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$3.7 million NIMH grant funds research on foster parent training

Mary Dozier, associate professor of psychology: “Children's ability to form new trusting relationships, their ability to form relationships with peers, and their sense of themselves as valued individuals are some of the interpersonal outcomes we are examining.”
NEWARK, DE.-- A University of Delaware researcher has been awarded a $3.7 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to examine the effectiveness of training programs for foster parents of infants.

Mary Dozier, UD associate professor of psychology, said the research will be conducted in collaboration with the Delaware Division of Family Services, an agency with which she has worked over the last 10 years to develop the training programs.

“Children in foster care have experienced trauma, which led to removal from their homes. That removal is a second trauma,” Cari DeSantis, cabinet secretary of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families, said. “Foster parents are critical to providing safety, stability, self-esteem and a sense of hope in children at a very vulnerable time in their lives. We look forward to learning with the University of Delaware what we can do to better support foster parents to better meet the needs of the children in our care.”

The research will be centered in the new University of Delaware Early Learning Center on Wyoming Road and is representative of the kind of translational research, or research that can be translated from basic science to interventions and preventions, that will take place at the center, Dozier said.

Dozier said she believes the research conducted at the ELC will have national and international applications because currently there is little science-based data available on the effectiveness of prevention programs for foster children and their relationships with care providers.

Through collaborative efforts with the Division of Family Services over the last decade, Dozier said, “We have identified three key issues for children who experience disruptions in care at an early age.” She added that the 10-session interventions target these needs.

Children in such circumstances often push care providers away emotionally when they suffer setbacks or difficulties, acting as if they can handle things on their own. The training helps the foster parents learn to be nurturing, even when the child might suggest he or she does not need their care.

Also, these children often develop “disorganized attachments” to a parent figure as a result of the fear of threatening behaviors or abandonment by caregivers. It is particularly important that foster caregivers provide nurturing care when such children are distressed. The training helps provide people who might not otherwise be nurturing of a child in distress the means to be nurturing.

Finally, children who have experienced such disruptions in care are often dysregulated in their production of stress hormones. The training helps the foster parents target this area by providing strategies for helping the children regulate their behaviors and emotions.

Through the NIMH grant, Dozier will assess the functioning of infants and toddlers who enter the foster care system before caregivers receive training and for five years after the training. She hopes to continue those follow-up assessments as the children grow up to become parents themselves.

“Children's ability to form new trusting relationships, their ability to form relationships with peers, and their sense of themselves as valued individuals are some of the interpersonal outcomes we are examining,” Dozier said. “Their ability to control their frustration and anger when aroused and to behave in socially appropriate ways are some of the behavioral outcomes we are examining. Finally, their ability to control their physiology is examined, as well.”

Dozier said it is expected that the training programs for the foster parents will have positive effects in enabling the children to trust, to control their anger and to control their physiology.

“It is our hope that the results of our study will have implications for children in foster care nationwide,” Dozier said.

Article by Neil Thomas

Photo by Kathy Flickinger

Contact: Neil Thomas, (302) 831-6408, nfttwo@udel.edu
September 30, 2002