Cynthia Byers

Defense Date


Graduation Date

Fall 2009


Immediate Access

Submission Type


Degree Name



Clinical Psychology


McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts

Committee Chair

Constance Fischer

Committee Member

Anthony Barton

Committee Member

Susan Nathan


attachment, foster care, foster parenting, qualitative research


This dissertation explored foster mothers' experiences of parenting a foster child who displayed problematic attachment. This topic is important because research suggests foster children presenting with attachment problems often experience disrupted foster placements, which are known to be detrimental to their continued development.

An introductory letter seeking foster mothers with difficult to care for foster children between the ages of 2 and younger than 6 years was sent by seven foster care agencies in Allegheny County to all of those agencies' foster mothers. Foster mothers were not told in advance that the study involved attachment-disordered foster children. Six foster mothers volunteered. The Kinship Center Attachment Questionnaire (KCAQ), Achenbach Child Behavior Checklist 1 1/2-5, and a Demographic Questionnaire were completed by each foster mother before a semi-structured, qualitative research interview was conducted. Following each interview, the KCAQ was used to determine if a foster child displayed problematic attachment. One participant was disqualified as a result. A natural division emerged among the five remaining foster mothers: four requested their foster child's removal and one foster mother who was adopting. The data were analyzed using an adaptation of the empirical phenomenological method advanced by Giorgi. Results included a General Holistic Summary that offered a powerful life-world description of the foster mother's experience, as well as a detailed account of losing a foster child due to the foster mother's request for that child's removal.

Additionally, attributes essential to the successful foster parenting of an attachment-disordered foster child were identified. Several ways in which the Child Protective System and mental health professionals may hinder a foster child making a successful adjustment to foster placement were described. Specifically, a foster child's traumatic removal from care was illustrated and concerns regarding the damaged caused by this type of agency intervention were articulated. Problems associated with being assigned an attachment-relevant diagnosis were noted (e.g., limitations of the DSM-IV-TR, difficulties making a differential diagnoses) and the adverse effects of being inappropriately diagnosed discussed. Foster mothers' general complaints regarding the Child Protective System (e.g., lack of information, lack of support) were delineated and recommendations for training professionals and foster mothers presented.