . . . Poinso, F. (2013). Predictors of infant foster care in cases of maternal psychiatric disorders. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 48(4), 553-561.
Goldberg, A.E., & Smith, J.Z. (2013). Predictors of psychological adjustment in early placed adopted children with lesbian, gay, and heterosexual parents. Journal of Family Psychology, 27(3), 431-442.
Hicks, S. (2005). Queer genealogies: Tales of conformity and rebellion amongst lesbian and gay foster carers and adopters. Qualitative Social Work: Research and Practice, 4(3), 293-308.
Hicks, S. (2005). Lesbian and gay foster care and adoption: A brief UK history. Adoption & Fostering, 29(3), 42-56.
Hicks, S. (2006). Genealogy’s desire: Practices of kinship amongst lesbian and gay foster-carers and adopters. British Journal of Social Work, 36(5), 761-776.
Hicks, S. (2006). Maternal men–perverts and deviants? Making sense of gay men as foster carers and adopters. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 2(1), 93-114.
Holtan, A. (2008). Family types and social integration in kinship foster care. Children and Youth Services Review, 30(9), 1022-1036.
Jones, C., & Hackett, S. (2011). Redefining family relationships following adoption: Adoptive parents’ perspectives on the changing nature of kinship between adoptees and birth relatives. British Journal of Social Work, 42, 283-299.
Lavner, J.A., Waterman, J., & Peplau, L.A. (2012). Can gay and lesbian parents promote healthy development in high-risk children adopted from foster care? American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82(4), 465-472.
Lynes, D., & Sitoe, A. (2019). Disenfranchised grief: The emotional impact experienced by foster carers upon the cessation of a placement. Adoption and Fostering, 43(1), 22-34.
Mallon, G.P. (2007). Assessing lesbian and gay prospective foster and adoptive families: A focus on the home study process. Child Welfare: Journal of Policy, Practice, and Program, 86(2), 67-86.
Mallon, G.P. (2006). Lesbian and gay foster and adoptive parents: Recruiting, assessing, and supporting an untapped resource for children and youth. Washington, DC: CWLA Press.
Mallon, G.P. (2011). The home study assessment process for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender prospective foster and adoptive families. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 7(1-2), 9-29.
Mullings, D. (2010). Temporary mothering: Grieving the loss of foster children when they leave. Journal of the Motherhood Initiative, 1(2), 165-176.
Nutt, L. (2006). The lives of foster carers: Private sacrifices, public restrictions. London: Routledge.
Nutt, L. (2013). Foster care in ambiguous contexts: Competing understandings of care. In C. Rogers & S. Weller (Eds.), Critical approaches to care: Understanding caring relations, identities and cultures (pp. 122-131). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Ross, L.E., Epstein, R., Anderson, S., & Eady, A. (2009). Policy, practice, and personal narratives: Experiences of LGBTQ people with adoption in Ontario, Canada. Adoption Quarterly, 12(3-4), 272-293.
Schofield, G., & Beek, M. (2005). Providing a secure base: Parenting children in long-term foster family care. Attachment & Human Development, 7(1), 3-26.
Schofield, G., Beek, M., & Ward, E. (2012). Part of the family: Planning for permanence in long-term family foster care. Children and Youth Services Review, 34(1), 244-253.
Suter, E.A., Baxter, L.A., Seurer, L.M., & Thomas, L.J. (2014). Discursive constructions of the meaning of “family” in online narratives of foster adoptive parents. Communication Monographs, 81(1), 59-78.
Swartz, T.T. (2004). Mothering for the state: Foster parenting and the challenges of government-contracted carework. Gender and Society, 18(5), 567-587.
Whyatt-Sames, J. (2017). Being brave: Negotiating the path of social transition with a transgender child in foster care. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 13(4), 309-332.