The needs of foster children from black and minority ethnic backgrounds

Key findings

The information in this section mostly comes from the forthcoming Child Welfare Services for Minority Ethnic Families: The Research Reviewed by June Thoburn, Ashok Chand and Joanne Procter (30).

Practice points

What we know from research

When comparing the ethnicity of looked-after children under 16 in 2002 with the general population of children under 16 in England, black and minority ethnic children are over-represented: 17 per cent of looked-after children, compared with 13 per cent of the general population, are of a black minority ethnic background.

The largest groups of looked-after black and minority ethnic children have one or both parents with an African Caribbean or African heritage. Other large groups of looked-after children come under the headings of 'any other mixed background’ and 'any other ethnic group’. There are much smaller numbers of children with Chinese, Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani backgrounds.

An increasing number of asylum seeking children from Africa and central Europe are beginning to have an impact on the profile of looked-after children. Many of these children may have been traumatised and living in very stressful circumstances, which means that they often need more specialist care.

Statistics about looked-after children from a black and minority ethnic background

Length of time in foster care

Around 70-80 per cent of children who are looked after will have left care within two years and research (30) found that, taken overall, children from black and minority backgrounds were no more likely than white children to stay in care for long periods of time.

But children from some black and minority ethnic groups: African Caribbean, Pakistani, those with one white and one African Caribbean parent, and those in the 'any other black group’ category, were more likely to stay longer than other black and minority ethnic children, that is, over four years.

From the 1980s, adoption has increasingly become the first choice for children needing a permanent placement. As a result, research about permanent fostering has declined. Nevertheless some children and young people are in 'permanent’ fostering, even though it may not be defined as such.

One study (30) followed up the cases of 297 black and minority ethnic children placed in the 1980s. Fifteen years later, it found approximately one-third had been placed as permanent foster children. An important finding was that children with both parents from a black and minority ethnic background were more likely to be permanently fostered than to be adopted. Interviews with these foster carers found that they were motivated by a desire to give a home to children from their own background and they believed that children should maintain links with their birth families, with whom they were strongly likely to empathise.

Other studies (30) have supported this finding: children with mixed parentage requiring permanency are more likely to be adopted, whilst those with both parents from a black and minority ethnic background are more likely to be permanently fostered.

Black and minority ethnic children in temporary foster care

As mentioned in the guide section on temporary foster care, many parents find that temporary care can be a relief, even when it is offered because of concerns about their ability to protect. However when black and minority ethnic parents are offered this service following child protection concerns or difficulties with teenagers, the researchers (30) were concerned that social workers are more likely to think of temporary accommodation as the first stage in compulsory care. This concern was also noted in an overview of the Children Act by the Department of Health in 2001.

The availability of black and minority ethnic carers

Since the 1980s efforts to recruit minority ethnic foster carers in the geographical areas where they are needed have generally been successful. One study (31) shows the high importance that social workers give to meeting the child's cultural and ethnic needs. However, other studies (30) indicate that other factors, particularly when the child is in temporary care, can be just as important, for example: proximity to home, school, friends and family, and the carers’ ability to meet the child’s needs.

A 1997 study quoted in Thoburn (30) showed that most African Caribbean and Asian children could be placed in foster families which reflected their ethnic and cultural heritage, but that was not the case where children from other ethnic and cultural backgrounds were concerned. More recently it has been noted that in some London boroughs, the numbers of African Caribbean carers exceeds the number of African Caribbean children needing placement, and there may be a shortage of white carers. Another study (32) found that a majority of carers recruited by independent fostering providers were white.

Placement breakdowns for ethnic minority children

As stated in the section of the guide on placement breakdowns, a child’s age is a key factor for children from all ethnic backgrounds. Teenage placements are particularly likely to break down and a general lack of placements for teenagers adds to the problem.

A 2001 study (9) found that the placement breakdown rate for black and minority ethnic children was lower than for white children. It did not seem to matter whether the placement was with carers from the child’s own ethnic background or not.

Another study (30) in 1991 of 1165 placements, followed up by other researchers in 2000, found no difference in the rate of break down between children from a black and minority ethnic background and white children, although the breakdown rates for children of mixed parentage were higher than for white children. The follow up study ten years later revealed that at least 24 per cent of all the placements had broken down.

These and other studies did not find significant differences in placement breakdown between children placed with carers from a similar background to their own and those placed with white families. However when gender was also considered, the placement of boys with white families seemed less likely to break down than ethnically matched placements, whilst the opposite seemed true for girls.

Children’s views

There are several studies about the views of black and minority ethnic children and young people (30). Many feel sad when they leave home but also understand the reasons for it. They want similar things to all children as described in the guide section 'Children’s views’.

Children and young people who feel visibly 'different’ want help from carers in dealing with racism and discrimination. They often want to be able to find their own sources of support, they value living in a community where others share their heritage and they appreciate having a social worker from the same background as their own (30).

Qualitative evidence from black and Asian children (3) shows how important their ethnicity is to them and the extra difficulties that white carers experience in providing support for them. Minority ethnic children in one study (3) were able to make sense of their history if they had opportunities for contact with their families and other black people, whilst if they did not, they tended to put the issues on the back burner. The children needed extra help to make sense of their identity and history if they were placed with white carers. Some young people spoke about the strains of being cared for by a white family, a growing sense of alienation and difficulties with social and personal relationships, as well as their mental health.

Most young people, foster carers and foster care staff think being in foster care presents more than enough challenges without the extra one of living in a family with a different ethnicity and culture. Foster children want carers to value and respect their identity and their past experiences. Maintaining contact with siblings and birth family helps this process, as long as it is a positive experience (3).

Contact with both parents is particularly important for children of mixed race parentage who often feel that they have lost out on one aspect of their background (3).

Carers’ views

Carers feel satisfied if they think they are doing a good job and that the agency values their work and supports them. Additionally, carers from a black and minority ethnic background report feeling shocked and saddened that children from their own culture are in care and want to provide a home for them. Many have themselves experienced difficulties and racism and have empathy with parents from their own culture who have struggled with adversity. They want to help both parents and the child and prefer not to take part in the process of 'severing links’, as they see it. Instead they often offer the option of a permanent foster home, rather than adoption. They are proud when a child does well and develops a strong sense of cultural pride and this helps them tolerate challenging behaviour and even a lack of affection and trust (30).