Systematic review: Improving 'matching' in foster care

CEI was commissioned by What Works for Children's Social Care to determine the factors that are important for matching according to the experiences and perception of those involved; children, young people, foster carers, and social workers. We wanted to know more about the impact of matching decisions on outcomes such as child wellbeing, foster carer wellbeing, and foster home stability.

The decision concerning which foster family a child in care should move to is pivotal . A ‘good’ match is linked with better outcomes and future for a child, and can help a child feel loved. A ‘poor’ match may lead to a placement disruption and further trauma for a child who has already experienced trauma and separation. CEI recently conducted a systematic review on matching in foster care for What Works for Children’s Social Care. The review considered two topics: 1) the lived experiences of matching and the aspects that children and young people, foster carers, and children’s social care practitioners view as important and 2) the evidence on the effectiveness of current matching practices.

Our report outlines recommendations for policymakers and social care professionals to improve matching in the foster care system in the UK.

The review highlighted that it is important to ask children and young people about their preferences in a match, including valuing which aspects of matching are most important to them. Although children and young people, foster carers, and social workers all agreed this was important, children and young people spoke about when they were not asked their preferences, and a ‘poor’ match led to yet another disrupted relationship and move. It was also considered valuable to consult foster carers, other children within the fostering household, and birth parents when appropriate.

Matching isn’t just about the decision-making process. Matching also includes the process of preparing, arriving, and joining as a household. Children and young people emphasised the importance of a planned process for transition and the literature highlighted that many transitions between households happened in a chaotic environment. When transitions were planned, children valued knowing what was going to happen and visiting a foster family before moving in. . Foster carers and children and young people valued the sharing of accurate information. The research raised the idea of foster carers ‘co-constructing’ a family with a child or young person – going beyond telling children the rules and routines in a household to making rules, routines, and building a household atmosphere together.

A good ‘match’ was viewed as more than a box-ticking exercise. It accounted for the complexity of needs, identity, and preferences of children and young people and the structural systems of discrimination or disadvantage that they can face. Good matching also ensured support for shifting identities. For example, g00d matching didn’t just look at what a young person said was most important to them such as their love of football or having a dog – it acknowledged that these were important but also that supports for aspects such as gender identity, sexual orientation, and racial identity could become more important over time and in response to discrimination. Further research is needed to identify what impact various matching practices have on children, young people and foster families.

The review raised fundamental questions around what makes a ‘good match’ versus what makes a good foster carer who helps support any child’s interests and identity. It also raised questions around the time and funding needed to invest in a planned process for matching and role of power in decision-making for a child in care – how much children and others should be consulted versus allowed to make the decision. The review also raised questions about the intersectionality of a child or young person in care’s social categorisations (for example, race, religion, language, sexual orientation) and the ways in which those categories reflect identities, create systems of disadvantage, and the difficulties in capturing them in a matching process..

Senior Advisor Eleanor Ott recently reflected on the results of CEI’s systematic review on ‘matching’ and ‘co-creating’ processes when connecting children with foster families, tying the research findings to her own experience as a foster carer in a piece published in Children & Young People Now.

Study methods

This was a full systematic review that aimed to comprehensively locate relevant studies per pre-specified inclusion and exclusion criteria and double-screened titles, abstracts, and full papers. We screened 7,006 titles and abstracts from 11 databases and screened 1,140 records on websites and grey literature. We retrieved and assessed 237 full-text studies for eligibility.

Twenty-three studies from 24 publications were included in this review following full text screening; 18 studies from 19 publications were included for Question 1 around views and experiences of matching in foster care in the UK and five studies were included for Question 2 on impact and attribution. Data was extracted per pre-specified criteria, and we undertook thematic analysis and an iterative process of refining the coding structure and developing findings presented as a narrative synthesis. Quality was assessed using Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP) checklists. Confidence in the findings, as assessed using Confidence in the Evidence from Review of Qualitative research (CERQual), ranged from low to high. Further research is needed to identify what impact various matching practices have on children, young people and foster families.

Download the report