Promoting resilience in fostered children and young people
The importance of one interested adult - Birth families
The significance of birth families to foster children cannot be underestimated. Most fostering is short term with the primary aim of the child or young person returning home. Good outcomes are dependent on the services provided to birth families as well the fostering services provided to children or young people.
Contact with birth families
Where fostering is longer term, foster children often feel ambivalent about how much, and in what ways, they want contact with their families. There are also wide differences between children about how much contact that they want: some want to move away from their families, some want to return to their birth families but still see a lot of their foster carers, others want to see something of their birth families but remain in foster care, and others just want to live at home.
There is a presumption in the 1989 Children Act that, wherever practicable, contact with birth families is required. Recent research evidence, however, suggests that contact requires very careful management and supervision to prevent any potential disruption to the young people's placement. (8) Some things that can help the management of contact include:
- paying attention to children's views of the importance of different family members, and ensuring the child's welfare and safety during contact
- setting clear boundaries for contact, distinguishing between contact with different family members, for different purposes and different contexts
- valuing the views of foster carers who are vital in helping children make sense of their family structures
- identifying and involving, where appropriate, other members of the young person's social support network who could provide care and attention (8)
- In order to ensure a secure base for children, two important means of providing a determined link between foster children and the birth family are:
- making more use of, as well as supporting, family and friends' carers
- developing both supportive and therapeutic foster care schemes
Foster care with family or friends, otherwise known as kinship care, has the potential to build on existing relationships, make visits with birth families easier, protect black and minority ethnic children from losing touch with their ethnic and cultural identities, and spare the child or young person the trauma of being moved from their community and placed with strangers. Many young people describe a sense of security when living with their extended family which comes from the love, belonging and sense of identity they receive. (55, 56)
Quotes from young people, foster carers or practitioners
"I love to know that I belong to somebody, I'm loved by people and it's good to know that I have got somewhere to come after school that I call home." Young person being looked after by family carers. (57)
Kinship carers face unique barriers, however. They tend to be poorer (between two fifths and one third living in poverty), older (the majority are grandparents and over 50 years old), and they receive less in the way of services such as assessment, training and financial support than local authority carers. They may also face particular difficulties over contact with birth parents, difficulties that should be addressed within the care planning process. (58, 59)
In addition, extended family members continue to be overlooked in care planning meetings, suggesting that family members are not approached to act as carers. Yet research with care leavers shows that links with family networks remain important, particularly links with mothers, grandparents, siblings and aunts. One study of care leavers found that the majority could name a relative that they felt that they could rely on, which the family member was able to confirm. This study also found that in the majority of cases the young person's social worker had no idea why this so-called 'key kin' had not been invited to reviews. (60)
Unfortunately, this failure to involve key kin ignores the role that families and friends have always been willing to play in looking after children who cannot live with or be cared for by their parents. (59) In particular, black commentators have expressed concern that the kinship arrangements of black and minority ethnic groups are overlooked by white social workers who may lack the knowledge or 'cultural competence' to understand the family formations or cultural expectations of black families. (61)
Quotes from young people, foster carers or practitioners
"Black people have a tradition of kinship care, which, with the right economic resources to support it, could easily be transferred here, and indeed, transfers here even when resources are lacking." Beverley Pravett-Goldstein, black rights activist and trainer. (62)
In light of the difficulties of recruiting foster carers, the use of family and friends may help resolve part of the shortfall in foster placements. Given the disproportionate number of black children in the care system, finding kinship placements that protect the ethnic identities of black and minority ethnic children may be particularly valuable.(63)
Indeed, one qualitative study of 30 African-American kinship carers showed that support for the children in their care from the wider kin network helped promote positive child outcomes. This study also found that resilient children were more likely to live in families which were structured and which had clear boundaries and well-defined roles.(64)
As well as listening to the views of children and young people, another way workers can help children identify and connect with family members is the use of life story work with photographs of people in their social support network and moments from the young person's life gathered from network members. It is important that this work is ongoing and foster carers take photos of significant events such as birthdays, new schools and friends to help children and young people keep a record of their lives.
Life story work is about helping children express their feelings, preserving a sense of self and keeping connected with key kin, including foster carers. It can help children and young people make sense of their past and help them move forward.(65) It should be remembered, however, that life story work is a difficult and delicate area and is not appropriate for all children at particular stages of their lives.
The use of a social network map or use of an eco-map where the attachment network is mapped out and discussed is also a key means of helping foster children remain connected with family and friends.(66)This can be used independently or as part of life story work. Trigger questions could be developed that would be explored with the young person:
- Who is important to you in your life now?
- How close is each person to you?
- Who do you see?
- Who would you like to see?
- What changes would you like in the ways things are now? (29)
Family Group Conferences
Where there is conflict between what the child or young person wants by way of contact and what adults see as positive and helpful, then family group meetings may play a useful role in mediating the difficulties. In some local authorities, family group meetings have been formalised and take a much wider role in terms of decision making about the care and protection of the child or young person. These meetings are called Family Group Conferences (FGCs).
The Family Rights Group, which provides advice and support for families whose children are involved with social services, promotes the use of FGCs as a means to harness and build on the knowledge, strengths and resources in families and communities. Barnardo's, the Family Rights Group and NCH have produced extensive practice guidance on developing FGCs. (67)
FGCs can also help to 'discover' previously unknown family members who may be appropriate kinship carers. This method of recruitment is constrained, however, because of the limited use of FGCs. At the moment, within the UK there are just 59 FGC projects registered with the Family Rights Group, across a variety of statutory and volunteers organisations.
FGCs can help to identify kinship carers. These conferences have been instrumental in discovering family and friends willing to be involved in the care of looked-after children. (68)
Practice and service delivery issues
Kinship care is not a cure-all. Evidence from Knowledge review 5: Fostering success: An exploration of the research literature in foster care (8) suggests that research on outcomes is equivocal. Some studies report that children placed with kinship carers experience fewer psychological problems, while other studies suggest that children are more likely to experience further abuse or neglect. Early research suggested that breakdowns were uncommon but recent work suggests that placements are as likely to break down as those provided by strangers. Careful consideration should be paid to the relative strengths and weaknesses of kinship and non-kinship care, focusing on ways to support the placement so that the young person can achieve 'emotional permanence' or a sense of security from being loved. (8)
Policy development is required at central and local level to address inconsistencies in the use, and treatment of, kinship carers, specifically:
- variations in the use of relative placements across the country
- the lack of policies or inconsistent policies
- the inequitable treatment of kinship carers both financially and in terms of other forms of support. (69)
Next in this section: Foster carers and birth families