The success of foster care may depend on how children see their foster families in relation to their birth families, a new study shows. The strengthof children’s bonds with foster families may be directly related to the nature of their bonds with their birth families.
Children in long-term foster care are more likely to be troubled about where they belong if they have found the ambiguous loss of parents difficult to resolve, according to a new report.
Professor Nina Biehal of the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York conducted in-depth interviews with 13 young people. In a paper published in the British Journal of Social Work she says their sense of belonging to their long-term foster families clearly did not develop in a vacuum.
Children’s feelings about their birth families influenced their thoughts and feelings about their place in their foster families, making it easier or harder for them to settle.
“Some children were able to reconcile belonging to both their birth and foster families, while others were more troubled about where they belonged,” she says. “Fostered children are embedded in a complex network of family and family-like connections….Their imaginings of family are not shaped by choice alone but also by histories, contexts, relationships and, crucially, by the meanings they ascribe to these.”
Thirteen fostered children aged between nine and 17 were interviewed; eight of them male and all of them white, during a project funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (now the Department for Education). Three were fostered by relatives.
For most of the children, early experiences of family life had been characterised by uncertainty and change, although all had been settled in their current homes for at least seven years. Researchers identified four patterns of perceived belonging: ‘as if’, ‘just like’, ‘qualified’ and ‘provisional.’
The primary identification of the ‘as if’ children was with their foster families. Their foster placements were essentially quasi-adoptive in nature and the foster carers took on a role very similar to that of parents. The children viewed them ‘as if’ they were parents, although they were well aware that they had birth parents too.
Another group of children identified themselves as members of their foster families, but appeared able to reconcile belonging to two sets of parents. They represented their carers as ‘just like’ another set of parents.
Sarah, for example, described how the day-to-day life of her foster family made her feel she was a ‘normal’ member of the family:
“They act the same as they would with their children…They’re just basically my parents, to be honest. I probably do really love them, ’cos they’re just like my parents.”
Unlike the group which viewed their carers ‘as if’ they were their parents, the ‘just like’ group were in contact with their birth mothers and neither they nor their foster carers felt that the foster family had in any sense replaced the birth family.
For five of the children, the sense of belonging to their foster families was qualified. They appeared more troubled by feelings of hurt, anger and ambivalence towards their birth parents and often by conflicts of loyalty, which appeared to colour their sense of belonging to their foster families.
All of these interviewees had experienced rejection by birth parents and all but one had also experienced abuse or neglect. They had some contact with their birth parents but it was intermittent and often distressing because their parents would fail to keep to the contact arrangements.
Some of the foster carers of this group spoke of their love and long-term commitment to them, but the children were ambivalent about how far they belonged to their foster families.
Aidan’s foster carer believed he felt that he fully belonged in her family, but the boy, who was 16, appeared less sure:
“I don’t feel this is my family . . .. I feel I’m in the middle and most people justfall away from me. I feel so, being spaced out, I don’t feel loved.”
For one child, whose placement appeared close to breakdown, the sense of belonging was provisional. Brian, aged 12, had been placed with this foster family at the age of one because his mother had serious mental health problems, but he had not been settled with them till he was five.
Brian very much wanted to remain in his foster family, but his sense of belonging had been undermined. Between the ages of one and five, he had been moved back and forth between his mother and his foster home. This had made it difficult for him to develop a secure sense of belonging to his foster family.
By the age of 12 he had behavioural and emotional difficulties and was anxious about his place in his foster family. His foster carer had been widowed a year earlier and found his deteriorating behaviour difficult to cope with alone at a time of grief and loss.
She and her adult daughters had told him that unless his behaviour improved he would have to leave. Brian was understandably uncertain about whether he belonged to his foster family.
“My foster mum’s daughters don’t really like me… I feel a bit sad. I like it here sometimes,” he said.
Belonging in practice
The accounts children and foster carers suggested that these children were fully included in day-to-day family life and, in most cases, had been accepted by their carers’ extended families, too.
The children described the ways in which their membership of foster families was underlined by their inclusion in routine family activities on special family occasions such as birthday celebrations, family outings and holidays.
They spoke of being treated the same as their foster carers’ biological children, of feeling close to them, of fighting with them as ‘normal’ siblings do or staying overnight with their carers’ adult children.
The paper concludes that while it is essential to acknowledge the importance of children’s relationships with their birth families, it is important not to discourage them and their carers from behaving as if they are ‘just like’ other families.
Helping children make sense of their location between two families and supporting their sense of belonging to their foster families as well as to their birth families should be a priority for social workers, it says.