Externalizing Behaviors in Children In-care: The Role of Childwelfare Workers and Foster Families
Connie Cheung1,2, Deborah Goodman2, George Leckie3, Jennifer M. Jenkins1, Heather Prime1 and Mark Wade1
of Human Development and Applied Psychology, University of Toronto, 2Child Welfare Institute of the Children’s Aid Society of
Toronto, and 3Centre for Multilevel Modeling, University of Bristol
Foster Family A
The current study examined the simultaneous influence of workers
and foster families on children’s externalizing behaviors in children
receiving out-of-home care. Results suggested that although
individual differences in child externalizing are primarily attributable
to child-specific effects (72%), 10% and 18% of the variance can be
explained by worker and foster-family influences respectively. Worker
education accounted for substantial differences seen between
workers. More difficult children are monitored by workers with less
educational attainment. Foster-family level predictors were also
found to explain variance in children’s externalizing behaviors.
Relative to children in regular foster care, those in kinship care
displayed significantly lower levels of child externalizing while
children in group care displayed significantly higher levels. Higher
levels of ambient parental negativity and the experience of more
differential parental negativity relative to siblings were significantly
associated with more child externalizing. Lastly, children who were
more satisfied with their placement displayed significantly lower
levels of problematic behaviors.
Externalizing Behaviors in Children In-care
42% of children fall within the clinical range for externalizing
Understanding Externalizing Behaviors in Children inCare from a Multilevel Perspective
Differences between agencies and child-welfare workers explain, in
part, why children in-care show different patterns of
Child 1
Child 2
Worker A
Foster Family B
Child 1
Child 3
Worker B
Child 2
Child 3
Worker C
Figure 1: The multilevel, cross-classification of children in-care
• Year 7 data from the Ontario Looking After Children (OnLAC)
• 1,063 children between the ages of 10-17 years of age
• 459 girls and 604 boys
Response Variable
• Child externalizing behaviors
• 10-15 year olds: self, foster parent and worker reports
• 16-17 year olds: foster parent and worker reports
Predictor Variables
Worker Level
• Worker Education: higher scores reflected more formal education
Missing link: influence of the foster family
• 15-40% of variance in children’s problematic behaviors
can be explained by family membership4
Family Level
• Type of Foster-care Placement (regular foster care, kinship care and
group care)
• Ambient Parental Negativity (family average of parental negativity
within a family)
The environment in which children in-care grow up is very
• Children in-care are nested within foster families
• Children within the same foster family may be monitored by
different workers
• Workers tend to monitor children from difference families
Child Level
• Differential Parental Negativity (child’s deviation from the family
• Placement Satisfaction
• Child Age
• Child Gender (boy=reference category)
To account for this data structure, a multilevel, cross-classified
model was used (see Figure 1)
1 Keil,
The extent to which worker (e.g., education), foster-family
(e.g., type of foster-care placement, parental negativity), and childspecific factors (e.g., satisfaction with placement) can explain
variance at these different levels was also examined.
V. & Price, J. (2006). Externalizing behavior disorder in child welfare settings: Definitions, prevalence, and
implications for assessment and treatment. Children and Youth Services Review, 28, 761-779.
2 Attar-Schwartz, S. (2008). Emotional, behavioral and social problems among Israeli children in residential care: A
multi-level analysis. Children and Youth Services Review, 30, 229-248.
3Ryan, J., Garnier,P., Zyphur, M., & Zhai, F. (2006). Investigating the effects of caseworker characteristics in child
welfare. Children and Youth Services, Review, 28, 993-1006.
4 Jenkins, J., Simpson, A., Dunn, J., Rasbash, J., & O’Connor, T.G. (2005). Mutual influence of marital conflict and
children’s behavior problems: Shared and nonshared family risks. Child Development, 76, 24-39.
10%, 18% and 72% of the variance in children’s externalizing scores was
at the worker, foster-family and child level, respectively
Worker-level Education: Workers with less formal education were more
likely to work with children with higher levels of externalizing behaviors
and explained 24% of the variance at the worker level
Type of Foster-care Placement: Relative to those in regular foster care,
children in kinship care displayed lower levels of externalizing behaviors
whereas those in group care displayed higher levels. These variables
explained 25% of the variance at the foster-family level.
Foster Parent Negativity: Higher levels of externalizing behaviors was
associated with children from more negative foster families and those
who experienced more foster-parent negativity relative to their foster
Quality of Foster-care Placement: Higher quality foster-care placements
were associated with lower levels of externalizing behaviors.
Children’s externalizing behaviors are influenced by different contextual
• Combined, worker and foster-family effects explained 28% of the
variance in children’s externalizing behaviors
Workers with more formal education are more likely to work with less
difficult children:
• Selection Effect: some workers may be more more likely selected or
assigned to work with more difficult children
• Causal Effect: some workers may be more resourceful at working the
interface between children and placement
Externalizing behaviors and type of foster-care placement
• Children in group homes may experience higher levels of externalizing
behaviors because of increased exposure to delinquent acts through
their peers
Externalizing behaviors are associated with the emotional climate of
foster family:
• Children’s externalizing behaviors may be influenced by the
experience of being disfavoured by parents
• Children who are more satisfied with their placement displayed lower
levels of externalizing behaviors, highlighting the importance of
security in children’s long-term adjustment

The Role of Child-welfare Workers and Foster Families