Although system is a word frequently invoked in discussions of foster care policy and practice, there have been few if any attempts by child welfare researchers to understand the ways in which the foster care system is a system. As a consequence, insights from system science have yet to be applied in meaningful ways to the problem of making foster care systems more effective. In this study, we draw on population biology to organize a study of admissions and discharges to foster care over a 15-year period. We are interested specifically in whether resource constraints, which are conceptualized here as the number of beds, lead to a coupling of admissions and discharges within congregate care. The results, which are descriptive in nature, are consistent with theory that ties admissions and discharges together because of a resource constraint. From the data, it is clear that the underlying system exerts an important constraint on what are normally viewed as individual-level decisions. Our discussion calls on extending efforts to understand the role of system science in studies of child welfare systems, with a particular emphasis on the role of feedback as a causal influence.
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