child welfare; informed consent; research; foster care; custody


Bioethics and Medical Ethics | Health Services Research | Pediatrics


Background: Youth in protective custody (i.e., foster care) are at higher risk for poorer physical and mental health outcomes compared with those who are not. These differences may be due in part to the lack of research on the population to create evidence-based recommendations for health care delivery. A potential contributor to this lack of research is difficulties in obtaining informed consent for empirical studies in this population. The objective of this study was to describe the approaches to obtaining informed consent in minimal risk studies of foster youth and provide recommendations for future requirements.

Methods: We conducted a systematic review of the literature to characterize the informed consent approaches in published minimal risk research involving youth in foster care. We searched PubMed, CINAHL, PsychINFO, Embase, ERIC, Scopus, and EBMR. Inclusion criteria were: studies conducted in the United States, included current foster youth, minimal risk, peer reviewed, and published in English. Full text was reviewed, and individuals required to consent and assent were extracted.

Results: Forty-nine publications from 33 studies were identified. Studies required 0 to 3 individuals to consent. Individuals required to give consent included case workers (16, 48%), foster caregivers (12, 36%), biological parents (7, 21%), judges (5, 15%), and guardian ad litems (2, 6%). Twenty-nine (88%) studies required the youth’s assent. The studies used 14 different combinations of individuals. One (3%) study utilized a waiver of consent.

Conclusions: There is no consistent approach for obtaining informed consent for foster youth to participate in minimal risk research. Consent should ideally involve individuals with legal authority and knowledge of the individual youth’s interests and should not be burdensome. Consensus regarding consent requirements may facilitate research involving foster youth.